Thursday, April 9, 2015

On Waterfalls and Wine

How is it April already? How have we already had Daylight Savings Time? How did I turn 32? Did I do my taxes correctly? Can we please have just one more snow storm? Is Lake Sonoma already this weekend?

Turns out, the answer is yes.

I mean, I did all the things I planned on doing leading up to this race. Namely, continuing to keep my mileage conservative and focusing on a few speed workouts a week. And lots of snow running for strength and general stoke level. I also did some things I didn’t originally plan on doing but then planned at the last minute. One of these things was my parents coming out to visit our cabin last weekend, which was of course, fantastic. Another of these things was running the Gorge Waterfalls 50k less than two weeks ago. Here’s how that went.

Showing my pops around the high country section of AC.
(photo: Dominic Grossman)
To be clear, the only reason why I ran the race was because I bought Dom and I flights to Portland so he could give a Western States ticket another shot in the 100k. Then James (Varner, of Rainshadow Running) asked if I wanted to run the 50 since I was coming all the way up there, and I said ok. It was only later that I realized March 29th is only two weeks before April 11th. THEY ARE TWO DIFFERENT MONTHS, PEOPLE. HOW WAS I SUPPOSED TO KNOW? It was also after I realized that this year, the 100k would be first, i.e. on Saturday, and once again, I’d be relegated to a day of crewing in the cold rain before my own race. Only this year, it would also be twice as long.

Because I generally think I can just kind of “ehhh, it’s fine” my way through just about anything, I found myself saddling up to pace an ailing Dom through the last 13 miles of the 100k. I was wearing five coats at the time, which should tell you a lot about the temperature and the dampness when one had been standing outside since roughly 3:30am. I had already decided that I would not go through with the race the next morning, since it was only supposed to be a training run for Sonoma anyway.

But then, I saw a lot of waterfalls.

I woke up the next morning before the alarm, realizing that I felt perfectly 100% fine and that I needed to go run at least 20 miles anyway. And like I said, waterfalls. Also, someone needed to avenge the wrong bestowed upon us after less than one hour in Portland. Said wrong being a busted out rental car window and the theft of my bookbag full of gear… ipod, nice headphones, brand new Julbo sunglasses, a book they wouldn’t understand, my PMR hat, other stuff and about $15 worth of tampons. If you’re wondering, the answer is yes. I did report that last one to the cops.

So yeah. Sunday. Gun goes off and I’m out for a run on an absolutely gorgeous day in the Columbia River Gorge. It’s everything I remember from last year (when I did the 100k) – rocky, wet, very good smelling and everything is extremely green. I tuck in behind the first two women and feel fantastic for about five miles. And then I feel TERRIBLE.

My legs are dead. And I’m not at all surprised. The week before, I ran only 51 miles but climbed over 18,000 feet, including a 13 mile run with 7k of ups. And then there was yesterday, when I was on my feet in the cold for over 13 hours, three of which were spent running, including the biggest climb of the course. Oh well, just five more miles of pushing and then I get to relax for the middle 10. That was the workout I had created for myself – 10 hard-ish, 10 easy, last 12 hard.

I came into the first aid station in third or fourth – all of the lead women were a scant 30 seconds apart. I left in fifth or sixth and had no ambition whatsoever of catching back up and passing. TRAINING RUN. IF YOU SAY IT IS ONE, YOU BETTER ACT LIKE IT. There was going to be no labeling a race as a training run on Strava, when in truth you actually raced it full-out and won the damn thing. Kind of like labeling a 6 mile run at 7 minute pace as “recovery.” WE DON’T DO THESE THINGS, KATIE.

A mile out of the aid, I backed it off and tried to settle into a more comfortable cruising pace.  I also tried to enjoy myself, but that was just not happening. At first, quite a few folks passed me, but finally I had the trail to myself. That’s really all I wanted. To be alone with the forest and to sing to myself. It’s a simple life I lead.

I’d see Dom one more time, so if I wanted to call it a day and not burn up my legs, I easily could. But then I also realized I really didn’t feel like my legs were hurting at all – they were just really heavy. The last 13 were fresh in my memory, and I knew I could get it done no problem. Besides, I should really finish my workout.

Coming into Yeon, I knew I’d get to run under Elowah Falls, which is the best part of the entire course in my opinion. And I shit you not, that thing gave me LIFE. First of all, look at it:

(photo: Drew Smith)
Yes, that’s me straight up frolicking over a bridge under a Narnia-level waterfall.  I’m not even going to question how I miraculously felt like a million bones, because why would I? That waterfall clearly has mystic powers.

