Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Racing a Race: Bishop High Sierra 50 Mile

I was running down the trail one Thursday morning, when Guillaume turned to me and said, “you know, I was looking at the video from Gorge Waterfalls and you didn’t really look like you were trying.” I thought this was a pretty good compliment, until he continued, “I think you could have gone a lot harder.”

The weekend before the Bishop High Sierra 50 miler, I was finishing up a quick and easy 15 on the AC course, when I ran into the Three Amigos. I justified my low miles with the admission that I was racing in six days and just going to “see what happens.” This was apparently not the correct answer.  What I was supposed to say was that I was racing and I was going to win.

None of this was all too new, as I live with a man who tells me things like this all the time. As such, I realized something had to be done very quickly. Because none of these fools thought I was actually racing my races.

This is how I feel, both today, and every day of my life.
(Photo: Dominic Grossman)
(Extremely accurate enhancement: Ethan Newberry)
This is how I found myself ten miles in and a third of the way up a 4500’ climb, huffing and puffing my way through the BHS50.  And how five miles later, I was still running uphill, not letting myself hike and wondering where in the hell the 50k runners would turn around.  This remained elusive for so long because, turns out, I was actually ahead of most all of the 50k runners.  Was this a bad idea?  “Not so!” says the me who had something to prove to five very specific men.  I pressed on to the high point of the course, 9,000 and something feet.  Still running.

Steven Evers and I sharing some early morning miles. Steven is a sophomore
in high school, folks.  Zero jokes - kid's legit.
(Photo: Sean Malone)
My hips were really hurting, on account of the sandy, gradual Jeep road.  I was sinking into the terrain and losing power, wondering if I’d be completely blown out by the top.  That said, I was thanking my lucky stars that a nice cloud cover was rolling in and giving us some reprieve from the rising heat.  I’d spent a week in the 98 degree sweat-box that was my unairconditioned apartment during a LA heat wave and there was really only so much more I could take.  The night before the race – camping at 4500’ – was the most sleep I’d had in a week.

Nick Lachey in the house.
There was a mile or so of downhill around mile 15-ish, and to my delight, my legs opened right up.  It was just what I needed to push up the last climb to the overlook.  I caught up to my friend Howie, which seemed like possibly a bad idea, but I reasoned he’d catch right back up on the downhill.  I passed a few others and caught up to Ethan Veneklasen at the top, who I also didn’t expect to be anywhere near.  All of these things frightened me greatly, but nevertheless, I turned around and bombed back downhill.  I had to have a good story for Guillaume.

As I rolled along alone the next ten miles, I decided to rock some tunes for “enhancement.”  I usually don’t listen to music in races, but I was in a generally good mood and thought I might like to sing a bit.  This was a really, really good idea because it was really, really fun.  The snow capped Sierras were gorgeous, there was a fun hurdling section of downed trees, and I wasn’t finding the climbs to be all that difficult.  Admittedly, I was having some stomach issues – stopping three times to use the facilities (bushes) in the first 30 – but was saved by the advanced planning of Tums in all my drop bags.  Also, the stomach situation was not hindered at all by the consumption of PowerGels or recovery drink, so I figured it was merely a by-product of running hard at altitude.  I pressed on.

I pounded it with Mr. Prizzle as he flew by, leading the 100k and the entire race.  Others came and went, but not many at all.  Not nearly as many as I’d expected. But one was a girl with a 50k bib and she was flying… albeit no longer on the 50k course.  This is the interesting thing about the BHS ultras.  At any time you can switch the distance you are running, so you never really know what’s going on (if you care about that sort of thing.)  As such, I concluded that she had decided to bump up to the 50 mile and was absolutely kicking my ass. However, when I saw my friend Sada (100k) on the Bishop Creek Lodge turnaround, she said this flying mystery woman hadn’t done the Edison loop (that loop being 6 miles with a good 1000 ft of climb to over 9,000 ft).  I was confused by the whole thing, but there was honestly nothing I could do about it.  I was doing my very best, so if someone else’s best was better, so be it.  

Around this time, I began to notice that the clouds were burning off and it was getting warmer and warmer.  Keep in mind, I was still at 8,000 ft.  If it was hot up here… oh my, I didn’t even want to think about it.

No, Nick.  No.
As I started back on the rolling section of the course, I thought back to when I had run this race three years ago.  I’d been running decently well up until this point, when I began hiking most of the uphills, pretty much dead.  By the time I hit the long descent to town, I was puking and actually dead.  Part of me choosing the 50 mile over the 100k distance was having the comparison factor and hopefully seeing how much I had improved in the last few years. The other part is that there is not one iota of me that in any way desires to do an out-and-back on a lame-o dusty fireroad when I’m less than 2 miles from the finish and beer. I have priorities, people.  Anyway, I reasoned that part of that improvement should be that I had the ability to run these climbs at altitude, in the heat, after 30 miles.  That’s what I’d need to do at August's Angeles Crest 100, so that’s what I best be doing now.  What I was also doing now, was breathing like a fat man on a stair master and I'll be damned if I didn't keep that up for the rest of the race.  The other thing I'd be keeping up is passing people.  All the yo-yoing with other runners officially ceased at this moment.

