Do you ever look back on an experience and simply cannot believe it turned out as it did? It is as if your fears or your pre-imagined version of it produced just as powerful an effect in mind and memory as the actual experience, and so traces of it remain even after the event has transpired. This sometimes happens for me, and it did with Zion.
I felt this race was doomed to turn out badly for me in some way. I had had bad premonitions before it. More than this, I had had actual warnings. I knew the weather had the potential to sour and make conditions — as the race directors had implied — um, unmanageable. I knew that there would be dangers of a variety of which I was unaccustomed. I dreamt of falling, not fearing the landing so much as the wide open space, that…that void. Falling into that vastness of open sky.
The imagined Zion loomed.
Zion is a name given to many things, the hill in Jerusalem upon which was built the City of David, its another name for Israel, a utopia, a heaven. I am not a religious person. For me it was a name for a race I wanted to run, and a pretty tourist destination to which I had never been. But I have a strong liking for things that are old. In them I find an aspect of the sacred. The name Zion is old indeed, and I couldn’t help but be drawn to this.
I read that the National Park had come to be called Zion in 1918, that before it had been called Mukuntuweap, a Paiute word meaning “straight canyon” (so straight forward), and that the change had its roots in ethnocentrism. The park director thought the native word would discourage visitors, so they adopted the name the Mormons gave it. When I first saw it, I thought the Mormons had chosen well. Those sheer walls, those soaring cliffs, that awe-inspiring beauty at every glance and angle. Surely this was about as close as one could come to an earthly idea of Heaven. It produced in me a strong emotional reaction. But I craved the cool, the rational, that practicality of thought demonstrated by the Paiute in their naming.
Zion for me was also a moment in time. I would be then as well as there. In my addled, pre-race head, I reached for it as if it were something bright and shining, yet also cold and unwelcoming, something pure and real beyond the imagination. It was itself the imagined void.
Like its cliff walls, Zion loomed.
I cannot explain why some races are like this for me. The last race I felt this way about was the Terrapin Mtn. 50k in 2011. It was for some reason unknown to me, something special, and so it was with Zion. Perhaps it is something of the mystery conjured, of not really knowing what I was in for.
Approaching my Zion experience, many things happened. I trained. I readied. The logistics fell in place. My husband and I would make a mini vacation of the trip and set a day or two before and after the race to hike and explore. Plane tickets procured, reservations set, gear and drop bags packed, etc., the preliminaries were uneventful.
Then came the email. The race directors said rain was likely. Rain in southern Utah has a unique effect on the ground, they explained. The clay mud is sticky, yet slippery. Deferment to the 2017 race was offered. Some took it. Mostly the 100k runners, but not the 100-mile runners, I was told later. We are a special lot, I think. “Bring it on,” I challenged the rain gods. Then, I wrote to the ultra runners I know who knew about Utah mud. What would they recommend? They gave me the facts and laid out the scenarios and flip flopped a bit in their advice. But it painted a clearer picture, and it wasn’t pretty.
Then another email came from the directors with contingency plans should we decide to run and the rain should happen. The would monitor the conditions at key points on the course and reroute and/or shorten it if necessary. It was enough. I decided.
“Bring it on,” again I challenged. The rain gods must have heard me.
In my head, the void grew. Again I dreamt I fell into the open sky. Only this time I landed hard.
Pre-race anxiety it a bitch. But at least I knew to expect it, and that like a kidney stone, it would eventually pass. And usually, at least for me, the worse the anxiety, the better the race experience. Chock it up to weird fluctuations in brain chemistry, I guess. I tried to go about my business as if I weren’t thinking about being swallowed by an enormous void. “Nothing to see here, move along… Keep calm and carry on…”
At last we arrived at that landscape of unforgiving beauty that is Zion. My husband is the best in helping me down off these mental cliffs. We had such fun exploring the park before the race. Trails were hiked and run, tourists tolerated, canyons explored, formations photographed, naked feet dipped in clear icy pools. Anxiety ebbed.
Night before the race, in a quiet lodge, to the gentle burbling of the Virgin river and in the shadow of the one hundred and fifty million year old, water-etched sandstone walls, I slept like a rock.
Race day happened.
I drifted through the morning motions without much thought from pillow to start. The darkness was warm, the strangers friendly. The smell of wood smoke brought on memories of endless camps, of tent living and hippy gatherings. I relaxed and chatted with the strangers, made acquaintances.
Then in the darkness we began to move across the dusty, undulating valley floor in a snaky glow of LEDs, approaching the faint black shadow of our first mesa. I tried hard to keep my footfalls soft. “Like water on stone,” I thought, and pictured the small, unassuming, now creek-sized Virgin river that had cut through the canyon. “Two hundred million years of this and I could form my own canyon,” I reasoned. Then suddenly we were at the mesa, and up the trail we went, climbing out of the darkness and into the dawn.
“This trail looked much worse in the video,” I said to no one in particular. A couple of women I was trailing who were chatting laughed, “That’s just what I was thinking!” said one. She was in the Navy–said the best thing about it was getting to see the world. Only sadly most of the world is water. We all laughed some more, a bit giddy, fresh and ready for hours of running. I skipped the helpful rope added to one steep section and scrambled up with hands and feet in the dust. Glad I hadn’t looked down. When I saw that spot coming down the trail later, I made no hesitation in grabbing for the rope. For the most part, the course footing was safe. But now and again we edged close to precipitous drops. One had to be careful.
This section was known as the Flying Monkey Trail, supposedly named for the use of apes in testing cockpit escape systems in fighter jets on the mesa during the 1950’s. I wondered if any of the test apes had dreamt beforehand of flying into that void. Hopefully they had all survived. Or then again maybe it was better if they hadn’t. I cannot imagine the psychologically devastating effects those tests had on the survivors. Poor creatures. Or maybe there was something instinctually natural in the experience of flight for all primates, who for eons moved so freely about the forest canopy, something freeing. But the sheer speed… I shook the thoughts from my head and dug in, focusing instead on the climb.
Up on the mesa we hit our first aid station and then just more sandy, undulating road, though more rutted than the one on the valley floor. The road twisted and turned among scrub pines, pinions and boulders. There were bits and even large pieces of petrified wood scattered about, and tracks of some bovine variety on the road. It was other-worldly for me. I tried on a solid pace that I thought seemed reasonable, but soon found myself huffing and puffing, never considering we were running above 5000 feet. Though we had but 6 miles to go up here, it seemed to take a while. I warmed up and removed layers. Eventually, we hit the aid station again, and made our way back down the mesa. From this direction, the views were amazing. The valley stretched for miles in all directions, framed by more mesas, some of which I mused we would climb later in the day. Going down, the steepness of the trail became more apparent, and it was hard to push the pace. I made my way down gingerly. On similar terrain in other races I would have pushed harder in order to make time, but the drop offs here were too daunting.
Nearly 2000 feet of descent later, we were moving across the valley floor again along the hilly BMX road to the next climb.
I thought about race courses back East in Virginia, and how they differed from this. Much of this course was more runnable than the rocky, technical trails to which I had grown accustomed. And though I had been on steeper, longer climbs back home, there wasn’t much sustained running at elevation as there was here on the mesas. Back home, there were stunning views from those highly eroded Appalachian, Blue Ridge and Massanutten ridge lines. But here, you could much better see the evidence of time on the landscape, and for many more miles in all directions–a goodly portion of the course at once, even. What would seem like it should have been daunting to me was instead invigorating and liberating–to witness all of that distance and time.
The landscape kept changing, and I fell in love with the geography to a degree that I had not anticipated. I questioned every other runner about the surroundings with the enthusiasm of a 6-year-old, but being new to the area as much as I, most of them just shrugged. I began to daydream of having my own personal geologist to run with–someone to answer all of my questions (of course he was dashing and had a dry wit and may have sounded a bit like Sir David Attenborough). Funny things running long will do to the mind.
One of the next sections was through rounded hills of what appeared to be chunky, black basalt surrounded by sagey greenery punctuated by red and yellow wildflowers. It reminded me of pictures I’d seen of the Irish landscape. Something about the igneous formations piqued my interest more so even than the eroded sandstone layers, and that interest lingered. Later my husband began to count how many times I casually threw out the word basalt. Admittedly I wanted to take a column or two of it home with me. I had never seen it before, but something about it felt so familiar.
For the second climb, rather than single track, we reached the Guacamole mesa via a steep road. It proved runnable, and I was grateful to be feeling so strong on the uphills–a new development for me (ah, those good hill repeats! thanks, coach!).
On the top of the mesa was a sea of rounded mounds of weathered sandstone called slickrock–which turns out is not really slick, but still not so easily traversed. It reminded me of another place I had been–Peggy’s Cove, Nova Scotia, but those rocks were at sea level and comprised of 415-million-year-old Devonian granite. That was a world away and another time. Though I didn’t really know much about this surface at the time, I had the impression that this was once a sea bed evidenced by the rounded pebbles scattered everywhere, and what looked like water marks and rounded holes in the stone. I marveled at the thought of the sea level being some 5-6000 feet higher.