The other mystic powers were in the form of Dom, an above-the-knee leg rub from Denise Bourassa and a few sips of Yerba Maté. I tried to push off slowly from the aid station, but I couldn’t help dig into the road and take flight. I suddently felt fantastic. Dare I say, the best I had felt all day. Nay, the best I felt all weekend.

I caught a few guys on the road section. I caught a few more on the next climb. On the next, I caught a lady. This became a theme – some were folks that passed me when I chilled things out in the middle 10, others were people I’d never seen. They were all quite confused why I was the happiest person in the forest, after having run 20+ miles of ups and downs and rocks and rocks, but I knew. I knew. It was that Elowah Falls and it’s damn sorcery.

Before the final aid station, I knew I’d get to swing under Ponytail Falls and this excited me greatly. You guys. You run behind a waterfall. Not exactly something you do every day. I decided to do it every day of this weekend though – here’s a picture I took while pacing Dom:

Even when it hurts the worst. You're here.
Also, here's another picture of Dom I made into a meme and put on Instagram. I tried to be overtly obvious it was a joke with my expert hashtagging, but I failed. The bitchez found this very #inspiring.

Anyway, I pulled up to the final aid station and ensured Tropical John I wasn’t ruining myself for his race in two weeks. Coke and a smile, and I was off to the non-race races. Yay waterfalls! Yay running! Yay life! My greetings to fellow runners were a far cry from Dom’s the day before. When he was telling people that “sometimes you just have to drink the hot, frothy bowl of horse piss.” Michelle Yates may say that she was creeped out, but we assure you it was the inspiration for her to seize the W.

Last big climb, and I decided I would run the whole thing. It’s 1500’ in less than 2 miles up concrete switchbacks laden with awkward tourists. Who are mostly laden with children, canes, large photo equipment and strollers. Nothing hurt. I could do this forever. I charged down the trail on the other side, then plinko’d my way down the additional set of concrete switchbacks. I was so out of my mind and high on endorphins that I actually started doing spin moves at each of the corners. I no longer questioned whether I had felt this good all weekend, but rather if I had ever felt this good ever in the history of my existence.

And then it was over. (Waaaa-waaaa.) I finished feeling like I could keep going like that indefinitely, which made me feel really great about that race coming up I mentioned at the beginning. I ended up finishing fifth woman, only a few minutes back of third and fourth and having caught three ladies in the last eight miles. Not that any of that mattered, but it totally mattered because I like to avenge my Ultrasignup ranking.

As for Portland, I didn’t get any of my stolen stuff back, I’m awaiting a nice bill from Hertz, I sat in a soaking pool for a few hours at McMenamin’s and drank too many beers before Dom drove us to the airport. I woke up Monday not feeling too hot and spent the entire week with a wicked head cold. No running. Max sleeping. Luckily, I’m feeling much better now and actually looking quite forward to Saturday. The great thing about being sick is that when you become un-sick you feel fucking invincible.
BTW, these are the 2015 New Balance kits - pretty snazzy, right? 
I DID have matching sunglasses, but you know... thugs.
(Photo: Denise Bourassa)
Going into Lake Sonoma, I don’t kid myself thinking I have the capability to run with the talent level there. Holy moly, TJ’s assembled himself one hell of a crowd! That said, I’m ready to play things fast and loose and have a good go on the ‘easiest’ 50 mile course I will have ever run. I’m also ready to drink wine when it’s all said and done.

The other thing I’m definitely ready for is to kick things into high gear and go rogue for the summer. After this race, I won’t be found on a starting line until August 1st’s Angeles Crest 100. My fourth battle with the beast, and my singular focus for the year. I’ve kept the mileage quite low in the beginning of the year, and the results have been great. My health is finally back on track and my stoke level for both racing and training is very, very high. I’ll take a few weeks to chill after Sonoma, including a forced week entirely off from running due to a minor surgery I’m having. I’ll have stitches. On my vagina. I’ll be fine.

But then. Then. It’s on.

Follow along here and here on Saturday. Or follow Dom’s feeds – he’ll be sitting this one out to get his body back in order and crewing me instead! Everyone please cheer him on. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Ice Quest 2015: The Black Canyon 100k

It’s a funny thing about these ultramarathon affairs. Right now, I sit here quite sure that I am in the worst pain I’ve ever felt after a race, although I’m also quite sure it’s definitely not. And that’s the thing. I can never really remember exactly how it feels after completing one of these ordeals – the memory loss will begin tomorrow, in fact.  I’ll have no recollection of the sensation save these empty words I’m writing. So imagine how far removed I was after not racing for six whole months.