This is precisely why I was startled to catch a red shirt in my peripheral, steadily approaching from behind.  Man or woman, friend or foe – I could not discern, so I just put my head back down and ran.  I was actually quite surprised at how good my legs felt and how strong I was taking the downhills.  I’ve been dealing with a  bit of turf toe the entire year and a little ITB for the past few weeks, but was feeling none of it now.  Dom would really be proud of me, I thought. But I knew I wouldn’t be seeing him today, as he was off adventuring on Paiute Pass and hadn’t made it back down to the course in time.  I’d have held out a 40% chance if he’d told me he’d definitely see me, but given that the last thing he’d said to me at the start was “don’t hold your breath,” I knew my chances were exactly -15%.  At least I’d be able to tell him how well I’d just pushed up this hill, I thought, as I stole one more glance at the advancing red dot.


My heart grew so happy as I realized it really was, *blink blink*, my favorite human and he was coming to see me.  Before long, he trotted up beside me, smiling and sure enough, complimenting me on my pace.  Apparently he’d made it down to the Intake 2 aid station thinking he’d be surprising me shortly, only to find out I was long gone.  He’d been chasing me for the last 4 miles, and I wasn’t exactly running slow.  Considering I’d had a good 5-10 minute lead, homeboy was putting down some good splits, and retrospectively, I’m happy I helped him get that mini-speed workout in.  He asked if I was winning, and I told him I couldn’t be sure.  He thought he’d seen the mystery 50k runner I spoke of sitting back at Intake 2, but I trusted nothing at this point. The heat began it’s attack.

Hey! Everything is still going so well!
(Photo: Dominic Grossman)
Now around mile 37, we were still up right under 8,000’ and we were going to descend all the way down to 4,400’.  Things were going to get worse and that was a fact.  Dom insisted I start dousing myself with water, but it wasn’t long before I was doing this without command.  The lower we got, the less I was able to speak and the more labored my breath became.  I was running hard, but my legs said faster!  We can go faster!  However, every time I tried to drop down below 7/7:30-ish, I felt as if I would hyperventilate and was forced to dial it back.  Checking my watch, it looked as if I may go sub-9 on this course, which would be incredible for me.  This excited me greatly.

Whee! I am running in the mountains!
(Photo: Dominic Grossman)
As I hit what I thought was the second to last aid station and doused myself with sponges, I inquired on the exact mileage to the last.  “3.7 to the next, then 3.7 to go!”  No, no, no – there should only be 5-ish miles left.  You’re saying 7.5.  I can’t do 7.5 in the time allotted to me.  I can’t break 9 hours if this is true.

Man, did this ever take the wind out of my sails.  I was trapped in this high desert, where fun was evaporating quicker than my sweat.  And hotter, still…. 

“I’ve entered a deep pain cave and will no longer speak.”

This was the last thing I said to Dom.  Accordingly, he simply moved a bit ahead of me and kept the pace.  I kept my eyes on his back and literally thought of nothing.  Just run.  You wanted this heat.  You asked for it.  It will be worse at AC.  Just go.

We reached a small creek and Dom bent down to splash me, as I was now fully hyperventilating.  A few dousings and I was back at it, but my silent focus was finally broken by a scream.

“Ants! ANTS!!!!!”

Apparently Dom had kneeled on an ant hill and an entire army of stinging red little jerks was now making its way up his shorts.  I couldn’t help but laugh, as I left him there, dancing around like a maniac.  He’d be fine.

What was not fine was this next part of the course.  Anyone who ran that shit knows exactly what I’m talking about, but for those of you who weren’t so fortunate to experience your own private hell last Saturday, allow me to elaborate:

We were on this Jeep road, which suddenly turned very wide.  The downhill grade first flattened, and then turned ever so slightly upward.  The dusty surface turned almost white and the glare from the sun made me squint, even behind my sunglasses.  The heat was literally burning my skin, the crest of the hill blocked the view, and the only assumption one could make was that we were now doomed to this endeavor for the rest of our existence.  At least that would be short, because we were all certainly going to die here.  I passed two or three more 50k runners, but could no longer offer any auditory encouragement – partly because of my breathing, mainly because I couldn’t actually be sure that we were going to make it out of here and I didn’t want to be doling out false hope. As such, I resorted to a hearty thumbs-up to my fellow compatriots, battling against what I have since dubbed, “Dumb Road.”

Dom takes a moment for a selfie on Dumb Road. I die a little more inside.
(Selfie: Dominic "The King" Grossman)
By the grace of god, I did somehow turn off the drasted thing and reached the final aid station.  This greatly restored my faith in my ability to not die, and I now focused on getting myself a shiny 50 mile PR.  Another dousing, one last PowerGel, some cold Coke, a little puking in my mouth, and I was off!