Later I read that in the middle Triassic (that’s 235-247 million years ago when we think the world looked like this), the sea bed that later became western Utah was forced upward along the Wasach and Hurricane fault lines. Then the area had become sand dunes (these dunes are what formed Zion Natl. Park) and later during the Jurassic, became a flood plain. That hardened and this rock surface was known as the Chinle Formation, a conglomerate called Shinarump. A lot more happened in the millions of years that followed. The land rose and fell, the area became a shallow lake. Eventually it eroded back to that layer that was created during the Triassic, and into those hard sandstone mounds and little quartzite pebbles and loose sand that we were running on. Those little quartzite pebbles visible everywhere that had been deposited during the Triassic and later survived the erosion dated back to 500-1000 million years ago. Damn. Old pebbles.
There were all kinds of geological goodies up here, including more petrified wood left over from when a forest grew after the sea was forced up and became highland, then later flood plain. And there were even dinosaur fossils. Wished I had had time to look. After the race, I wanted to visit Gooseberry, (the next mesa we ran that was similar to Guac, but more spectacular) with my husband, but the weather conditions made it inaccessible. Like so many places, I realized, had I not been running long, I would never have seen it.
Here on this petrified golf course of sandstone slickrock, I met up with a merry band of runners from northern California, Jesse, John and Chuck. Jesse and his wife Jenni I had met the day before at the race expo, and now he remembered me. We unintentionally matched pace and I kept falling in and out with them. They were clearly trail-running pals, ribbing one and other, and telling lively stories of past runs. Eventually they asked me if I wanted to join up with them. Sure, why not? They were proving stellar company. I felt like I had already known them forever. I was in.
On both the Guacamole and Gooseberry mesas we were following mountain bike trails that were marked by white dots painted intermittently on the rock . We navigated the pathless, meandering course over the rocks carefully–marker to marker, pink flag to streamer, to white dot to rock stack. At one point on Gooseberry we got off trail and met up with runners coming from another direction and we all had to stop and figure out which way to go on the course. No body wanted to run the loop again. The weather had been a bit humid, but pretty great up until then. Now the rain was visibly headed in and tensions grew. We all reasoned through and found our way back to the aid station in good time. The team work of strangers can be a beautiful thing.
Back at the Guacamole aid station, the Cali crew took off quickly, and John gave me a yell they were headed out. I was having issues filling my water, and had to leave later. (I’m going to design a new water bladder. Somebody needs to! None of them open and close easily.) Coming down the road (I like to fly down the hills and make some time), I passed them. It had been humid up on the mesa, and I was soaked with sweat. Now, the wind was picking up so I let out my matted braid to dry my hair out. A storm was moving in and the wind was lifting dust up off the road in clouds. I put my hair up and pulled my buff up over my face.
The road weaved through pasture here and barbed wire, fenced-in fields of cacti and huge, squarish boulders that looked to me like they had tumbled off the edge of the mesa. Tumble weeds rolled across the road under the fences. Then back through the sage and black basalt hills we weaved, and up a small but steep climb, back onto the road that lead into the Dalton Wash aid station (this time, at mile 30.5) The merry band from Cali caught up with me on the road here, and we rolled in together. It was clear to me from here that I had become part of their team, and would likely be sticking with them. No closer friendships are made than those formed on the trail, I am convinced. Especially when conditions get rough and thoughts turn from racing to survival.
We were making good time. From here, we crossed the valley floor again. The road was more hilly than our last valley crossing and we took our time, anticipating the climb to come up the Gooseberry mesa. Though only around 1600 feet, it is particularly steep. There were a couple sets of ropes to help with the steepest sections, and I didn’t hesitate to make use of them. For me, this climb called for short breaks here and there to get the heart rate down. These proved both good and bad at giving me a nice pause to check out the view, both breathtaking and a little terrifying. There was a good view of the Moenkopie formation here, another Triassic formation of red and pink and white striped layers of eroded sandstone with plenty of undulations and skirting.
I was feeling pretty good, so I lead the charge for a few stretches. I love climbs. John and Chuck had the aid of poles and Jesse had the edge of being the youngest in the group and also having the most positive disposition of anyone I believe I have ever met–next to his wife, Jenni so I did my best to contribute when my energy was good. John ran the course last year, and it seemed he remembered everything in great detail–a serious boon, and Chuck spent a great deal of his mental energy calculating and recalculating our finish time based on the time it was taking us to finish each section and the mileage accumulation marked by aid stations. None of us were wearing mileage trackers and we all had a good laugh about it. I typically do calculations like this too when I am running, but I was using all of my mental energy (and probably glycogen) to get up the mesa at this point.
At the immediate top of of the Gooseberry mesa climb, we rolled into the Goosebump aid station. We would pass through here three times–provided all went as planned. (Jesse noted later that it was aptly named–as it was always freezing there.) The wind whipped over the mesa ledge here, and the station had a little fire going. We all grabbed some dry or warmer layers, grabbed food and huddled briefly around the fire. I can’t remember now if it had started raining then. The rain had started to fall off and on, but only lightly, so I never really noticed when it was there or not. It made for cooler temps, kept the sun off my translucent, northern-gened skin, and didn’t create a hazard in such small amounts, so I was grateful for it. So far, so good.
We had a good 12-mile loop on the Gooseberry mesa to follow–complete with a little out-and-back to a point where we had to punch our number bibs to prove we’d been there. The topography here was much like the Guacamole mesa, but the drops were so steep, and the path close to some of them. I was beginning to get used to it a little.
There were plenty of other runners out on the mesa and mountain bikers as well. A few others joined our group for stretches, including Taka, from Kyoto. He told me a little about running there. The heavy humidity, the beautiful temples. His eyes lit up when he talked about it. There were so many places I wished I could run. It was great to be able to share others’ experiences, even only in imagination.
The loop was long, but the point was just stunning! It reminded me a little of the rocky outcroppings on the eastern trails, but times a thousand. The sheer vastness, the open and flat valley floor 2000 feet below that stretched for miles and miles. I tried to photograph it, but could not come close to capturing that vastness. Here’s someone’s mountain biking video of it that shows a little of the approach and the view in each direction. And us…
We still had some mileage to lay down from here, so we pressed on. When we hit the Goosebump station again, we were nearly half way and still making good time. Taka split off from us here, and now it was just four of us again on what felt like a long stretch but only 6 miles out to Grafton Mesa. The rain was starting off and on again, and the going was slow as we used up the last of our sunlight.
We came into the Grafton mesa aid station around 8pm. I had no idea what we were in for next. Navigating the meandering trails at Grafton after dark was a bear, and I realized that had I been traveling alone at this point, I might still be there trying to find my way out of the rocks and prickly cacti. Here Chuck– and therefore the group–picked up a pacer, James, so our little posse grew again and now had a renewing boost of energy. Chuck and John took turns leading and kept us on track, down the steep climb in the dark to the cemetery aid station. My stomach had been holding up pretty well despite all of the sugary gels I’d been feeding it, but now at mile 58, in the middle of the night, it began to get a little queasy. The volunteers gave me some broth and rice and it hit the spot. Stellar volunteers at every station! God bless them, out there taking risks with us in the foul weather! Then we moved quickly as possible back up the steep trail, our last climb, to the top of the mesa, and round that maze of rocks, scrub pines and cacti back to the Grafton mesa aid.
We wasted little time there, and not long after we rolled out, I heard a sound off to the left out across the inky blackness that I knew at some point became nothing but open air and a long drop to the valley–something that sounded faintly like a train. And all it once it hit me. “The rain is coming!” I hollered, and we all scrambled to suit up in little windbreakers. It began to pour, and the road instantly turned as slick as black ice. Now I worried. I turned to John: “Geezus, how are we going to get off the the mesa?” He said we would find out when we reached the aid station. I was putting the cart before the horse. First we had to get back to Goosebump. Just off the the slick road in a tiny parking area, we soon found Jesse’s wife Jenni, their kids and their friend Laura, who were all crewing for Jesse and the boys. The roads were so hazardous, they weren’t able to meet them at Grafton, so they had been waiting up the hill along the road in a section that was just a bit more navigable. They had been having adventures of their own just trying to find access to the runners, driving on the slick roads and helping others out of jams. I can’t say enough kind things about Jenni. If there are angels on earth, surely she is one. By far one of the sweetest, kindest, most giving, loving, happy, energetic and fun people I have ever met–and all who know her contest to this–she now broke out some clear plastic ponchos and hand warmers for all of us, just when I was beginning to think that we were doomed to hypothermia from the combination of being soaked to the skin and having to move glacially over the slick mud. The ponchos were just enough to keep us warm. I didn’t even need gloves or hand warmers. I really think mine saved me.
I found myself leading here for a stretch–just trying to find a firm trail with traction through the mud. In the wee hours of the morning, I tend to find my best energy. When all others are flagging, I’m often hitting a second wind. Dunno why. Typically, I’m an early to bed, early riser. I was determined now to set a good pace through the mud and get us back to Goosebump aid (provided there was anyone left there when we arrived). It was hard to know what to expect in these conditions, but I felt the directors wouldn’t leave us stranded. A few big-tired 4-wheelers passed us, and we had to move to the side of the road. This instantly got us into the sticky mud that weighted our shoes. It was frustrating. But we shook it off, and confined to the crinkly oases created by our little poncho bubbles, we trudged on in relative silence.