That’s probably why I kind of like how terrible I feel. It’s earned pain, which I realize sounds totally sick, but y’all know exactly what I’m talking about. You did it to yourself. You actually pushed yourself so hard and so far into an uncomfortable place that your legs feel like they will explode if you don’t keep them elevated. It kind of hurts to take a deep breath. A large event such as preparing and eating a frozen pizza requires an immediate nap. Oh, how I’ve missed this.

The Black Canyon 100k was never supposed to be a “breakout” race or golden ticket bid or any such things. It was entered solely to make me feel the exact way I’ve described above. But somehow along the way, it became a lot of things.  Very unexpected things. Things of the awesome variety.

The day started in utter relief that I’d actually made it to the starting line and felt well rested enough to actually complete 62 miles of running. It had been weeks since I’d had a decent night’s sleep, thanks to some bad timing of big projects at work and traveling for a friend’s wedding the weekend before. By Thursday, I was ready to throw in the towel on the trip to Arizona, but was bolstered by my friend Liza’s 15:34 at Rocky Raccoon a few weeks ago on very little sleep and Dom’s willingness to drive the entire way and let me relax. Plus, I heard Michelle Yates was about to kick my butt after having a baby a scant three months ago. There’s no way she was getting any more sleep than I was.
Yogi tea, please don't fail me.
The race itself began in typical Aravaipa fashion: a cool morning, beautiful desert sunrise, and Dave James without a shirt, sprinting away from the pack in the first 400 meters. I circled around the track myself and headed onto the dirt road in a nice little pack of fantastic ladies, including the likes of Kaci Licktieg, Angela Shartel, Leslie Howlett and Gina Lucrezi. We could see Michelle and Caroline Boller taking things out a bit harder up ahead, but no one here seemed too concerned with giving chase. Instead, we all chatted (Angela listened) as the miles easily clicked off, and for the first time in a race I found myself in my perfect dream scenario. I always get so jealous of the lead packs of guys all bro-ing it up and cracking jokes in the early miles, but it seems like the women are always fewer in number and more spread out. Not today! I was actually having a really good time, and just hoped I could keep up. Not for race placement, but rather so I could keep having fun.

We all blew right through the first aid station and stayed together through the next, as well. Now not even 9:00 in the morning, things were already heating up and I was glad I had indicated I’d need two bottles of ice cold water from here on out.  Unfortunately, Dom had misread the sheet and only had one bottle of lukewarm water available, so I slowed down to grab a second bottle. Also lukewarm. I was really frustrated leaving the aid station, as I feared he might be more concerned with making a video than he was with getting me what I needed. But now that I knew what to expect, I decided I’d treat him like a drop bag. As long as my stuff was physically there, I could take care of myself and he could have fun out in the desert. I immediately regretted telling him he was no longer my Valentine and promised myself that I’d apologize at mile 18. He’d given up his entire weekend to be out here, and if he wanted to make a damn video, he should be allowed to make a damn video.

Leaving the aid station, most of our little pack took turns taking a pee break, so we all splintered a bit. I let Angela lead me back up to Kaci and Gina, but when she continued to push ahead, I knew the jig was up on our hang time. I once ran with Angela at noon on a hot summer day in San Diego, on trails similar to what we were now traversing. She had been up all night at a tequila tasting, thrown up a couple times, and she still completely destroyed me. So basically, my bets were on her. I predicted top 2 right then and there. Even still, our pace had quickened and all chatting had ceased. While no one was really “racing” yet, so to speak, the heat was dictating silence and focus. I told myself that if they dropped the pace any lower, I would have to let them go or risk completely blowing up in the first half of the race. This was disappointing, but is exactly what I had expected from this talented group. I was just stoked that I’d been able to run with them for almost 20 miles, and was actually feeling like it was easy. Now I just hoped I wouldn’t embarrass myself by dropping too far behind.

Thoroughly enjoying the early miles.
(photo: Bret Sarnquist of Long Run Nutrition)

My bearded Valentine felt pretty bad about the last aid station mishap, so he had everything laid out perfectly and ready to go. And there was ice. Even still, I took a moment to breathe and really assess what I’d need for the next section rather than blow right through. Honestly, this is how it should be – I always do better when I take care of myself and call the shots – all I needed to do was be willing to stop for a few extra seconds and make some decisions. As such, I left the aid station last, but had all the food and water I needed plus a bandana to fill with ice at the next stop.  Kaci and Angela were now out of sight, and I watched Gina disappear up the climb as I fell into a hike-run alongside none other than Scotty Mills. 