Dom called my Dad about a mile from the finish, as he would soon lose service and we wanted to find out how he did in his trail marathon back in Missouri.  In the cool, tree-covered forest.  Probably not containing a road that tried to kill him.  He happily reported that he had finished despite some wicked cramping and cheered me on.  This was the final push I needed to finish strong.

As we pulled into the campground, now only a half mile from the official end, my heart began to hurt quite badly.  Not in the “that poor kitty only has one leg” sort of way, but more like, “is this… heart attack?”  I agreed with Dom that I should probably slow down a bit and just jog it in rather than risk it. “It” being exploding. I crossed the line in 9:19 – a 12 minute PR for the distance.  I don’t know what that says for my previous attempts, as this course was much harder and higher and hotter... and just generally not something one should be PR-ing on.  

Maybe Guillaume was onto something.

(Photo: Dominic Grossman)

Things you should know:

SHOES:  New Balance 1400v2
SOCKS:  Injinji Trail 2.0
SUNGLASSES:  New Balance Retro Fresh
NUTRITION:  PowerGels + 3 servings of PowerBar Recovery Mix; Ice Water & Coke from aid stations

FAVORITE SONG OF THE DAY:  “Bandida” by Audra Mae

FAVORITE SECTION OF THE DAY:  The aspen-lined trails between McGee Creek and the Edison Loop
FAVORITE BEER OF THE DAY:  Mammoth Brewing Co. Double Nut Porter
FAVORITE MOMENT OF THE DAY:  Coming back to watch Geoff finish the 100k and wishing he had pizza.  We actually had pizza.  

Thank you to Tim Stahler and Inside Trail.  Taking over a race with this kind of history is no small endeavor and you definitely stepped up to the task.  The race was great, the post-race was delightful and the combination of a beer stein and framed photo of the Sierras in the fall is the best prize I’ve ever received.  I've also never received both a pint glass AND a stein in the same gesture, but I believe you may have me pegged.

Oh yeah, that reminds me – I DID actually win the 50 mile race, despite the fact that I was still unsure when I crossed.  I was fourth overall, as well, but that’s only because The Queen ran the 100k instead.  I’m definitely more confident in my abilities, but I’m not delusional. :)

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Fresh Start: A Gorge Waterfalls 100k Finish

As I grunted my way up the final climb of the Gorge Waterfalls 100k, all I could think about was how weird it would be that in less than 24 hours, I would just be at work.  As in, sitting at my desk at a computer.  As in, 989 miles south and not surrounded by moss covered trees and rushing waterfalls.  What was I supposed to do?  Just… work?

Weekends in the mountains are weird like that.  And a three-day weekend that involves a plane ticket, two races and a soaking pool that you could consume alcohol in was enough to make me forget a lot of things.  Namely that I had any life outside of three dudes, an extremely green forest and a shit ton of rain.

Did I remember my swim suit or am I wearing my underwear?  The world may never know.
Portland, Oregon was the destination and while the race was chosen mainly as an excuse to sight-see a place I’d never been, there was actually quite a bit riding on it for me.  I hadn’t raced in six months, since I dropped from the Bear 100 at mile 75 thanks to some unfixable hypothermia.  Actually, it had been almost a full year since I finished a race – Zane Grey, where I walked the last 17 miles, rendering it hardly a finish at all.  Truth is, I’ve been battling some health issues with my kidneys and adrenals for the past year and a half.  I haven’t talked or written much about it, which is probably because I haven’t wanted to look back at it all.  The only thing that has kept me pushing forward and positive is the belief that things had to turn around at some point.  And so I toed the line on Sunday with the sincere hope that this would be the day to end the curse.

Benson State Rec Area: Excited as one can possibly be at 3:58am.
Photo: Paul Nelson
Starting at 4am was a fun challenge.  Mainly because waking up at 2:30am is an absolutely awful experience that should be required of no one, but also because running over slick rocks in the pitch black forest with mist swirling in your headlamp and making you feel as if you’re high on Nyquil is quite difficult. Perhaps dangerous, even.  Nevertheless, I settled into a nice little pace and just tried to enjoy the morning.  I honestly don’t think I could have gone much faster if I were only running the 50k… or even a 5k for that matter.  At least not downhill, in the dark. Next to a cliff. That would send me over a waterfall.  Obviously, other people were, so I guess I need to work on living more dangerously.

You can feel it in the air: today is a great day to finish something.
Maybe that's actually rain, but whatever man.
Photo: Paul Nelson
The other challenge of the morning was getting out of my head that I might be getting sick.  I had spent Friday walking around rainy Portland and Saturday out crewing Dom and Andy in the 50k (again, with the rain), and perhaps unsurprisingly, my throat had begun to tickle the night prior.  Now, it was kind of burning.  I had also eaten nothing but a PowerBar, an apple and a few graham crackers for the entire morning and afternoon the day before, partly because I was out at the 50k but mainly because I am an idiot.  I tried to console myself with the fact that I ate two dinners, but there really was no contest that I had made poor decisions.  I prayed that 31 is still considered young enough to escape facing consequences for not taking care of oneself.*
*Sidenote: I have been legitimately sick with a head cold ever since the race. REGRET NOTHING.