Eventually, we rolled into the station. The good news was the rain had done less damage here, and the trail was navigable. I lead the charge down the mesa, determined to press us on. Throughout we’d all been looking out for one and other. When someone’s energy would flag, we’d offer encouragement. We reminded each other to drink water often. We took turns taking the lead, and now at last it was mine. John offered me his poles, and when I declined (I’m a klutz with poles), said “I was afraid you’d say that.” It made me laugh. I felt sturdy and clear-headed and set what I felt was a safe and steady pace down the mesa, enjoying the little rope section, and honestly feeling ready to run the whole way back.
The valley floor was muddy, but not as bad as it had been on the mesa. We moved steadily then on toward the last aid station, Virgin Desert, where we were to run three short loops and then bring her home. The rain came off and on and the road conditions got worse then better then worse again. We talked about what we were going to do at the station as if it were an anticipated vacation: meeting crew, getting warm food, dry socks, etc. All the creature comforts. With the mud and rain, it took a long time to cover 7.5 miles, and when we finally arrived, everything was wet from the rain. I changed socks and some layers, dropped my trash and picked up some gels. Just then, the director announced that we had been ordered off the trails because of the hazardous conditions. An alternate route mentioned before the race in an email would become a shortened but official finish. We had to forgo the loops and instead follow the road out and then onto the highway for several miles to the finish. The course was shortened for most of the field by about 15 miles. It was disappointing, but with the hazardous conditions, it only made sense.
We trudged along the highway in the rain as the dawn came on, deciding at some point that since the race had been a team effort, we should all finish together. No one would honor my idea to sprint, though. I think my feet were in better shape than others.’ So we came across the muddy, rainy finish line linked arm in arm and then squeezed in for a group hug. There is simply nothing quite like finding trail family so far from home.
Later, I was emailing with one of the directors, and he wrote about some of the problems they’d had. He also mentioned something else that hit home for me, so I asked if I could share his words:
“It’s funny the races that are the most memorable are when something crazy happens, usually weather! Last year we had 6 inches of fresh snow on our Grand Canyon race in mid May! We all remember it! Bryce had one of the most intense lightning storms and people still talk about it! Zion will go down as one of the most extreme ever! Crew stuck in the mud…getting the aid station transport vehicle stuck in a ravine, etc.” — Matt Anderson
The race directors had handled the challenges in a smart and stellar fashion, and despite the perils, we all came out safely. Though it was a little disappointing to miss a small section of the course, we would-be 100-mile finishers still buckled and qualified for Western States. They modified the stats on Ultrasignup a few times because of the divided field, and at one point I landed as first female for the 100 mile “alt” group. “Never before, and never again,” I laughed to myself. Only in such a fluke set of circumstances could that happen. Now, I’m ranked as #2. All-in-all, they are just numbers and after this experience, one could see how very arbitrary they really are. Exploring such an amazing place, and making such good friends of the trail-running variety were experiences beyond compare.
I knew to expect them.
The MMT course is not an easy one, with over 16,000 feet of ascension over 103.7 miles, and the weather conditions (approaching 90 F and humid on race day, followed by an afternoon deluge and off and on showers throughout the night) made it even more interesting. But the hardest part for me was yet to come a few days later from an offhanded comment containing the word “crazy.”
If you run ultras, you hear it often enough. Usually it is easy to shrug off. This time, though, it bit deep. I thought I knew myself. I thought I knew who I was and who I am a bit better. Thicker skin, I thought I had.
My 3rd 100-mile race, and 15th ultra, MMT was to date, the toughest by far. I had been so proud of finishing under the grueling conditions, for sticking it out, for stomaching the heat and all of its extra trials: the blisters, the chafing, the cramping, nausea and dehydration. I am no heat runner. Heat has always been a problem for me. But I stayed strong. I stayed positive. My movement over the rocks, if not fast, was at least steady. And my good friends and all of the wonderful, wonderful runners and volunteers, made the experience a sheer joy.
One of the best things about ultras, (I will say again), is ultra runners. A most compassionate, gritty and resilient bunch, to me they demonstrate the best of the best traits when it comes to human character. I am proud to share trails and trials with all of them.
We all run for many different reasons. A lot of us have undergone or are attempting to overcome hardships greater than a mere race in the woods. The running helps. It builds fortitude. On many levels, it helps in the procuration of grace.
For a few stretches this weekend, I shared the trail with a runner battling Parkinson’s disease. He described the rapid decline in his running abilities; his frustration when his muscles refused to respond to his brain’s command. He worried he would not make it to the end. But his determination was a thing of great beauty to behold. I tried to show it to him. Though he had his doubts, I never had any doubt he would finish the race that weekend. (Of course, he did finish, and he finished strong.)
A lot of runners, like me, ran for Tom Green, a good friend to many and a bit of a local hero for his ultra fetes. (Tom had been gravely injured in a tree trimming accident not long before the race, and is making a slow but steady recovery.)
The ultra community showed its true colors in banding together on several occasions to help Tom and his family–financially and with well-wishing videos and photos. So many of us were reminded in the wee hours on the trail that Tom would likely give anything to be sharing our experience. Especially when the going got tough, we ran with him in mind.
Like for many, running–especially running long on mountain trails–has saved my life.
It has made me spiritually, mentally, emotionally and physically stronger with each new experience, and has given me a sense of belonging and purpose I had never imagined I could have. It has taken me to places and to states of mind where I have experienced the beauty and awe of our world and our existence to a degree I would never have arrived at in any other circumstance.
Unfortunately, this is not something that is easily related to those who have not also experienced it first-hand. After all of my weekend’s trials and elations, successfully wrestling rocks and heat and inner demons to see the beauty of the sunrise and appreciate the miracle that is a wildflower, here I was a few days later emotionally faltering at some silly, offhanded comment.
I know there will always be people who don’t understand ultra. But sometimes they are not the ones you would expect. I try not to have too many expectations of people with this regard, but sometimes they still disappoint. I know that is my problem, not theirs.
In truth, I have been fighting the stigma of mental illness for nearly all of my life. There are decades of harsh judgement, hurtful words and ill sentiment to work through, and it seems I still harbor some sensitivity around that word “crazy.”
It can be difficult to overcome stigma. It is one the longest runs I will ever undertake. I hope someday to finish, and to finish it in one piece–perhaps will a little help from my friends.
“If you’re going to be a bear, be a grizzly!” my friend Jim had written to me after I’d run my first starter 100. He said he was quoting his friend Doug.
“Run Grindstone” he’d meant. On this subject, his voice was added to many, but his rang out the loudest.
I noted silently that he once told me that he had fallen asleep in the midst of running up a hill on that race.
How’d he think I was up for it?
True, I love running through the night, and had expressed this often. And Grindstone is a night hundred, with a 6PM start and for a slowpoke like me, that meant two nights of running.
“You have to run Grindstone!” I had heard more than once from well-meaning runners who had clearly experienced it first-hand. I could see the sparkle, that far-away look in their eyes when they said it; a hint of a memory of something unfathomably spectacular. Or at least life-changingly memorable. And I knew that somehow, some day soon,
I fretted. I lacked confidence. Maybe night running was my forte, but I didn’t know if I was capable of being a grizzly, as Jim had put it. I called him. “Do you really think I can do this?”
“Sure, why not?”
“How do you train for it?”
I asked because I live in a city on the Piedmont. I run sidewalks and gently rolling trails. At times, I feel as though I’ve been put out to pasture. I missed the mountains, the rocks, the pines and oaks and mountain flora I grew up with.
That summer I began running up flights of stairs. Eventually I found my way back to the mountains to train.
Between the race cancellation in 2013 due to the government shutdown, and an ankle injury that put me out of commission that Spring (just a few weeks before the MMT), I had trained for three 100s by the time Grindstone 2014 rolled around and had yet to run one of them. I was getting a bit antsy. But I knew I would be slow, and had no idea how I’d cope with the two-night sleep deprivation. I was certain it was going to be interesting.
Someday I would love to race, but for now, the plan was but to finish, and the strategy was simple: aid station to station, and between that, mountain to mountain, climb to climb. I felt I had prepared well enough for the climbs, and could handle the late nights. Or at least the first one. I worried that by the second, I would be wondering off the trail. I asked around for a pacer, but those who had offered earlier had been snapped up by others, and now I was on my own. (Just before the race, I managed to secure one, but due to a glitch in the live updates that said I had DNFd at mile 65, she’d gone home.)
But a lot had changed since Jim’s initial “be a grizzly” charge, and I found I now knew a LOT of people planning to run. It was a regular party in the works. This got me excited, and reassured me with the notion that I would not be alone out there. It felt a little strange to be stoked about company. Running had clearly changed for me.
I thought back to my earlier loner days of trail running. Even before that, I had enjoyed plenty of alone time in the mountains. As a teen I would hike the fire and old tram roads near my home in PA, and camp under the stars on rocky outcroppings. I would see how far I could travel without food or water or with only the moon for light.
But I no longer possessed this fearlessness. Company was indeed welcome!
We started on a Friday at 6PM in a warm drizzle. The elements were going to add interest, it seemed. I started off conservatively, but kept the pace steady enough to stay warm, chatting with other runners, and remaining calm.
I still had plenty of supplies by the first aid station, so I thanked the volunteer there and kept moving. We were moving steadily up a dirt road then onto some trail as the light faded. I found myself switching my light off and on for different sections depending on the tree cover.