Now, the thing you should know about Scotty Mills is that he is ridiculous.  Every. freaking. race. he comes out of nowhere and goes blowing by me like it’s nothing in the last third of whatever distance we’re tackling. He even does it when I’m pacing someone else, and it’s surely witchcraft.  But today, it was only mile 20, and I could tell I’d be losing him soon, too.  I surmised this was the part where I’d start getting passed and increasingly embarrassed that I “couldn’t hang.” Ugh.

Only, I didn’t get passed. I could feel that I’d slowed down a bit, but I was running alone and was maintaining the same distance from the guy in front of me. It was now officially hot as hell out there, and I knew that I’d just have to focus on doing the best I could do. See if we can go a little faster…. oh, what’s that?.... you’re going to explode?... okay, back it off…. just keep going... keep.... going...

Mr. Peter Coury greeted me at the Gloriana Mine aid, where I procured the ice I had been seeking and continued on my journey. At the next stop, I’d be halfway done and that seemed pretty great. Although, that also seemed pretty terrible because I was starting to feel quite horrid and like I said, I wasn’t even halfway done. Thoughts crept in, as they always do. The ones that say, “this is an awful lot to ask of any respectable human, and there is absolutely no reason why you have to keep doing this. If it had been normal February temperatures, sure. But this? This is dumb.”

Of course, that’s what separates someone who signs up for this shit from normal society. There actually is something worthwhile in carrying on, even if you can’t explain it in a tangible fashion. We’re not going to quit just because it’s an option available to us; we’re not respectable humans. And so, with my fellow animals, I pressed on.

Hot. Orange. Gel.

Another down the hatch. Another round of puking in my mouth just a little bit. It was high noon and I was absolutely baking out there. The pity party was all set up with card tables and festive bunting, so I knew I had to do something right quick if I had any chance of keeping this race a positive experience in my life. Everyone’s always talking about this “gratitude” thing, so I figured I’d try that.

Truth is, I was already feeling it. After a particularly rough few weeks of working long hours, traveling for events and way too much time in front of a screen, it felt amazing to finally be putting my own needs first for the better part of a day. Even if it were turning into a sufferfest of sorts, it was MY sufferfest. Mine. My sole purpose in life had become not exploding and getting to places where ice existed, and this is literally all I thought about for the better part of four hours. Three more miles to the aid station. They have ice there. Ice for me. I want the ice.

By the time I hit the halfway point at Soap Creek, I was really scared of how much further my condition might deteriorate.  I was running. But I was not running near as fast as I had been in the first 20 miles. To make matters frustrating, it wasn’t my legs or my general energy level that was prohibiting me from moving more expeditiously. Every time I would drop my pace a bit, my heart rate would shoot through the roof and I’d feel all explodey on account of the heat. So I’d hike four or five steps and continue on again. This became my routine for the better part of the afternoon, and luckily, it was working. I caught one dude, then another on a particularly rocky and technical downhill section. I chose a road shoe for the race – the New Balance 1400v2 - and if I were to do it again, I’m not sure if I would or wouldn’t have made the same choice. There were sections like the aforementioned where I very much would have enjoyed a rock plate, but overall, my feet felt really good, and I appreciated the little bit of extra cushioning for all the downhill. For whatever reason, the 1400 fits my foot better than anything on the planet, so I’ll always choose it when I can, despite it’s designation as a road shoe.

The journey to Black Canyon City was going longer than anticipated, but I was bolstered by the memory of some dude telling me there would be a water crossing before this aid station. And also by the fact that I was about to embark on what was billed as the worst section of the race. That may sound weird, but I rationalized that once I was finished with that hellish section, I’d be at mile 45, which meant there was officially no throwing in the towel. For some arbitrary reason, I’ve decided that anything under 20 miles is a reasonable distance to cover, even if one is relegated to walking. So up and down I went, over another bump – the majority of the net loss was now over, and we were now hitting rollers for the rest of the way. Luckily, at the end of the next bump was that water crossing I had heard about.  I quickly scurried down to the shallow river and jumped right in.  Mind you, the water only went up to my ankles and was actually kind of warm, but hoo boy did it feel good! I doused everything – my face, my cotton shirt, my Buff and my hair. You think my run bun is just for style, but you are wrong! That mound of hair can hold water better than a camel’s hump, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel like heaven to have it trickling down the back of my neck when I’m facing 90+ degree temps in a hot, exposed desert with no shade and no escape. In February. When one hasn’t faced a 90+ degree day, nor been in a desert for like six months. This was our struggle.