I guess I would find that out soon enough, but for now, things were looking to be on the up and up.  The first 12 miles clicked right by, as every step required my utmost concentration and attention.  There were four of us of the female variety running basically together – a woman in orange right in front of me – two that I could identify as women by voice right behind.  I had no way of knowing where that put us in the grand scheme of things, but the chick in front looked fast, so I felt good about myself.  Not that I cared... but I probably cared.

We hit the 2 or 3 mile road section (does it matter?) and something super weird happened.  I began passing people.  One… two… three… four… I think by the end of it, I’d passed a good six folks and dropped the pair behind me.  Not the woman in orange, though.  She took OFF and it was one of those I’m not even mad, I’m impressed things.  You see, I was wearing one of those new-fangled GPS watch-a-majigs, which I’d never used before (additional example of my questionable decision-making skills) and it used its witchcraft to tell me I was clocking 7:50 pace uphill.  Maybe that’s not so weird for you speedy folks, but that is SUPER weird for 'ole mountain legs over here.  I will definitely remember to do a 12 mile warmup before my next 5k.  Which will be never.

I was excited for this next section, as I knew roaring Elowah Falls was waiting for me less than a mile out of the aid station.  And now, after almost 2 1/2 hours, there was just enough light in the sky that I could actually begin the sight-seeing portion of my adventure, which as you recall, was the main point of entering this race.  Dom is probably confused by this statement, as my behavior at the first aid station indicated anything but tourism as my chosen activity.  I suppose snapping, “WHERE IS MY BOTTLE?” or more specifically, “YOU HAD ONE F***ING JOB.”* would indicate that I may be in the world championships of waterfall running.  But I assure you this was not the case, at least not to my knowledge. I mean, this would definitely be the place to hold such a thing, were it a thing, but even then my behavior would be questionable.
*Sorry, Dom.

ELOWAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH! (Yes, we run across the bridge.)
Photo: by me, during the 50k
So, now that I’ve indicated that I may have been a little into the race aspect of the event, I’ll let you know how that was going.  The answer is, quite well, thank you for asking.  I settled into a nice, comfortable pace, which consisted of running everything, climb or no.  I caught back up to the still unknown woman in orange and stayed within 20 seconds of her throughout the next 9 mile section, pulling further and further away from the folks I had left the last aid station with.  The PowerGels were going down every 20-30 minutes and my energy felt great.  I guess one might say I was officially enjoying myself. 

I pulled into Cascade Locks, mile 21, needing to drop my headlamp, change out my handheld and drink my PowerBar Recovery Mix. I did exactly one of these things.  Leaving the aid, I felt thankful that my friend Andy was there with my bottle, immediately frustrated I'd forgotten to take off my headlamp and entirely convinced that I would never rely on Dom to crew me at an ultra ever again.* In retrospect, this seems quite dramatic, given the fact that I wasn’t supposed to be racing, but you know what they say:  we women never say what we mean.
*Again, sorry Dom.

Given the absolutely glorious scenery surrounding me, I forgot about my rage in a matter of seconds.  You guys, there was SO MUCH MOSS.  The Columbia River Gorge is now officially the greenest place I’ve ever been, and I loved it.  I love the way green glows in the sunlight.  I love the way green smells.  I loved the on and off rain that kept the green glistening.  I really loved all the sections of green rocks, even despite the challenges they posed underfoot. Before long I had reached another waterfall (yawn) and began picking my way up another climb.  I also began to realize where yet another challenge of this course may come, in addition to the technicality and cumulative elevation change. It was all 100% runnable.  I was nearing the turnaround point, and there was nary a spot I’d hiked on the way out and nary a one I’d noted as a possibility on the way back.  Straight running this amount of miles was likely going to take its toll at some point, and I tried to start mentally preparing for that moment and how I'd work through it.  To distract my mind from pending doom, I made bets with myself on when I thought I’d see the leaders pass on their way back.  5 hours I thought… 5:15 maybe – I wondered if it were even possible for anyone to break 10 hours, given the 50k times the day before.  Either way I’d owe myself a beer, and I never shirk on my debts.

Proof of green-ness.#nofilter #blessed #thighgap
Photo: Kimberly Teshima
Now around 9:30am, the mist and clouds began to break a bit and I was actually getting some sporadic sunlight through the trees.  The entire place gained yet another depth of beauty, and the forest sparkled as if it had been coated with glitter. Just as I was enjoying a particularly magnificent view of the striated cliffs across the canyon, I heard a very familiar “caw!”  It sounded like Dom, but if it were Dom that would mean he was probably running with Guillaume.  And that would mean Guillaume was leading the race.  And that would certainly be possible, but really?  Could it be?

It was.  Guillaume came tearing down the next switchback like a furious freight train, excuse me - like the delightful Paris Metro, and I threw out my hand for a quick high-five.  I immediately regretted this decision due to my limited but adequate understanding of velocity, and quickly pulled my hand back to ease the blow.  ALLEZ! ALLEZ!... and he was off.  I was filled with pride for my friend, and motivated to do what I do every Tuesday morning - just try to stay as close as I can to the guys.