As night grew on, the rain grew heavier, and I flashed back to one of my teen night hikes where I had gotten lost in the dark in the rain. When I finally found my way out of the woods and onto the road home, it was so dark, I couldn’t see to follow it. I kept wondering off into the ditch. At one point, I came upon some deer and startled them. They were all around, and winded loudly. I fell into a crouch. That pitch darkness was so frightening, it had taken me what felt like an eternity to get home that night.
Having the group to run with now, a well-marked trail and a light felt much more comfortable. It’s all relative, I reckoned.
I knew Elliott was going to be a tough climb, but I hadn’t expected it to be so enjoyable. It was still drizzling, but had also grown quite foggy. Since we were on the fire road and moving slowly, I shut off my lamp to conserve. I could see well enough by the faint light of those far ahead, and those not too far behind. The silhouettes of the runners above against their own halos of light in the fog were beautiful, and I focused on them as I moved steadily up the road. At the summit, the wind picked up, and it began to pour. We all dashed to the punch on the fire tower fence that proved we had summited, and rushed back down the road, seeking the tree cover of the North Mountain trail. The scree was as I remembered it from the summer training run, only this time wet with rain and heavy in leaves. I took my time on it, and was grateful for the shelter from the wind by the tree cover and mountainside.
I rolled into the Dry Branch aid station in plenty of time, but was dismayed to find they had run out of water. It was humid, and I had been sucking mine down without concern. Now I would have to conserve. Clearly I was not alone. There was such a large number of runners this year, I could only imagine how hard it was for the volunteers to keep up with the demands.
From here, I moved over Crawford mountain pretty steadily and rolled strong into the Dowell’s. Draft aid station. The rain had long stopped and most of my clothing was dry now, but I decided to change out of my top layers to make certain I was dry to the skin. It was still warm, but I donned something with sleeves as I thought I might need them later as the night rolled in.
It stayed pleasant, and much of the sections were runnable in the next leg, so I made good time. Over Hankey mountain, on my way up to the Lookout aid station, I met up with my friend Diane. We ran to the station, and I woofed a couple quarters of grilled cheese, the first real food I took in since Friday afternoon. It tasted like the best food I had ever eaten in my life.
I was beginning to feel that wonderful buzz of running at night and was so grateful for the volunteers and their amazing food. Though there was plenty of buffer before the cut offs, I was trying hard not to waste any time at the stations, so rolled out soon with Diane and headed off to the North River Gap aid station where I knew I would spend more time changing and eating. I was not looking forward to that rocky technical stretch on the Wild Oak trail just above North River, but it didn’t seem half as bad as I remembered. I think I was much more tired when on it last, a training run just a few weeks before, as then it had been much later in the night.
Diane was making much better time than me on the technical descents, and I soon lost sight of her. I was glad to see the tell tale bridge before the station and could soon hear the many voices in the distance. Rolling swiftly down the road, I took in the lights of North River Gap. It looked like a carnival. I was greeted by a friend and amazing runner, Jenny Nichols, who found my drop bag and helped me change socks and shoes. She took good care of me, stocked me up and sped me on my way, giving me explicit instructions go grab some food and eat it on the climb out of the station. I grabbed three quarters of a quesadilla and woofed it as I climbed.
The climb up Little Bald is no joke. Over 7 miles or so. I took my time and paid attention to my heart beat. I was alone for a while, but passed a few people. Much of it is a blur. Then on one particularly steep section that spills out onto a road, I passed a man who called out with a complement of something to the effect of if I kept that pace I was going to do well. He said with authority the climb was a tough one. He asked my name.
“Daniele” I said.
“Oh! Gary, of course!” I said. I knew Gary Knipling, or at least of him. Now in his 7th decade of life with 30 years of ultra running under his belt, he’s a bit of a local legend. We had never spoken before. He looked to be about 50 to me. He was climbing up onto the road and I was a few feet in front when I saw a runner come barreling down the road toward us.
“Runner!” I hollered back at Gary. It turned out to be Jeff Browning, the first runner, on his way back already. It was inspiring. I paused, turned and listened on as he and Gary chatted briefly. I noted the respect in Jeff’s tone, and thought about what it meant to be part of a community of such wonderful people.
I climbed alone for a while, passing and being passed by lots of friendly faces, some of whom I knew well and some whom I did not, I soon discovered I had forgotten to top off my water at North River Gap. Bad mistake. I rationed, and kept moving, now more conservatively. No water also meant no fuel, and psychologically, it was a big blow. I decided to concentrate on watching for signs of dawn. I sipped what water I had when parched enough to keep my tongue wet, and when completely out, eyed the dewy leaves on the forest floor. Well, in a pinch, I thought. I’ll be at the Little Bald station at some point.
Soon I could see the faintest traces of first light and my eyes welled. I remembered a fragment from a song I had written years and years ago. It became a mantra now, and I sang it in my head as I finished the climb up Little Bald.
The sky filled
brimming over with the endless light of dawn
and truth stretched to all horizons
as far as the eye could see
history burned in shimmering silence
as we forged in the rising sun
and all that remained was here and now
and in here and now we climbed
I don’t know how it came to be this way
something once lost to us had returned
but then life is best taken as mystery
and in living that mystery we learned
to climb out of the dust
and into the sky
out of the darkness
and into the light
out of our dreams
and into the living
out of the madness
blessed with second sight
At the top of Little Bald, I looked out from the west side of the mountain onto the blue edges of cloud cover over the trees. It was breathtaking. The birds woke up.
The trail spilled onto a road that passed through some meadows, and here I happened upon Gary again, this time, stopped and sipping orange juice.
“How you doing?” he asked.
“Ok,” I said. “Been out of water for a couple of hours, so I’m anxious to get to the station.”
He handed me his OJ insisting I take several gulps as he still had water. It was too hard to turn it down. Words cannot describe the taste of that juice. I had died and gone to heaven. I thanked him profusely, and he said it was only 2 and a half miles to the station from there, and mostly down hill. I trotted along. He caught up. We walked/ran together for a while off and on after that.
Not long after, I came up on him again, and he generously fed me some of his sweet tea. Geez, I thought. What a fine stash of magical elixirs he’s carrying. I need to learn how to pack better. I simply could not have been more grateful for his kindness.
I thought I caught sight of Diane up in the distance, and did my best to push the pace into the station. Sure enough, it was her and I called out. I restocked, refilled my water, drank a swig of soda and a lot of water, woofed a breakfast burrito and a few mini zucchini muffins. It was very tasty but afterward I felt like I’d eaten a bucket of cement. I knew I’d need it, and was most grateful, though.
Gary sat for a while at the station, and Diane and I rolled out together, on our way up to Reddish Knob, our last summit before the turnaround. We continued to run together off and on, and split up again for a while.
Not long after, Gary caught up to me. We climbed up Reddish together, and tried hard to run as much of it as we could. I had trouble matching Gary’s pace. Luckily every runner we passed stopped to greet him. He really did know everyone, and I felt so honored to be in his company.
I had been to the top of Reddish before, but it had been so foggy then, I couldn’t see the view. Now it was absolutely breathtaking. Every direction, were rolling mountains covered in colorful foliage. The long clusters of cumulus above cast shadowy stripes on the earth below.
I tried too soak it all in, but knew I couldn’t stay long. I pulled out my phone, hoping to catch enough signal here to msg my husband to let him know I was still alive. I had one bar–enough to send a quick “almost halfway” “love you!” msg. and to snap a couple of shots of the mountains. Gary asked for my phone and quickly posed me along the guard rail.
“Put your arms up like this, ” he said. I obliged, then we switched, and quickly headed down, caught up with Diane, and headed for the Briary Branch turn around.
The three of us had a blast running together. We pushed hard, and I struggled to keep up with them on the descending road. I was having knee pain and it was holding me back.
Gary stopped off at the pacer pick up, and Diane and I headed up to the turn around. At the station, I topped off water, grabbed some tater tots, and ate them so quickly I got hiccups. We were passed by dirt bikers on some trail race through these sections, and there was a bit of dust in the air. But it made for a lively scene and we joked about sticking our thumbs out and hitching a ride.
Diane and I ran together for a while then, split, then fell back in together, then apart, and repeated the pattern. At Little Bald station again, she changed her shoes, and we grabbed some quesadillas. We searched the meadows for a flashlight she’d lost earlier, but no dice. We were soon descending Little Bald, and enjoying the spectacular views and scenery, and I tried hard to stay with her as she lead strongly down the technical descents.
I ate some mate-laced Pro Bar energy chews, and they gave me a serious kick: just what I needed to manage the descents. We barreled into the North River Gap station around 2:30PM, and I sat down to change my socks. I had a nasty blister on one heal that I was going to ignore, but a fellow doing foot work there noticed and offered to fix it for me. I agreed and he and Bob Gaylord soon had me taped up and promised it would stop smarting as soon as my feet hit the trail. He was right.
Diane and I saw Jack Anderson at the station, and soon after he joined us on the trail. I was still bumped up from the energy chews, and felt so energetic on the flat stretches of road on the meadows up toward Lookout Mountain that I ran some sprints. Diane looked at me like I was crazy, but the stretch felt so good, I convinced her to give it a try.