Cooling down allowed me to run the next climb pretty decently, and I could see that I was gaining on a few more men up ahead. The second of which was a particularly salt encrusted figure in all black technical fabric. Since my ipod had lasted all but an hour with all the water I was pouring on myself, I was really happy to learn that he was quite chatty and before long, we had reached yet another stream in which to douse ourselves. My mood improved greatly as we talked and ran our way to the fork indicating an out-and-back to the mile 36.5 aid station. And ice. I’m supremely grateful to Scott from Chicago for the most excellent company, beer recommendations and general positivity at a very crucial moment in the degradation of my fragile psyche. The only unfortunate point of this portion of the race was rolling up on a walking Kaci with a walking Zac Marion – both indicating that things besides the race course were going south. My heart went out to them, as I’ve certainly been in that position a few times. (Spoiler alert: I was glad to hear they both made smart decisions and are now on the mend.)

Closing in on the aid station, I saw Gina heading out with her pacer followed by the indomitable Scotty.  I was sure they had put more time on me than this, but I guess the heat had slowed everyone down a bit. Either way, I needed to take care of some business in the aid, so I was overjoyed when Dom ushered me over to a yoga mat in the shade and a cooler full of delicious, ice cold beverages. I took down a solid bottle of PowerBar Recovery mix and chased it with some lime sparkling water. SO. GOOD. More ice everywhere. Lots of lube applied with no shame. And it was best I be going.

Leaving for the fork, I saw the woman in braids who had been stalking me at the last few aid stations – always entering as I left, clearly maintaining the same distance from behind. Now in fifth and over halfway through the ordeal, I decided I wasn’t willing to accept any place lower than that and that I’d do whatever need be to keep my lead. It wasn’t going to be easy, but it had to be done.

Back alone on the trail, I tried to focus on the positive and began audibly assuring myself of a variety of things:
“You’re ok, Katie. You’re ok.”
“Your legs don’t even hurt right now!”
“You’re beasting these climbs.”
“The chaffing is not… actually… that bad.”
“You are so smart to wear a cotton shirt and bring your little ice bandana. SO SMART.”
 “You’re getting an excellent tan right now.”

All of these self compliments were actually working wonders, and I set my sights on reeling in the man in blue up ahead. Mile after mile, we wound our way up and down and around and round – I couldn’t tell if I was gaining, but I definitely wasn’t losing ground. I used fixed points to compare my distance from him relative to the distance of Braids behind to ensure she wasn’t catching up. Just run the climb harder than everyone else. Don’t hike when they do. You’ll pull away. The big river crossing came and went, with again, a baptismal dunk and soak. And now I was on the biggest climb of the course, but I was running! Perhaps I had simply beaten my body into submission, because it was still hot as blue blazes and I was only getting stronger.

Before long, I noticed an extremely fit hiker ambling down towards me on the trail, noting this was the first of that variety I’d seen. This was mountain biking country, and besides us runners, that was all I’d seen out here. As the figure drew closer, I realized that this was not a hiker either. This was Michelle Yates, and she was heading back to the aid station. A hard fall had left her bloodied and I could see the pain in her face as she made her way down. I couldn’t even imagine her disappointment in having to drop this far into the race, and it being her first race back post-partum. I felt extremely compelled to give her a hug, but I don’t really know her so I thought it might be weird and/or might hurt all of her bloody areas. So I settled on well wishes from a safe, full arm’s length distance and continued up the climb. Now in fourth place.

At this point, as you could imagine, thoughts began to swirl. I knew Caroline was way out in front, and I knew Angela was probably having a heydey with this heat and these San Diego-esque trails. What I didn’t know was where Gina might be, or what might happen in the last 15 miles. Interestingly enough, my mind was no longer concerned about what was behind – I was solely focused on decreasing gaps ahead. It’s almost as if I’d stopped considering that anyone even had the ability to catch me. I was now in control.