Oh, hey panda…” said a voice, trotting back up the trail.  Dom decided he would run with me to the next aid station, and I decided I would not be mad at him for failing at the first two.  He still had three chances.  I’d been running by myself pretty much all day, so I wasn’t quite sure if I actually wanted any company, but then again – running with Dom is usually quite fun.  Sure enough, we began chatting away and my good day was magnified – we began passing people again, and were sure to give everyone a unique compliment, above and beyond the standard “lookin’ good.”  

Those shorts really compliment your ass.”  
Hey, cool hat, bro!” 
Dom, why don’t you grow a REAL beard, like his?

That last one made us a new friend.  We passed a ferociously bearded Josh Fuller from Seattle, but within a few minutes he and his manly face-fro settled right back in with us.  For the remainder of our journey to Wyeth, the two men talked about drops and stack heights and the 110v2 (turns out Josh shared our experience of working at a running store) and I sang a wicked mash-up I’d created of Pharrell’s “Hunter” and “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac.  They were also successful at photo bombing all of my G-Tach and Paul Nelson specials. See below:

Dom steals my thunder and my outfits.
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
Josh gives the bro-hand on the Bridge to Terabithia IRL.
Photo: Paul Nelson
We passed a few more folks, including the woman in orange, and I hit the turnaround to find Andy, his charming new mustache and my bottle of PowerBar Recovery.  It tasted like better muscles.  I had long since given up finishing under 12 hours, but now that I was halfway at 6, I thought maybe I could still get it done under 13.  Not that it really mattered, but with how rough this course was and how not fresh I’d gone in, I would consider it a wild success.  Accordingly, I was dead set on quickly taking care of business and getting out of there.  However, Dom jumped into the porta-potty and told me to, and I quote, “take my time” because he needed to go to the bathroom.  HE IS THE WORST AT CREWING. OHMYGOD.  I told him I was leaving immediately, so he cheered for me from the throne, and I, once again, took off without dropping my headlamp. This time, I took the extra 20 seconds to head back and finally get rid of the darn thing.  Jeeze Louise. 

The most perfect product placement-y photo of all times - can you spot the 3 logos of my 3 awesome sponsors? Hint: Suunto is not one of them.
Photo: Paul Nelson
Back on the trail, I was excited to figure out where exactly I was in the mix of things.  I had honestly been surprised to hear that I was only in fourth place – I thought passing the last woman had moved me into second or third.  The first two ladies seemed unattainable, unless something drastic happened (which I would never wish for); but third seemed to only have five minutes on me.  That could be made up over 31 miles for sure – Dom had made up way more time than that in the last 6 miles of the 50k the day prior (super proud of him).  It seemed as if I had 4 or 5 minutes on the woman I passed and maybe 10 or 11 on the next.  I marveled at the fact that all of us were up with the top of the field – there really weren’t that many men in front of us and that made me quite excited.  I love seeing a cadre of strong women towards the front, and I was really loving being a part of that for once.  It had certainly been a long time…

I felt like I was still running quite well, but all of the sudden I caught another runner in my peripheral.  Awww man, I was about to lose my game-day record of passing-not-passed.  (Another arbitrary game I made up. Additional beers were wagered.)  Turns out it was Dom, and it now made sense why he had used the bathroom while I was in the aid station.  I wasn’t aware that he planned to go back out on the course, but fortunately, his training goals would be to my benefit.

The next 8 miles were super, super fun.  We sang. We laughed. We savored the amazing scenery. I ate. He fell. Our friends smiled and high-fived as we crossed paths on the out-and-back. What Dom lacks in aid station organization, he certainly makes up for in my absolute favorite company. All sins were officially forgiven and mentally, I was solid.  I told Dom I'd continue to run at this semi-comfortable pace until the last aid station and then push it in hard for the last 10-12.  This seemed reasonable, since my legs seemed to be holding up just fine. 

What was not exactly holding up any longer were my eyelids. The rigors of awakening at 2:30 am were upon me, but fortunately so was a package of PocketFuel Cold Brew Coffee (Thanks, Tim!).  A zing asketh; a zing receiveth.  Said zing carried me right into the Cascade Locks aid station, where I was boisterously greeted by Billy, GINGER! and Kimberly.  I took down some more recovery mix, switched to a stocked bottle and headed out, now having only a third of the race to go and still only 5 minutes back of third.  Even if something awful happened, I knew I could gut out 21 miles.  Doing my best to ensure that the awful would not descend, I asked Dom to leave my loaded handheld at the last aid station, knowing full well he thought he could get to the finish to see Guillaume AND get back in time to crew me.  They say ultrarunning is all about learning from your mistakes, but I take it one step further.  I also learn from others.