We made really good time into Lookout, stopped briefly to eat some pancakes, but didn’t stay long. With the passing of every station we accrued more and more time.
Diane lead the charge into Dowell’s and the three of us ran strong into the station. Once there, I realized I had another bad blister on the other heal, and needed to have it fixed. This time was not so pleasant as it was large and very sore. I shouted and cursed like a sailor, feeling wimpy but grateful for the loving attention of Bob and Mary and the gang. Dunno what I would have done without those guys. They really saved my feet and my spirits!
It had still been light as we rolled into Dowell’s but night was coming on fast, and we knew the forecast was for cold and wind. I was still feeling warm from the run, and didn’t want to overlayer, so pondered my choices carefully. I grabbed a fleece vest and a pair of gloves. I should have added more layers.
Diane had rolled out because she was getting cold, and Jack who still had more blister work to be done, said he would catch up, so I started out alone. Sleep deprivation hit me fast and hard then. I wound through the valley following the trail markers, missing the company I’d lost so recently. It seemed eons ago. Things became very surreal and I lost all sense of linear time. I looked for familiar spots on the course, but it all looked new. The beginning of the race seemed like so long ago, and I had trouble differentiating it from summertime training runs. I heard sounds and voices, but couldn’t quite tell if they were real or imagined. Stumps and leaves began to appear as other things. I kept telling myself to just keep moving and to focus on the trail streamers.
As I began the slow climb up Crawford, the temperature dropped dramatically and the wind picked up. I put my windbreaker hood up and pulled my bandana over my face. On the trail ahead, I could just make out some lights. It turned out to be Diane! I was never more happy to see her. We plodded along together then, and a couple soon passed us looking energetic and warm. It was a little deflating. I had to make a pit stop, and when I caught up, it turned out to be the couple trying hard to put up their hoods in the howling wind. I stopped to see if I could help, but they said they were fine. I could see Diane in the distance, so I made my way back toward her. The wind was cutting right through my clothes and I began to feel sick with the cold.
We plodded on in silence. Much of the way was too technical to travel with any speed, and we were very cold. I lost all sense of place and direction, but just kept following Diane and the trail, looking for markers and anything that looked familiar. Diane was looking for the tell tale switchback to give some sense that we were nearing the top of Crawford. It took forever, but finally there it was. I cheered, trying to keep the mood up. The wind was so terrible, all I could do was hope that there would be a little more shelter later on the North Mtn. trail.
The flatter, grassy stretches up top were better. We walked and trotted intermittently. But the descents that followed were loose dirt and steep. And endless it seemed. I remembered going down these so fast the two summers before, but now my knee was on fire and it was all I could do to protect it. I gritted my teeth and picked carefully down.
Suddenly we were at Dry Branch. I looked for something warm. Anything. They had chicken noodle soup. I don’t normally eat chicken, but gave it a shot. It was very salty, but it tasted fine, and I was soo grateful. My stomach was not doing so well, and I wasn’t sure if this would help or hinder. By now, I was just so anxious to keep moving. We still had Elliott, and I didn’t know if I could even manage that North Mtn. trail, I was so cold. But I couldn’t stop at mile 88.
We pressed on. The only sections of the North Mtn trail I could remember then were the loose scree and the mud from the springs on the wind sheltered section near the road. So in my head, I focused on mud and scree. I never thought I would be so anxious to reach that rough section, but I simply had no sense of place or progress. We passed a lot of people. Everyone looked like zombies to me, they were picking along so slowly over the rocks. Diane was as well. She was getting tripped up now, and slowed to a stop several times. I offered to take the lead. I moved in front, and we pressed through a group of people. A woman commented on how fast I was taking it, but I was definitely moving at a crawl. Sounding a little desperate, she asked if I knew how far until the road. I told her not far, but that it it will seem farther than it is.
“Just look for big patches of soft mud. You’ll know then that the road is coming up soon,” I said. She thanked me graciously for this. I thought about how just having something to watch for that gives you a sense of place and progress makes so much difference, even if you have far to go.
We passed more people still, and it felt good to be traveling with a bigger group. We made it to the side of the mountain that was more sheltered from the wind, and this gave me a sense of where we were. I watched for that mud from the springs. Soon after, I saw the road, and yelled back to the group.
There were a couple of guys sitting on the road just resting and taking in the stars. They were so bright here. I looked up at Orion and the Pleiades. It felt warmer without the wind, and I would have liked to have lingered longer, but my stomach was really bad. I knew I had to keep moving.
We started the descent down the Elliott fire road, and met up with Enrique Rubio and his pacer. He’d locked up his IT band on the Little Bald descent and couldn’t bend his knee. I couldn’t believe how far he’d come with just his pacer to lean on and a big stick for a crutch. Some 40 miles! Such strength, determination and positivity, he showed. My heart went out to him. I wanted to say so and wish him well, but just then became very sick. I moved over to the side of the road and fell into dry heaves. I tried hard to puke, but there was nothing in my stomach.
I could hear Diane offering Enrique the use of her poles. I did my best to finish heaving, but it seemed to take forever. She stayed with me, and finally I felt better, and we all continued the slow descent down Elliott. I promised myself before the race that if possible, I would run at least part of that descent. Though it seemed impossible now, I gave it a shot. I trotted a bit. Not so bad, and started and stopped again, but soon gave it up completely for the knee. After an eternity, it was over and desperate to make time, I lead the way on the winding little trail toward Falls Hollow. I could remember very little of it, and felt annoyed at that. I asked Diane what to watch for. She seemed to remember every last detail and told me we’d cross a creek and then hit the road. Sure enough, soon we were at the rocky creek bed where we met a runner just standing in the creek bed looking confused. He seemed to have lost the trail. I sympathized. In this state of mind, it was extremely hard to find the way and to stay focused. Diane showed him the way, and we moved on down the road.
I was so cold now, all I could think about was the hot shower I’d get later. I was worried about hypothermia. There were still about 7 or 8 miles to go, but I felt like we were almost finished. I tried to stay warm. I breathed into my bandana and concentrated on the warmth of my breath. Now I recognized the course again from two summers before. It went fast and soon we were at Falls Hollow. There was a huge crowd of people there this time. Diane stopped for food, but my stomach would not have it, and all I could think about was warmth. I held my hands up to a Coleman lantern. Benski Hawkins was there, and offered me one of her layers, cautiously, explaining she’d once given away clothing at that aid station never to see it again. I took her vest promising, I’d return it asap.
Diane wasn’t ready to go, but I had to move. She told me to run on, so I moved onward. There was a good climb, and I pressed up it fast, but sadly it did little to warm me. I tried compartmentalizing the cold. I visualized it compressed in a small container while I remained outside of it. I thought about the Buddhist monks who could control their body temperature, and tried to will myself warmer.
I was alone on the last 5 miles now. There seemed to be runners everywhere, but I felt a sense of isolation. I was on a road that went up a hill, and joined another at the top. I watched the runners moving along the top, their lights bobbing slowly, along with their reflective tags. Here I saw a strange pattern of movement, and realized it must be Enrique leaning into his pacer, his lifted foot reflecting back just above the others. I felt such a sense of joy that he was going to finish. It lit a fire under me and I forged ahead.
Soon I was navigating some really rocky trail again, and I passed a few people only to have to make a pit stop. Just after, Diane caught up with me. It was so great to see her! I was so anxious to finish now, and we could do it together! She had done trail work around the camp so she had a great sense of where we were and where to go, and she set a good pace. I did my best to keep up, and once we got moving I started to feel better. Soon we were around the showers, and headed toward the dam! I checked the time, and realized that if we pressed a bit, we could roll in before 34 hours so she could beat her 100-mile PR.
I asked if she wanted to try to run once we got on the dam. She said she would try. We made the tricky climb to the top of the dam, and then trotted, then ran. I lost her somewhere along the road, and stopped and waited. When I saw she was running, I kept going. I followed the streamers, and sprinted up the finish, high-fiving, then half hugging Clark, almost missing to cross the chip line. A smiling woman handed me my buckle and tech shirt, and I stared at it in disbelief as Diane was coming up. I remember saying ” That was fun! I can’t believe it,” and Clark laughing and reminding me to go hug the totem pole. Diane and I took pics of each other hugging the pole, and then my phone, as if on cue, promptly died.
I wanted to stay and watch as others came in, but the cold was taking a serious toll, so I trotted to my tent and quickly changed into some layers, grabbed my bag and made the quarter mile walk to the showers. I stayed in the warm water as long as I could. It helped but the effects didn’t last. I dried and dressed, and made my way back to the finish. But it was too cold for me to stick around. I wanted to call my husband, but didn’t want to have to wait outside any longer for the phone to charge, and decided I’d try and sleep for an hour, then recharge and call. I was so cold in the tent, even in my sleeping bag and layers, I wasn’t sure what to do. I contemplated finding someone there with a car to let me sit in it for a while. I dreamed maybe my husband would show up, or that dawn would come soon. I shook with cold and nearly cried.
Then I heard the tent zipper, and someone grabbed my foot. I looked up to see my husband, several giant bouquets of flowers in his hand, looking concerned.
“Are you ok? Did you finish?”
“Yes,” I said grinning and grabbing him. We laughed and hugged and clung for warmth.
I’d never been so happy. In my delirium, it was as if I had dreamed him into being there.