This is how it came to be that I passed the man in blue in the Cottonwood Gulch aid station and didn’t even realize it. And how I never saw Braids again, nor did I even look for her. My main concern at this point was that this aid station in the middle of nowhere after the longest, hottest stretch of trail was quickly running out of the one thing in life I desired. My dear, sweet ice. I was rationed a mere three cubes per bottle and two for my bandana, all of which had melted before they ever had a chance to chill a thing. Instead, I soaked my shirt in (warm) water so that at least the breeze I created when running would have a mild cooling effect. I wondered how in the world they could be out of ice in the front of the pack, when I realized the hikers I’d been passing were actually 50k runners. Those fools had stolen all our ice only 15 miles into their race!  I immediately felt horrible for everyone else that still had yet to come through this spot, dreaming of the sweet relief I had been denied. The only solace was that many of them would be coming through here at sunset or dark, and the need for water in it’s solid form might have diminished by that point.  Or, knowing Jamil, he probably already had a resupply coming.

Addiitonal solace came not too far later, when we crossed the river again. Only this time, I didn’t stop. I could see figures not too far ahead, hiking up the next climb and one was unmistakable. It was Scotty! I splashed my face and hair as I moved through the shallow water, took a deep breath and went to work.

The glorious river that provided bouts of short-lived reprieve. And phalli.
(photo: Jamil Coury)

The last time I’d seen Scotty and his pacer, they were only a few steps behind Gina and hers. Which meant there was a chance I could be closing in. Closing in on the third place spot in a field so stacked it wasn’t even worth mentioning my name. Right. Additionally, if I was close to third, how close was I to second? In other words, how close was I to a Montrail Cup spot into Western States? The answer didn’t matter. The mere fact that it was even on the table was more than I’d ever imagined possible of myself.

Speaking of that Western States thing, what was I going to do if that opportunity actually matriculated? My goal for the year was Angeles Crest, and this race I was currently running was chosen as the first stepping stone in my quest. Sure, I could run both. But with only five weeks between the two, my AC would undoubtedly suffer. So what the heck would I do if I caught up to Gina? I knew it was her goal to go back to States and get her revenge. Seeing that I had the same feelings towards AC, I really wanted her to get a spot. The question was, if I declined it, would it roll down? Or would we just run together to the end like two majestic ponies and forge a lifelong friendship sealed in hardship, struggle and salt tabs?

Whatever it took, I would make sure Gina got that spot. That’s what I decided. And that’s if it were even available. I had no idea where Angela was in relation to us, but I had a feeling she was doing just fine out there. In fact, it was more probable that she was closing in on Caroline, and I was equally happy for her to be nabbing the ticket.

Regardless of the way things were to shake out, the good news is that the heat was finally abating. Ever so slightly, but Lord knows I’d take it! I still felt pretty good, save some Charlie-horse level cramping in my right hamstring on the uphills. I downed two Saltsticks in the hopes it would help, and vowed to be careful with it. No way was I going to strain a hammy in February. For the next three miles, I choreographed a really great dance routine to the song I had stuck in my head.

I know you’ve got a little life in you yet.  I know you’ve got a lot of strength left.

Kate Bush's “This Woman’s Work,” as performed by Maxwell. I was choreographing the dance of my struggle. And the best part is that when it’s in my head, I can pretend that I can still lift my leg up to my ear and nail a perfect grand jeté without ripping my groin in two. Those were the days.

Just as I was entering my requisite fouetté sequence, I caught a glimpse of a red tent in the distance. Mile 50 was here! All I needed was a quick chug of recovery mix, switch my bottles, two swipes of lube and down a Yerba Maté shot on my way out. I planned for 60 seconds tops, and then Dom and I would charge to the finish.

Life in the desert.
(photo: Dominic Grossman)
Unfortunately, I was back to the drop bag situation. I didn’t know it at the time, but Gina had just left and Dom had been helping out and videoing her rather than getting ready to run with me. So when I came in, he needed to change and I had to fend for myself. No big deal, but my one minute turned into two or three right quick. Additionally, I didn’t do any of the things I said I would because I allowed the situation to stress me out too much.  I really need to work on that. I left in a huff, telling him to catch up if he wanted and to bring a headlamp just in case.

Of course he was coming. I turned around to see him frolicking towards me wearing my 3-inch split shorts. The only things Dom needed to bring to Phoenix were running shoes, shorts and a headlamp. One out of three ain’t bad. Making the best of the situation, he agreed to wear my shorts and since I was running well, we shouldn’t need a headlamp. He put mine on just in case, knowing that if worst came to worst, we could light our way off the one beam. It was my new Petzl Nao, and I’ll be damned if that isn’t the brightest lamp I’ve ever seen! I have no idea why I waited so long to upgrade.