Dom demonstrating a request perfectly executed. 1 out of 5 ain't bad.
Photo: Billy Yang
A few miles out of the aid station, it finally hit.  My legs, specifically my quads, were beginning to hurt and I knew my pace was waning.  This was driven home when the guy in yellow I’d been gaining on was suddenly putting time on me, and out of nowhere, I had company from behind.  The good news of this was that I finally had the opportunity to meet the mysterious woman in orange I’d been either slightly following or slightly leading the entire race – a speedy chick from Seattle, Rhea George.  We chatted for a few minutes about the course, where we were from and how it was her first 100k, but I pulled ahead again on the next descent.  I found this weird, as I had been admiring her flat and downhill running for the first half of the race, thinking I’d definitely fall back on the latter half.  Before long, I had also caught the man in yellow and next thing I knew I was running even harder than before.  I no longer noticed any significant pain in my legs and instead, I started pushing harder.  I passed another runner, and another.  I ran so hard down a muddy descent that I slid into a tree and broke my handheld.  I got up and did it again, this time ripping my jacket. I flew across the bridge at Elowah Falls and was blasted by a gust of mist, soaking me completely.  I grunted my way up the next, steeper climb – not feeling the need to hike at all.  I passed another.  I flew down to Yeon with the intent to chug recovery mix and then hammer the last 12.

Hey guys, remember Elowah Falls?
Photo: me, during the 50k
Approaching the aid, it became immediately apparent that neither Dom nor Andy were there.  This fact could clearly be seen across my face, as the volunteers greeted me with, “you must be Katie.”  There was my mixed bottle and fortunately, a new handheld to replace the broken one I was carrying like a football.  I’d nicknamed myself Randy Moss on account of the… well… moss.  I’m hilarious.

Even though the road section had been kind to me, I was not looking forward to it this time.  It did, indeed, hurt, but remarkably I was still holding an 8 min/mi pace or better.  I reeled in two more runners, and looking back on the long stretch, I couldn’t see any of the folks I’d passed.  I was still gaining, and I really believed I could catch third if I kept this up.  I hadn’t lost any time in the last section, despite my low period, so I was particularly encouraged.  And there, right before the turnoff to the trail, she came into view.

Only problem was that "she" was pacing a dude – not in the race.  So I pressed on, reasoning that if I just ran a bit faster than I/we had been, I would make up the time.  I pressed a little harder, catching yet another runner. Invigorated, I reached a twisting descent and pressed harder still.  By the time I ran down to the final aid station, I was completely sure that I would hear that third had just left.  

“Five minutes."

Really?  I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that maybe third was trying to catch second and was unknowingly mirroring my every surge.  I had no idea what was going on up there, so I just resorted to what I always do:  not worry about it.  Besides, there were a lot of waterfalls in this section that I had missed in the dark morning and I WAS on a sight-seeing tour after all.  There were a lot of other folks out sight-seeing as well, and I marveled at how accommodating they were to moving aside in a pretty rapid fashion and allowing me on through.  I had honestly assumed I was going to need to rely on my finely tuned hiker-dodging skills, forged on the switchbacks of Chantry Flats, but they were rendered useless.  Dear Oregon: you’s good people.

This happened.
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
Sight-seeing, not racing, REMEMBER?
Photo: Paul Nelson
And just like that, the last obstacle of the day was upon me.  A steep ass climb followed by a steep descent on… duh duh duuuuuhhhhhh…. pavement.  This was officially my last shot at making it hurt worse than anyone else and hoping it was enough.  As such, I decided I was going to run the entire climb, but it wasn't long before I realized I was on the knife edge of completely blowing up.  Getting to the top a little faster but having to run much slower on the way down wasn't going to help anyone*, so I changed my tactics.  Alternating running and power hiking was much more efficient, and I still felt like there was a good chance I could be moving faster than those ahead or behind.  And even if I weren't, who really cared, right? This is precisely how it came to be that on a rainy Sunday in late March, I found myself grunting my way up a hill in Oregon and wondering how it was possible that I would simply be at work in LA in a mere 18 hours.  My brain relinquished the whole hunter mentality and instead waxed poetic for the remainder of the race.

You guys, I was going to finish.  For the first time in over a year, my body had not failed me.  I took care of myself, I pushed when I could and for once, that was enough to complete the task at hand.  And not just as a long training day as planned - I had actually put together a pretty gosh durn good season opener.  This, with no specific build for the race as a goal, and no tapering, save for cutting back on the vert a bit.  This also with a sprained big toe (no joke) which created pain on flexion and a nagging spot in my arch for the entire duration of the race.  Without realizing it was happening until the last 20 minutes of a 12+ hour day, I had run a pretty perfect race.  Happiness literally engulfed me.