He’d driven through the night with plans to fill my tent full of flowers. But I came in 3 hours earlier than I’d expected. He was a little disappointed I’d beaten him and ruined his surprise, but from my perspective, his timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
The race info claimed the distance to be 101.7, but on race day, Garmins were recording longer distances, and at the finish, the RD said the distance was close to 105.
One thing is for certain: in the end, at least for me, the actual distance didn’t really matter. It is as they say, all about the journey.
By the end of 2012, I had learned to apply one of life’s most important lessons: that in any endeavor, friends–in this case especially of the ultra running variety–are essential. Somehow, they found me. And so it came to be that I started running less often by myself, and more often with these good friends–some of them seasoned toughies. They are jewels–crazy diamonds. They are family. Like good friends do, they inspire by example, and they encourage. They, um, convinced me that I should try for this distance. Always keen on a new adventure, it seemed a realistic bet. A starter “100.” Nice’n flat. Virtually no technical trail. Close to home on a surface my feet already knew. 3 months to train. I had only to sign up, run long, plan, and work up the nerve.
Our start/finish line was a conveniently positioned rotted log on the edge of a field near a pavilion on a hillside in a camp called Manadokin, several feet above the Potomac river, just north of Harper’s Ferry, WV.
From here, we bounded down over the hill, switchbacking through the woods on a newly laid path to the river. The last portion of this was a gully so vertical it required the aid of a rope to get back up, but over-all the whole decent to the river was short, and took about 10 minutes to traverse. (Going back up was a different story, and we did that at the half way point as well as the finish.) From there, it was tow path. Tow path. Tow path. Tow path ad infinitum, it seemed at times. But we knew what to expect in that regard.
The rain held off, and the weather was good, around 40F at the start and climbing to around 70 Saturday afternoon, then dropping back down into the 40s again at night.
It is a newly organized race, and knowing that that meant a crap shoot when it comes to aid, I packed all but the kitchen sink in my drop bags, and carried half a gallon of water, 1300 calories, electrolytes and first aid on my back at all times. This proved a wise move. Though the stations proved well-stocked, and the volunteers stellar in their enthusiasm and helpfulness, there were some long stretches between aid stations, including one particularly long stretch where an only partially manned station ran out of water when the sun was at apogee and the temps were at there highest. This proved problematic for some runners, but was a short-lived problem, and many volunteers quickly rushed to man the station, and by the second quarter of the race, had found it a better location, and restocked it well.
I knew but one other person racing, my friend Tom, and he was too speedy for me to run with, so I had figured I was in for running most of the race alone. Typically I race alone, but for this distance, I thought some company might be a benefit, and hoped to maybe find a pacer later on or at least make some friends along the way.
At first I ran with a group in tight formation. We joked and talked about the course, shared names and tidbits of our lives and race experiences. Many of the names escape me now, but there was a Jim and a Paul and John, and a couple of Marys later on.
Then we fractioned, falling into smaller groups organized by pace, and I ran mostly with John, who turned out to be a neighbor–living but 3 miles away from me and right along one of my regular running routes. He and his wife, like my husband and me, are musicians and we had a lot to talk about. We quickly made friends and wound up running together for around 60 miles.
At the half way, I climbed the hill to the camp where we started, with plans to change clothes, eat, and call my husband. I was making good time, and arrived earlier than I expected. As I climbed the final portion of the hill, I saw Tammy, an amazing runner I knew from the Reston Runners club, and from the JFK. She was there to pace a friend, and to log in some miles in her training for Badwater.
And then another surprise, my dear, dear husband showed up with hugs and kisses and a jeep full of good food. He arrived almost exactly when I did, his timing perfect as usual. He helped me change clothes, and fed me well. I would have never thought I could be lured out of a race, but I was so overjoyed to see him, I wanted to stay. He kindly refused to take me with him, and sent me back out to finish.
From the half, John and I continued to run together for a while, but as night was coming on, he was having stomach issues, and not feeling so hot. And being a night runner, I was just getting a second wind.
Around that time, mile 60+ something, at an aid station, Tammy showed up, offering pacing services to anybody as her friend had had to drop out, so from there, I ran with Tammy. An experienced pacer and seasoned ultra runner, she was extremely accommodating, and soon had me in stitches with crazy tales of the trail. The last 40-some miles are a bit of a blur. I ran strong at first, but my walk breaks grew longer and longer. The temperature dropped rapidly after midnight, and my good pacer made certain I donned more layers, changed my shoes and ate enough calories. My stomach grew squeamish, and I stuck mostly to gels and water, occasionally choking down some fresh fruit or a quarter pbj.
The trail was dark despite the moon, and would have been desolate for long stretches had Tammy not been there. At one point, we saw the headless body of a rabbit, freshly killed, on the trail, and pondered what had eaten it. Then we made jokes and stories about it for miles.
She kept with some silly bathroom stories to keep me focused, light-hearted and smiling. She played a trick on an old running friend at an aid station to conjure laughs from the volunteers.
At mile 90ish, I called my husband with an eta. It was a rough time. There were runners at the aid station who didn’t look like they would carry on. It was cold, and I was feeling it now. One of my gloves had gone missing from my drop bag, and my other pair were over 10 miles back. Tammy gave me hers.
We pressed on, and she told me about many of the things she had learned from the 13 100-milers she had under her belt, about what it takes to be a good pacer or a good aid station volunteer, about training for Badwater and running Western States, about being stocked by a cougar on a training run, and about her mountaineering husband falling off a mountain. The miles ticked off. The night grew colder. Dawn came. I watched it grow lighter until I could take off my head lamp. I hallucinated, seeing furniture and statues in the forest. Once a log became a bronze ram, beautiful and shining. My mind drifted.
“…Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
In the next valley-glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?”
— “Ode to a Nightingale”
I laughed at myself, and ate another gel.
When we rounded the bend into Harper’s Ferry, you could see the road, and just then my husband drove by. He saw us, and waved, pulled off up ahead, and ran down the trail. I still had miles to go, but it was so good to see him. We stopped for a picture, and he left to drive a few minutes to the finish, while Tammy and I would still be running–mostly walking by then as my left foot had blistered up pretty badly–to the finish.
Tammy planned to take me as far as the hill, but she refused to climb it. She’d run Western States, but refused this hill? I laughed. We made jokes about the 100-miler plus tough mudder hill challenge at the end. She would instead, run back to the last aid station to pace another runner in to the end. It made for a good 50 miles worth of pacing duties. I was so grateful for her help, I didn’t know how to properly thank her. She said she usually has people do her laundry. In a final gut-busting laugh, I raced up the hill to be greeted by the RD, buckle in hand, smiling finishers and volunteers, my friend Tom’s family, and my beaming husband.
After enlightenment, the laundry.
According to the race recap, 101 had registered to run and 90 toed the line at the start. 49 made it to the finish line. It took me 25 hours and 24 minutes. (I had estimated it would take me somewhere between 23 and 26 hours, but I was aiming for 101.7 miles.) I came in 18th over-all, and 6th for the women. My friend Tom took 4th place.
The hard knocks and growing pains of a poor running year; it brings to mind for me, somewhat melodramatically, the cold, unforgiving north face of K2.
Ah, I looked back at 2010, what a great running year! In the Spring I PRd at Boston, and by Fall ran two 50-milers two weeks a part, one of them my fastest 50 ever, and all year ran fast and strong. When the new year rolled around, I was ready to tackle 2011 with a renewed confidence. But 2011 proved a rather rough running year. I trained diligently, but noticed little gains other than a little weight, and instead felt the drag of constant fatigue. I raced, but not so well as the year before, ran some enjoyable races: a mountainous 50k early in the year, another Boston, but this year more slowly, 36 miles of a 200-mile relay, and a slow all-night 50 miler in the summer. Everything seemed just a bit less energized than in 2010, and then in November, I even experienced my first DNF. The race, a mountainous 50-miler, started alright, but I was feeling seriously low on energy, and was barely making the cutoffs. I had to make a critical decision to pull out half way, rather than continue lest something be really wrong, and I’d end up stuck for a long time in the mountains or worse. I made the best of it. Even inwardly applauded my courage at hanging it up for safety. I met other runners–some plenty more seasoned than myself–who just weren’t having a good race day either. We swapped stories, went to the finish and saw the winners come in. Outwardly, I was feeling alright about it. DNF is par for the course when the number of races goes up, especially long distances, but part of me was still having trouble dealing with it. That night, I cried myself to sleep.
I wanted to write about it, but every time I tried, I couldn’t muster the courage. I felt so much shame around it. Though I knew it was unrealistic, even childish, and something I needed to get over, I faltered. I tried to look at the bigger picture, reminded myself not everyone is able to run, let alone run in the mountains, and I would even get to do that another day. Running is such a lovely gift. DNF teaches that it should never be taken for granted. I assessed the year: there were good experiences that year, for sure, delightful new races and adventures, and the trying experience of running and acclimating during the summer heat wave. I tried to put a positive spin on it all, but the over-all assessment showed me falling short in nearly all my efforts. Fortunately, in the Fall, I studied intensively and received my RRCA coaching certification. The experience was invaluable. I was able to nail down a number of patterns in my training that might likely have soured my year, and it enabled me to help others to a degree I could not have before. One of the very best parts of running for me is being able to share the joy of it. I can’t help but get excited when I find out a friend has taken it up, or someone I know decides to run a marathon. Heck, in such instances, I can hardly contain myself. I must drive everybody crazy with enthusiasm. So more knowledge and confidence to help others was a major victory for the year.