Having the man in ladies shorts along to pace was wonderful.  The heat continued to melt away, and we chatted and sang as we clicked off the first few miles. I’d been passing 50k-ers for some time now, and up ahead we were gaining on Scotty and his pacer. I was hoping we’d catch up soon and maybe we could all run together for awhile. Well, soon came real soon as we crested a hill to find them stopped dead at an intersection.

It’s not marked.
What should we do?

After a minute or so of debate, we all agreed if felt most logical to take the right and keep heading South, even though we were entirely unsure. The course often wound back and forth in all directions, so it was really hard to say what was correct. We began nervously hiking uphill as Dom tried to call Jamil on his cell phone. No dice.

This wasn’t right.
The course had been so well marked – both the right way and the wrong way.
Had someone vandalized it?

Eventually we reached a turnoff back onto the Black Canyon Trail.  For a moment, all was calm and we began the steep hike up another hill. But this was too steep. Way steeper than anything we’d climbed. Additionally, the trail was super faint and extremely rugged. Dom got a hold of our friend Andy back in LA and had him pull up a map on his computer. I ran smack into a cactus. Scotty called the whole situation “disappointing.” I called it a lot of different things, mostly of which were four letters.

This is definitely not right.
We’ve already been at this for ten minutes. If we’re going to turn around, we better do it now. My soul can't handle being out here for an extra hour.

Dom and Andy were having a hard time deciphering each other. I was growing desparate. I couldn’t believe I’d run this good of a race, and now here we were, hiking around an overgrown hill, bleeding and lost forever. If we kept going and happened upon the trail later, I’d have to take a DNF. No freaking way. We had to turn around.

Sensing the tear that was just about to fall, Scotty’s pacer suggested that we top out on the climb to see if we could make any sense of the situation. And that’s when we saw it. A single orange marker swaying in the breeze. I took off running straight up the hill where we hit another trail, also named Black Canyon. This was it!

Looking down, we could see the intersection we’d missed and it linked up with the beta from Andy in LA.  We’d gone all the way out, around, up and over rather than just taking a right hand turn just a few yards down the hill. All said and done, Scotty estimated we’d added a good half mile, and looking back at my Strava, I had a 20 minute mile in there. Apparently others had missed the same turn, and speaking with Jamil afterwards, he knew exactly where we’d gone astray. Oh well, at least we were back on track.

The adrenaline from time lost propelled me forward, and soon we could no longer see our compatriots. For our next trick, we ran very quickly through a gully because bullets where whizzing over our heads. Yes, bullets. Oddly, I wasn’t too concerned at the time because my brain was no longer processing information that didn’t directly pertain to me reaching the finish line. But Dom was. And he didn’t like it one bit. Turns out it was just hunters practicing shots out into the desert, but they were shooting in our direction, and they likely couldn’t see us. Of all the obstacles to take me out on this blazing hot, rocky, challenging day, I’d never have bet the one to have been a bullet.

Did you know there is a such thing as a Saguaro Forest? Like, a legit forest of cacti?
Well, here is what one of those looks like.
(photo: Dominic Grossman)

Luckily it wasn’t, and we eventually hit the final aid station. Surpisingly, it was Mr. Peter Coury out there again, and man was it a joy to see a familiar face! He quickly filled my bottle and let us know it was only four miles until victory. And four miles really didn’t seem that far. I was already halfway up the hill when I heard Dom inquire as to where the next woman was.

Only about five minutes.

I stopped dead in my tracks and turned around.

What? Really?! Are you sure?

The other woman at the aid station confirmed. I was only five minutes back, give or take. I couldn’t believe it! I’d wasted so much time when I was lost – how was I still so close?  And furthermore, could I catch up? 

Dom indicated that I had less than an hour to still break 12 hours, and that seemed like a good goal. I vowed to run my absolute hardest, and if it was enough it would be enough. That’s all I could do.

Soon thereafter, the sky erupted into a beautiful desert sunset that grew more and more beautiful with each step. First muted pinks, and blues which gave way to fiery oranges and deep purples. The giant saguaros silhouetted against the colorful display was one for the memory books. And the trail even widened and smoothed out enough to let me enjoy it without risking a faceplant. So you see? Perfect timing. Lost or no, it was all supposed to be just as it was.