I look pretty serious here, but regret nothing, as it resulted in a very legit looking G-Tach special.
Photo: Glenn Tachiyama
As I began the paved descent, I could see the numerous switchbacks below.  There was a guy and his pacer only two down from me, but no other runner in sight.  At this point, I realized my fate was pretty much sealed, but nevertheless, I pushed it in.  My sorcerer's watch had long since died*, so I had no idea where I was at on time, but I figured there was a slight chance I could pull off a 100k PR on a non-PR course.  That seemed like a good idea with regards to my self-esteem.
*Note to self: learn how to use fancy watch

Down, down, down, crossing the tourist stop in front of the famed Multnomah Falls… covered in mud, a little blood and breathing hard.  Down the bike path, past a couple taking wedding photos.  Along the highway, dodging trash.  A left turn, and I was there.  High-fiving James at 12:37.  An 11 minute PR on a race scheduled entirely as a fun building block.  

And the official end to a very unfortunate curse.

The famed Multnomah Falls/mile 61
Photo: me, during the 50k, when I almost missed Dom... shhhhhh:)
Leaving the wonderland; heading for a beer.
Photo: Dominic Grossman
The official breaking of the curse.
Photo: Billy Yang

Shoes:  NB 1010v2 – perfect choice; also worn by men’s winner, Guillaume Calmettes (in women's purple, nonetheless)
Socks: Injinji Compression (mainly for avoiding poison oak)
Fuel:  Breakfast of PowerBar Protein Plus bar + Yerba Maté, then 25-30 PowerBar PowerGels + a serving of PowerBar Recovery Mix every 10-20 miles. Also used one PocketFuel Cold Brew Coffee shot, and had a few small cups of Coke and Ginger Ale. ZERO BONKS. 
Experiment:  I tried taking a 24-hr PPI (Prevacid OTC) before the race to hopefully help with the puking problem I have. It worked!  My stomach felt great, my digestion was fantastic, and I only puked in my mouth a little a couple times, but it didn’t even bother me.
New Gear:  Suunto Ambit 2. Haven’t ran with a GPS unit in years and didn’t even know how to use it, but I think I like it. I may even join Strava… time will tell.

I finished feeling relatively in tact – actually wishing the race was 70 miles.  That would have been an ideal distance for me.  Couple cuts, no bruises, no injuries, no new poison oak, no chaffage. Broken handheld and torn jacket are the only casualties. Legs are feeling good; but unfortunately I caught a wicked cold that has been making training really awful. Looking forward to ramping up to a nice block of training of 3-4 weeks over 100 miles, then a short step back and racing Bishop High Sierra.  While I really like the 100k distance, I’ll probably stick to the 50 mile, as the out and back on a jeep road is super boring.  I have standards, people.



Eating wood-fired pizza, drinking local brews and dancing to The Pine Hearts. James knows how to put on a race!
Photo: Andy Pearson

Oh wait, this one is better.
Photo: Andy Pearson
To New Balance, PowerBar and Injinji trifecta teammates - Brandy Erholtz who won the women's 50k only 6 months after giving birth; and Dominic Grossman 3rd in the men's 50k during his 7th straight week of training over 100 miles/week. Y'all are nuts.

To my fellow Southern California compadres:  Guillaume Calmettes, entering beast mode supreme and winning the 100k, Dave for an amazing first 100k, Billy and Ethan for great 50ks, Andy for conquering your asshole achilles and 50k-ing it, and Pedro for gutting out the 100k.  100% finishing rate on a course that claimed a great and many souls.  Proud 'a ya!

Dom and Andy after the 50k/the last known photo of Andy's "injury beard."

Finally, if you did not get enough waterfall-ness via photo, I highly encourage you to watch this video from Ethan Newberry, aka The Ginger Runner:

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Bench

I wiped the sweat from my brow as I reached the final switchback.  A minute more and I had reached the clearing, 5.5 miles and 3500’ from the place I’d started, but still a long way from where I wanted to be.

I walked over to the bench to sit for a moment.  It was a brilliant, sunny afternoon here on the last day of summer in Southern California – the kind of day that makes you so happy to just be here, that I decided I’d do just that.  Just be here for a few more moments.  I fought back the tears once… twice… and then it was no use.

It had been exactly seven weeks, and oh, say, 12 hours since I’d been here last.  It was dark then, and the city lights twinkled below.  Like today, it had been quiet and still, and a soft breeze might blow every now and again.  It had been a point of coming to a certain peace and understanding about what was to come.  But unfortunately, that was not an understanding I was too thrilled to receive.

On that evening, I had pulled myself up and continued on the trail to the toll road and then down to the mile 85 aid station of the Angeles Crest 100, where I’d drop from the race.  Drop, as in, not finish.  I’d done everything I could in preparation for that day, and was more confident in myself and my training than ever before.  But looking back, regardless of the circumstances that eventually brought about the DNF, did I really believe in myself?  Well… I don’t know.  But I do know that confidence is not belief.  Belief is a whole other animal.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of believing, largely due to a beer-fueled conversation I had with the winner of said Angeles Crest 100 and new women’s course record holder, Angela Shartel.  She told me definitively that the real difference between past races and this now present “race of her life” was not her training, preparation, nutrition, insert any idea you may have here.  It was simply the fact that for the first time in her life, she really believed she could do it.

Naturally, I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching in the past month plus since the race, and have considered this theme often.  DO I BELIEVE IN MYSELF?  Do I believe I can do a certain thing?  Specifically, right now, do I believe that I can run 24-26 hours at The Bear 100 this Friday, as I’ve arbitrarily stated is my goal.  Well, if I could run up that climb just now and it felt easy – that’s all I’ll have to do repetitively for the duration of the 100 mile course.  That seems reasonable, so yes, I think I can do it.


Well, I had a really good base going into AC, I recovered well, and I’ve put in some 10-11 hour days in the Sierras.  My mileage hasn’t been as high as my 100-130 mile weeks for AC, but I’ve been running by feel and think I’m in decent shape.  I’m not injured, so I’ve got that going for me, I’ve been just fine at higher altitudes than Bear will be at, and holy shit this is my exact problem.

The only way I’m going to believe in myself is if I have proof.

There, on the Bench of Understanding, I received my second and final dose of clarity for the summer of 2013.  I didn’t truly believe in myself, because I needed proof to do that.  And how can you have proof of something you haven’t yet experienced?  My perfect race, my defining moment was my Santa Claus. 

Mind you, I stopped believing in Santa when I was in kindergarten.  KINDERGARTEN.  Jenni Dawson said her mom told her he didn’t exist and that was all that I needed to hear.  There would be no convincing by my heartbroken parents – it was all too plausible to my feeble mind that they did really love me enough to by me all those presents.  If they bought a house and a car, they could certainly buy me a Nintendo.

Likewise, there are way too many things that could go wrong and way too many better runners to ever allow me to be the fastest or first.  Just as I needed to see Santa’s jolly ass in my fireplace to believe he really delivered a sleigh full of presents to the entire world in one night; I’ve been searching for that thing that will prove I can run at a level to which I am satisfied.  Only problem is, that “thing” isn’t really as tangible as a fat man in red in my living room.  And the “level to which I am satisfied” isn’t a question of existence.  It’s more of a general feeling of worth and contentment.

Ahhh, we’re talking about greater themes here then, aren’t we?  Perhaps this was less like elves and the Easter Bunny and a hell of a lot more serious.  How do we have faith in each other in our daily relationships?  How do we believe in our gods?  I can KNOW how I was created and born, because I have scientific evidence.  Proof.  Therefore I am fully confident I arrived via uterus rather than a stork, in the same way I am confident I am physically able to run 100 miles in the mountains based on the concrete facts of the work I have put in.  But to believe in my ability to perform at my very best, to transcend both the physical and mental that will allow me to truly reach that sort of runner’s nirvana, well that’s like believing in a god I’ve never seen.  Sometimes there is no proof.  And that’s exactly why belief creates so much power.

So how does one begin to believe in a thing?  I guess the better question is, why?  The more I’ve considered it, the more I begin to think that it’s as simple as just wanting it bad enough.  Of course, no amount of wanting the sky to be green just because it is my favorite color is going to make me believe the blue sky has changed.  But that’s not exactly as crazy as it sounds.  Why does someone believe there is a deity that controls the sun? Why does someone believe that a man rose from the dead after three days in a tomb?   Why does someone believe they will be reincarnated? Why does someone believe that Elvis lives?  Because they need these things to be true.  Their very existence has come to depend on it.

By that token, maybe it has to be a truly meaningful and worthwhile thing to develop any belief in it.  For me, maybe time is just too arbitrary of a thing – maybe what stirs me deep down in my core isn’t a specific time, record or win.  In fact, I know it’s not.

So if it is not running 24-26 hours at The Bear this weekend, then what is it?  What is it that I truly WANT out of all this madness?  Upon closer examination, I’m realizing that all a 23:59:59 would bring me is more proof of something greater. So I peer closer.  All things considered and all weakness bared, I think the one thing that is honestly holding me back from the ability to run the race I want is a lack of ability to effectively manage the pain.  Sure, most would argue that I have a pretty high threshold based on some past events like, oh say, running 100 miles with a yucca spike in my knee.  But this is beyond that sort of physicality.  I’m talking about that kind of pain that ultimately shakes you to your core and makes you question everything.  The kind that can only come somewhere between mile 80-90 in a 100 mile ultramarathon. I don’t want to just survive that pain anymore.  I need to welcome it and happily bring more of it.

And what would that bring me?  Ultimately, strength.  True transcendence of the mind and body.  My religion.  My faith.  My connection with the world.  The same things most anyone else is looking for, really.   It’s just that I’ve never gone far enough over the edge to really, honestly have to believe I am strong enough to survive.  Perhaps we are all willing to go to a certain level to accept an un-provable truth.  And I guess I'm just one of those people who most often has to take things a little too far.

For a person like me, it would seem that true “belief” comes only when there is no other option.  When you have to do a certain thing so much that it becomes inconceivable that you will not.  And maybe THAT’S why I’m going to Utah on Friday.  To test my soul to the point where my only option is to believe.

Weakness bared.  Weakness beared.  I go.

So there I was, on the last day of summer, 3500’ above and a hell of a long way from the place I’d started.