But I still felt the DNF like a black eye.
“Did Nothing Fatal” some call it.
I bathed it in positivity.
D-ownright N-othing less than F-abulous, I dubbed it.
“DNF is par for the course in any ultra runner’s history,” I once wrote before I had ever experienced it, and now reminded myself, “because so many things have to come together to make a race that distance possible. Weather conditions and your health being the biggest, but also even tiny things can blow a race when you are going long: a blister can become a disturbing mess, a small sprain can become a major injury. Even a little chafing over a long enough period of time can take you out of a race, or at least reduce the experience to misery. When longer periods of time are involved, even tiny impedances wear like water on stone.”
To make the matter worse, my attempts to write about it proved more sorry than the actual DNF. I started, but never finished:
“I attempted my second MMTR on Saturday, and had some elusive low energy issues–was moving far too slowly and had no energy, though I was fueling well from what I could gather. I ended up dropping out of the race half way through and got my first DNF. I made all of the cut–off times and could have continued through the second half of the race, but knew I would be slower and not make the final cut off time, and worried something might be seriously wrong, so I made a hard decision to drop. I went through some strong negative emotions, shame, disappointment, and sadness, But it was a valuable experience–in fact I may have learned more from this race than any other so far. It was a good lesson that even if things don’t go as well as you had hoped or as you had planned, there is still so much to learn and positive things to experience. I made some new friends, got the perspective of others who had to drop out for various reasons–some of them far more seasoned and wise, and got to go to the finish early and congratulate the elites as they came in. And I still got a long run in the beautiful mountains and came out of it without injury.
I hope you never have to drop out of a race, but if sometime you do, please remember there is no shame in it. You will go on to race another day. Just thought I would share this as a reminder that there is a gift in every running experience–sometimes especially the failures. ”
Afterward, though I believed what I had written, I realized my heart wasn’t fully in it. How could I tell others there is no shame in it when I still felt ashamed? I decided to wait. I simply had to get over the ill emotions first. That took longer than I expected. December is a rest month for me, and I didn’t race again until March. And then I ran a miserable marathon–managing to get sick with a virus and finish more slowly than I had ever raced in my life. But for some reason, I was able laugh this one off. In the process of overcoming the DNF, I had been trying to remind myself that running really had never been about racing for me. Racing was a new activity. I had run long before I had ever raced. And I could enjoy running without ever racing again. Maybe.
Then, jeez, what was I smoking??? I chased the thought with an announcement of a racing plan for 2012 to top all previous years, doubling up on 50 milers, securing my first 100, setting myself on a fast-track toward a big dream race like UTMB in a few years. And then I ran the horrible marathon. Right after my DNF. And then the April 50-miler I had signed up for and on which I was wait listed, turned out to be a no-go. I was the last one to be bumped up from the wait list. It didn’t happen. Then the 100 miler filled up early. All of my newly laid plans came crashing around my ears. Apparently I had not learned the DNF lesson well enough. Mamma said their’d be running years like this. I was beginning to think I would never race again. But I had signed up for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler in June. Should I run it? Maybe I should quit racing for a while. I’m no elite. Why do I care? Weather was looking rough. Might be 90 degrees. Ouch. Oh, what the hell. The year already looked shot. I really needed a good race. I might as well give it a go. The pre-race anxiety grew to a fever pitch. Another DNF would not be good. I decided to go slowly, and just run to finish. And ah, it was so good to be racing again! The race turned out to be a beautiful gift. Heavy storms the night before made the weather lovely, but the course a serious mud bath. I slipped and slid through the muddy places, played on the short hills and loops, scrambling up, slaloming down, passing along my perma-grin to oncoming runners, and for not rushing, managed to finish 9th in my age group. (I usually manage the top third.) Not great, but not terrible. I made some new friends, and saw some old ones. It brought back my confidence, and I was reminded of the most important reason to do it. Races are fun. Still, I learned that for now, the primary reason I race is not for fun. Part of me has to do it. Something down deep is struggling to make itself known, and racing is helping it surface. DNF shame really had to do with something other than the race I didn’t finish. This eventual realization was the gift of the DNF. I still need badly to develop a sense of self worth. And though racing helps, it is the means, not the end; a surrogate for something more substantial: a practice that is more fulfilling and real that serves others that I have yet to find. I dream of starting a race in the third world. Somewhere where it will have a lot of impact to help transform individual lives and shape developing nations. For now, I will learn to coach. I will learn from the RDs I know. Perhaps one day I will realize these dreams. Perhaps others will take their place.
Running is a tremendous vehicle, especially for self realization. Most often it is all about the journey. But I hope that if I stick it out for long enough, I will get to where I am going.
Just one word, I thought: “Instinct.”
Er, well, maybe a few words. In writing a race report for the CMMM, I wanted to keep it short and to the point, not one of those wordy ramblings full of tangents and cryptic references I usually cough up.
So I thought about it for a bit. “In one word,” I asked myself, “what was this race experience to me?” Well, that was easy.
“The word is instinct. It was all about the return of instinct,” I thought, “But then aren’t all endurance events at least a little about that for me?” I always seem to have this on my mind before a race, but forget exactly what it means until I am in the thick of it. A long race for me is like hitting life’s reset button. Going into it, I know this, but in my heavy, pre-race anxiety I have to ask myself “Why do I do this? Why must I tear up my body so in order to restore my soul?”
But in the thick of the run, there is that sweet recognition of the return of instinct; a deep, calming sense that guides and directs, that blows me back on course. Carried away are every worry and fret of unimportance, leaving me with–as–something of substance, something tangible and golden, truth.
Running in the mountains at night brings on a return of instinct unlike any other experience I have had. (But then I have yet to tango with a mugger or visit a war zone.) For me, running itself does this, running long does it better, running in nature–especially the woods and the mountains does it best, and running at night? Well, with all of these elements in place, it switches on senses I forgot I had.
I chose to run this race for practical reasons. I am an ultra newbie. Though I have run some night races, they haven’t been on single track nor as far as 50 miles, and I hoped the experience would help me prep. for a 100m. I opted for one headlamp (with a back up and extra batteries in drop bags) to guide me rather than the head lamp/flashlight combo. For trail running, I like to keep my hands free in case I need to catch myself or scramble up a bank. Or in the case of this race, climb some spruces around a mud pit. The fog turned out to be thick on the trails, and the ferns nearly as tall as me at times. Visibility was spotty. Though I could have used the extra light, mostly I was glad I had my hands free. As the night wore on, I began to rely less and less on sight and more and more on other senses to direct me. How much progress were the runners up ahead making? I could judge by sound. Pretty good? Trail is probably smooth. It’s probably safe to pick up the pace. This was just the beginning. Even the plethora of smells along the trail told so much. After a while, I realized I could smell the mud ahead though I couldn’t tell the depth. I could smell the water when approaching streams. I could smell the woodsmoke of the campfires that promised aid stations. Through it all was the pervasive smell of spruce, thick-sweet blossoms, the acrid ferns, the pungent forest floor: the fungus, the rotting wood and leaf mold, the moss. Oh, the moss! Like none I had ever seen! At stretches, so thick it would swallow my feet! There was such beauty in the smells, in the velvety silence. After the constant din and choking smells of city life, it was like a balm for the soul.
At one long, lone stretch, I turned off my lamp and felt the darkness. It was magnificent.
For the first half of the race, I wore these lovely Merrell trail gloves with Vibram soles which offered no rock plate protection from the rocky, gravelly road stretches, but were fantastic on the trails. Six ounces of grippy rubber and soft slipper upper, they put less between my feet and the ground than my house slippers. I knew it would be a crap shoot to wear these on this rough terrain, but after training a couple hundred miles in them, I didn’t want to go back to regular shoes. They are amazing. I received so much sensory input from my feet, I felt at times I could have run without a light. Surprisingly, it doesn’t hurt much to run on the gravel or the rocks in them. However, when I got to the mud, I was in for some problems. I liked to tie them loosely which meant they were like giant spoons when I dipped my feet into the shin-deep mud. It felt pretty good oozing between my toes, but I nearly parted with the shoes several times. At the first drop bag (mile 23) I opted for my old, beat up Newtons. These are great shoes, but after the Merrells, they rendered my feet blind. It was a tough adjustment and turned out to be an interesting experiment. I was shocked at how much information I had been receiving from my feet and responding to instinctually.
A couple of days after the race, I received a call from my dear grandmother. My grammie is 81, blind, and loving her independence, insists on living alone. She has been partially blind for most of her life, has never seen color, and though she doesn’t see at all now, knits beautifully. She says she always knits with her eyes closed. That way she can see better. She never ceases to amaze me. She told me of her recent knitting exploits, blue and white hats for Joe Paterno and his wife, and nearly two hundred hats for the soldiers in Afghanistan. She said she couldn’t fill the orders fast enough, that she wished she could knit with her feet. She went on to explain the she no longer wears shoes in her house, that her feet have become her eyes. Without telling her about the race, I told her I understood.
After this, I thought about my experience again, about the little oddities, the serendipitous coincidences of life. One of the things I carry with me on long races is a little white linen kerchief edged in lace crocheted by my grandmother’s grandmother. It is a practical thing. I use it to wipe the sweat from my face. But it also serves as a reminder that I am part of something greater, that I am but a thread–albeit lovingly knitted–into this reality. The kerchief was handed down to me from my mother. It is a fine gift, though it seems my great, great grandmother crocheted so frequently, there were pieces of her lace everywhere around when I was growing up. In race prep, I had picked up the kerchief for practical use only, without a thought to its heritage–to MY heritage.
Maybe more than instinct, the word to sum up my race experience is “gift.” It was a gift to be able to run it in the first place, to enjoy it so thoroughly, to finish, though slowly, without injury. It was a gift to be in those beautiful mountains, in the heart of that splendid, dense, silent pine forest at night, a gift to see new friends and old running acquaintances, Jim and Doug, and especially the awesome Jenny Nichols who took 2nd place for the women!, and to make even more. It was a gift to be so graciously looked after by cheery volunteers and considerate fellow runners. It was a gift from Adam, the race director who put together such a fabulous race, a mountain of hard work. It was a loving, selfless gift from my husband who knows so well how much running means to me that he would take time out of his busy schedule to haul my butt down to the mountains to do it, to offer kind words of loving support and encouragement even when I barked and fretted with pre-race anxiety, to be there with me at beck and call, waiting for me at the finish to congratulate me on a job well done. I don’t ask him to do this. He volunteers. He is a rock, that man. And it was a strange and unexpected gift to have had the opportunity to feel around in the darkness, and finally get a sense of what it is like to take a walk in my grandmother’s shoes–or shoelessness rather—to be reminded that we are privy to so much more sensory input if we but open ourselves to it.
Is it over already?
I tried and failed once again to keep myself from making that rookie mistake of going out too fast. Every time, I try to care about the splits, but I am bad, bad, bad. The adrenaline is simply too much for me. I indulged my inner horse, and just let it go. I am a terribly undisciplined runner. But luckily the crowd was thick and folks were forcefully elbowing for their positions, everyone struggling to press ahead. It never thinned throughout, so I soon settled back into a comfortable pace and just watched the shimmering, bouncing colorful snake we made as it stretched and writhed out in front of me. What a spectacle!
So I wasn’t spent by mile 16. That little bridge hill that used to give me such grief was easy this time, and I strongly powered up the Newton hills that closely followed. Even Heartbreak didn’t seem so bad. Sure I pushed. Sure, I slowed. But it just wasn’t so bad this year. And I flew down the hills just as I always love to do, an indulgence that I usually pay for later. But even now, my quads aren’t sore. Terrapin mountain has its gifts, it seems. A more competitive part of me surfaced briefly on the hills, and I was grateful to pass so many and still feel strong. But for some reason, I couldn’t harness that competitive edge. I just wasn’t fighting for speed. Just wasn’t pushing. Why?
Feeling a little dehydrated, I walked at several water stops to make certain I got a good drink. I ran very strong. But slowly. It was as if some part of me was rebelling. At some point after mile 20, I became most acutely aware of the state of my body. The skin on my face, neck and arms was being burned by the relentless sun (my sunblock rubbed off and lost to several dowsings at water stations) and now I could feel the numbness in my feet from the constant slapping of pavement, the achy joints and cramping calves I only get when running hard on pavement. I thought about running at age 80. I wanted to be able to. I reigned in and lightened my stride in an attempt to save my joints. Oh, where was my moxie today? Last year, I had felt it, had wanted to pull ahead, had elbowed my way through the crowd, and PR’d nicely. This year, even beforehand, I knew I would be slow. It wasn’t because of my training. I am stronger–even faster than ever, I know. But that friendly competitive spark, that push to give it my all was simply not there this year. Perhaps I had lost it somewhere in the mountains.
They say that three’s a charm. In finishing Boston #3, I learned a lot about myself, but in the end, it left me with more unanswered questions. I am still quite the newbie, after all. It was my slowest attempt at a race that is all about making a fast time. I blew it. What a shame, I thought.
At the expo, I felt like a fraud, alone in a sea of runners, a pony amongst the gazelles. What used to feel like a big family reunion to me now felt like someone else’s family reunion I had crashed. I felt set apart, a slow, roly-poly creature. I was so aware of that competitive spirit around me. There was a constant undertone of speed. It is all about the numbers, I was reminded. Numbers. I noted the 26.2 printed again and again on so many surfaces, a source of pride for so many, and to me, sadly, such an arbitrary number. Wistfully I looked about for hints and clues from the ultra world, but saw none. Then I bumped into a woman I had met before the JFK. It was great to see her. I felt a little less alone. She was running her 8th Boston, this time, with her brother who had traveled in from Oregon. He was far behind her in the seeding, but she was going to move back so she could run with him. It was so welcoming to hear of someone running Boston for an experience other than the numbers. Boston is a celebration of running, after all. It doesn’t have to be about numbers. I talked to some first-timers before the race. It was great to be able to answer their questions, give them tips about the course, and to tell them to relax and enjoy the experience. Most said that they were just there to finish; just there for the experience that is Boston–to feel part of it. But all of us hope for the best time, especially the newcomers. More than a strong finish, we want to finish fast. We want the numbers to reflect our effort, our hard work and training–to show what we know is inside of us–that steely core we know as runners we possess.
I was sadly failing at the number game this time. On the final 6 miles, I was ready to motor forward. But a painful ankle and slightly crampy calves–things I could have mentally powered through last year–kept me short. I ran in surges. My Garmin had died about half way into the race, so I was a little unsure of my pace once I started to stiffen and tire. At that point where all of the running strength is mental, I suddenly discovered my will had softened. Where in the Hell was my moxie???
As we made that hard last turn on to Boylston street, the part where I love to hotdog and floor it till I’m out of breath, I paused, even walked for a few seconds. Then I found it, the finish in sight, and ran hard. And ah, the relief! It felt so good to be done. This was new for me. Yeah, sure it always feels good to finish, but usually that sense of relief is overshadowed with a sense of accomplishment, with a joy that is giving it your best. But I hadn’t. I was sore, I was tired, I was burnt and dehydrated, but I was okay. Even talkative. Sheesh. I had turned into that chatty Kathy that running sometimes turns me into. It was so crowded this year there were several people finishing the same time as me, and we all congratulated each other. Then I spotted an Umsted100 race t-shirt in the crowd of finishers, and simply had to call out. Ultra=family, it seems to me. We talked ultra, and were instant friends. And it turns out we had a lot of mutual friends. He was racing for time, though half playfully in the way ultra runners do, having trained but two weeks, and I soon realized that finding that shared perspective was the highlight of the finish for me. Throughout the race, my mindset had really been elsewhere. I floundered to comprehend the loss of moxie, the change of mindset. I pondered: plenty of ultra runners still love to competitively motor through Boston as much as they love to competitively motor through ultras, races that are still to the newbie ultra me, lone, self-challenging ambles through the woods. I decided it was a temporary loss, a newbie adjustment, that my moxie would return. I would want to press through Boston again, and race for the numbers. But I had to go somewhere else first.
Still trying to shape my thoughts around this, today I picked up a book I had found on the giveaway table at work, and read my own feelings about it laid out in plain words, perfectly executed:
“A childish enthusiasm had prevented me from seeing that the marathon is really a spectator sport, and a false scale against which to measure our true capacity. What long-distance running is truly about is measuring ourselves against a challenge that exceeds simple arithmetic, covering miles that we had not necessarily foreseen. It is knowing how to cope when the world turns against you.” –Robin Harvie in “The Lure of Long Distances”
Slam! It all fell together then, and I breathed a big sigh of relief. I thought of the awards ceremonies at some of the ultras I had run, lighthearted mockeries of the pomp-and-circumstance-filled trophying that accompanies so many running events. There were awards for being the fattest runner and the runner who got bloodied the most on the course. Most of the awards were not trophies or medals, but fine outerwear. Ultra runners have a slightly different value system when it comes to running. They understand why they run, and that it has nothing to do with numbers or trophies. We all do it for ourselves. Sure there is competition, community, celebration and ceremony. But the proofing is mostly to ourselves and not to one and other. We crack wise about not training, not tapering or breaking all the training rules before a run. We run for the love of running and for what the untested distance and harsh terrain and conditions have to teach us about ourselves.
Any distance can be a challenge, be it 100 meters, 3, 26.2, 50 miles, 100k or 200 miles. The distance, the time, the numbers don’t matter. It is about pushing ourselves, about facing the unknown inside of us. Alone on the Boston course in a sea of runners, I had come face to face with myself, had called my motivations into question. I forced myself to not care about the numbers, because it shamed me to care about them. In the end, I realized I had run a good race. I may not have pushed to run my fastest, but I ran strong, I took care of myself, kept myself from injury and dehydration, mindful of the long runs for the decades to come. I hadn’t blown it after all. It is just that my values were different now. For better or worse, my goals had changed. It seems I had somehow moved beyond, to a different set of challenges. But even so, I knew this was but yet another step in some growth process as a runner. I had but to look at the plenty of seasoned and wise that traveled from all over the globe to run the Boston. And I knew I would be back.