Not too shabby, eh?
(photo: Dom)

Thank you sir, may you have another? (Yes.)
(photo: more Dom)

And one more, for good measure.
(photo: freaking Dom, aka Mr. Brilliant With The Perfect Moments)

As the light faded away, Dom clicked on the lamp for the last mile+, doing his best to stay to my right or left and not cast shadows. I was so thankful we’d “just-in-cased” because this was just the case. I would have been reduced to a walk in multiple sections without it. Poor Dom was out there jumping cacti in women’s split shorts just trying to get me home. What a Valentine!

Up one more climb, and there it was. The lights of the finish, which indicated pizza, beer and no longer running. Freaking score. We heard cheers erupt, and realized that we really had been gaining – I’d almost caught whomever that was. Well, good. It means I ran hard. Just as I’d planned.

I trotted across the line, smiling wide and so happy to be done with 62 miles of running with nothing really hurting all that bad. Angela was standing there to give me a big hug and Caroline too. And there was Gina, bent over and still breathing hard. What had just happened?

(photo: Ultra Sports Live TV)

Well, from what I could tell, what had just happened was that I had run the exact race I said I would. Pushing hard throughout the day, calling upon my hill and speed work and not stressing over my traditionally lower mileage weeks. And I’d gotten fourth place! I would have been happy with top ten in this field.

Apparently, things were even more interesting though. The cheers I’d seen right before my finish were for Gina, so I’d missed third by mere minutes. Also, Angela had decided to decline her Western States ticket, as like me, she was already mentally focused on another summer 100 (Cruel Jewel. Yikes!) So Gina was going to get to go to States after all!  Man, this had all worked out splendidly.

And for me, the fact that I was only minutes away from that ticket was all I needed. Pam Smith recently wrote an interesting article on sponsorships and how there’s more that goes into them than just being fast and racing well. It’s totally true, and it’s something I’ve known for awhile because I’m a direct benefactor. Truth is, I’m often ashamed to admit that I have any sponsors, because I’m afraid of the “she’s not even that good”s that I know exist. I was truthfully horrified when asked to give an interview for USLTV before the race. I’m fully aware of why I have the relationships I do, and I definitely think I contribute in other ways to these companies. But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to feel like my running ability is increasingly more of one of those contributions. Maybe this finish would do something to prove to everyone that I actually deserved the support I was getting. More importantly, maybe I was proving it to myself.

As for the what-ifs: what if I wouldn’t have gotten lost, what if I would have known I was so close to third, etc. etc. – let’s be honest here. I have a feeling if I would have rolled up on Gina at any point, she would have suddenly found herself extremely “motivated.” Homegirl ran a 16-something 5k, so Lord knows she had the speed to drop me. Perhaps getting lost allowed us both to finish the race a little less stressed and a little more enjoying the sunset. No regrets.

At the end of the day, I got exactly what I’d wanted out of the experience and learned a thing or two along the way. I’d wondered what it would be like to run 100 kilometers in a desert. Turns out it was exactly like running 100 kilometers in a desert. I likened the entire experience to a Gushers fruit snack. Solid start. Solid finish. Pretty liquid in the middle. But on the whole, a pretty delicious experience. Thanks to Jamil, Peter & Patti Coury, all the volunteers and Aravaipa Running for a top notch race, and to everyone I shared trail miles with out there!  And of course, thanks to New Balance, Injinji and PowerBar for the continued support as I continue to explore of what I’m capable. 

Here's the nerd alert gear list:

Shoes: New Balance 1400v2
Fuel: 30-ish PowerBar PowerGels, PowerBar Recovery Mix, Coke, SaltStick
Apparel: New Balance Elite Split Shorts, Cut Up Cotton T-Shirt, Buff, cotton bandanas
Hydration: Amphipod handhelds
Timing: Suunto Ambit2
Sunscreen: not enough

More of Dom's beautiful imagery.

 But wait, we’re not done!

After the race, I sat around enjoying the fine company until Dom was able to procure a ride back to the mile 50 aid station. From there, we were going to drive to a friend’s for beers, food and general relaxing. Long story short, Dom bottomed out our car in the dark and became very concerned that we might not make it back to LA if we allowed it to sit overnight. So, he threw me and a blanket in and we spent the remainder of our romantic Valentine’s Day date with him driving until 2am and me writhing in pain. My post race meal was beef jerky and gas station cheese. Washed down with a Perrier to class things up.

That’s love, people. Happy Valentine’s Day, indeed.

Other things:

Ultra Sport Live TV's pre-race interview:

Dom's Totally-Redeemed-Himself-From-The-Second-Aid-Station-Mishap Video: