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.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What Happened at Angeles Crest

I’ve read enough inspirational quotes to know that I am not defined by my failures. And therein lies my problem.

The 2013 Angeles Crest 100 was, by all accounts, to be my race.  And on and off for about 75 miles, by all accounts, it was.  I arrived to the starting line healthy, well trained and as calm as I’ve ever been before the inevitable storm that is running 100 miles through the mountains.  I flew, weightless, through the high country, memories of the countless miles I’d logged on these very trails rushing by me in a blur.  Through Guffy Campground, my weekend home, over Baden-Powell in one of my fastest splits ever, screaming down Williamson singing Fleetwood Mac at the top of my lungs – in a race, yes, nevertheless in a race with no one. 
Wrightwood 4:30am, 8/3/13: One of us will go on to win the race; the other will
do something else. You can hardly tell how this is going to pan out.
(photo: Ivan Buzik)

It's cool, I checked the Urban Outfitters catalog, and 90s Jurek
shirts are totally "in."
(photo: Mike Epler)
Inspiration Point mi 9.5. Mom and Pops on point.
(photo: Natalie Kintz)

Don't mind me, just having the race of my life here...
(photo: Natalie Kintz)
(photo: Kevin DeSplinter)
As I left Eagle’s Roost, I marveled at how poppy my legs felt on the road detour leading to Buckhorn.  Fresh.  Not like I’d just run a 6:30 50k at altitude up and over mountains in the beginning of a 100 mile race.  I was where I knew I could be, yet almost a full hour ahead of where I thought I’d likely be.  If you had offered me a lottery-free entry to Hardrock to wipe the smile off my face, I simply wouldn’t have been able.

Stomping up Baden-Powell in one of my fastest splits ever - including training runs where
there would not be an additional 75 to run after.
(photo: Jayme Burtis)
Williamson. 5:30 in; marathon complete.  BTW, this is not a marathon.
(photo: Jack Cheng)
Heading down into Cooper Canyon, my stomach began to feel a little sloshy, but nothing too weird.  I’d taken in a lot of liquid to account for the heat and was up on calories, so if I needed to chill on consumption for a bit, I would survive.  I alternated running and hiking when the air became heavy and stagnant and celebrated as I passed the point where I puked two years ago.  Perhaps that pissed the forest off, because maybe 20 minutes later, I was dry heaving into the bushes. #ACDontCare.  That continued on and off for the remainder of the section, only producing actual vomit once.  Even still, I figured I was getting through the worst of it, and after recharging at Cloudburst, I’d be on my merry way.

3 mile road detour. Thanks, frogs.
Sure enough, 13 minutes at Cloudburst seemed to have done the trick.  I floated down the trail to Three Points, stomach still sour, but just trying to focus on using my amazing feeling legs to get me back on track for my sub-24 hour finish.  That defining moment I was so desperately seeking.

Right before the aid station, I grabbed a tree to pee and saw stars.  The liquid coming out was a dark reddish-amber and my whole body cramped as I forced it out.  I downed the rest of my water right then and there and came in committed to ingesting more.  I thought I had been drinking enough, but I was clearly dehydrated.  We’d need a change of plans.

We're talking Culture Amber Ale status - third from the left, and also delicious.
I left with a bottle of ice water for help, a bottle of Sprite for calories and a sparkle in my eye – for I was going to turn this race right back around and get that silver buckle.  I did not doubt that for one single second.  Had I really expected that this day would go off without a hitch?  Did I now expect that there would not be more difficult obstacles to overcome through the night?  For chrissakes, my legs still felt brand new and that was a freaking GIFT.  It was time for comeback of the century.*
*SPOILER ALERT: Jamil Coury’s 2013 Hardrock Performance is still safe. 

I bottomed out on the trail section and began climbing the gradual road up Mt. Hilyer.  Not feeling as if I needed to walk, I resolved that I’d relieve my full bladder and then push to the top.  I could make up a lot of time here and easily be back on track by Chilao, stomach be damned.  However, as I bent down by a bush, my vision darkened and my knees buckled.  A sharp pain shot through my abdomen and up through my chest – nothing came from my bladder.  I took a deep breath and tried again, as I have never felt such a strong urge to urinate in my life.  This time, I fell over, shorts around my ankles, tears in my eyes.  I panicked.

Not knowing what else to do, I began walking up the hill, counting down the twists and turns to the aid station.  I had to get there, and someone had to help me.  Looking down, I discovered a horribly distended stomach, which at least in part explained the lack of urination and dehydration.  I was fueling and hydrating, but I wasn’t processing.  Why?

Lucky for me, Marisol Martinez was swiftly moving up behind me and as she caught up, could instantly sense my current state of terror.  She gave me some sort of fizzing tablet, citing that it was Mexican and I shouldn’t worry about it.  Taking Mexican drugs seemed like a reasonable decision at this point, so I took it down and enjoyed her heartfelt hug.  As I watched her hike off ahead, I marveled at her instantaneous willingness to slow down for a few minutes to help me.  Her kindness would be repeated, but unparalleled as the day wore on, even once contrasted.  A single smile was drawn as I lie in trouble at the aid station. I only mention that unfortunate moment to heighten just how important it was what Marisol did for me and how special the lot of ultrarunners are.  You see, it is human nature to be excited for any chance to succeed, to move up a place, to be closer to the best, and hence, I do not blame the smiler.  Instead, I celebrate the honest empathy that was shown to me, even by those who were battling their own problems.  Enter: the puking H’ard Cohen.  And just as the empathy is taketh, the empathy is giveth.

The volunteers ushered me into the Mt. Hilyer aid station, as I choked back some pretzels and tears of disappointment.  There were no medical personnel there, but they got on the radio to Chilao for some advice.  My first task was to try and pee in a cup, which after blacking out on Mt. Hilyer, I was obviously wildly excited about.  The good news is that it wasn’t as dark as before, but the bad news was that it still hurt like hell.  However, they asked me if I could still get myself to Chilao and that was definitely affirmative.  Hell, I didn’t even have to walk – my legs could RUN. 

I resolved to get to Chilao as quickly as possible, as I had now been sitting at Mt. Hilyer for a half hour.  Sub-24 was now a wash, but if I could get my system back to processing, I could still salvage a 25-26 hour finish, which I’d be more than okay with.   I ran the entire way feeling like my bladder would explode, but didn’t dare squat down and deal with the dizziness and shanking of the stomach.  Per radio’ed orders, I downed at least 20 ounces of water in the 50 minutes it took me to get there.  Bowman was waiting for me at the trail and I began filling him in on the madness and insisted that he look at the Honey Boo Boo situation that was happening above my shorts.  I knew Adam had been there before – legs feeling great, mind resolved, but stuck with a system that would not process for an unbeknownst reason. Also, he went to KU, so he can likely relate to Miss Boo's family activities and education level.  We decided that I would simply sit at Chilao for as long as it took to get my shit together, and then I would continue on.  I would come around.  I could still make a comeback and run a decent time.

"This is what I'm gonna show the judges."  i.e. the medical team.
As I was ushered onto the scale, I was convinced that everyone would see how much weight I was holding in my distended stomach, but instead, I was down three pounds.  Very strange.  Then, as if it weren’t enough for the medical director to get a radio description of my pee, I had to do it again so he could see for himself.  Again, blinding pain, and again only a drizzle of liquid.  But again, it was a little less dark than before and actually, not of concern to medical.  Despite the full bladder and pain both in my abdomen and back, they saw no reason why I should not go on if I could deal with the pain.  The theory was that I had stressed out my system and the tube connecting my bladder to my kidneys was inflamed.  This would create both pain in the kidney area and the inability to pee, as the hole to relief was now very small due to the inflammation.  The blood in my urine likely came from when I was dehydrated after puking and then my bladder walls were rubbing together.

Something you'll likely never see again
in your lifetime.
(photo: Kevin DeSplinter, against his
better judgement & at risk of familial
This actually made a whole hell of a lot of sense to me, as I’ve been suffering from kidney problems on and off for the entire last year (more on that some other time).  When my kidneys are jacked, my entire body is jacked – mentally fuzzy, dizzy and legs completely fried – basically dead man walking.  In this case, I still felt amazing.  No sir, no way it could be my kidneys.  Also, accepting this reality meant that I could leave the aid station and keep running.  So, inflamed tube thingy it was!  In full disclosure, there was no part of me whatsoever that wanted to stop the race, but I also was not willing to risk serious kidney damage for a buckle.  As I told the medical director, dialysis is expensive.

Now, the best part about actually leaving Chilao was that my dad was going to be pacing me for this section. Honestly, not getting to run with him might have been the hardest part had I been pulled from the race.  We headed off into the golden light of the late afternoon sun and set about getting things back in order.  I had been reluctant to take an ibuprofen at the advice of medical, having never taken it during a race and still not fully convinced my kidneys were entirely unaffected, but I have to admit, it definitely dulled the sharp pains in my abdomen and back.  The downhill jarring was no longer excruciating and I must note that I ran this next section faster than Dom. He might have been having some breathing issues, but facts are facts.

M-I-Z ....  P-E-E  (please.)
(photo: Joan DeSplinter)
Mentally was a bit of a different story.  I was fully engaged and committed, no doubt, but I’ll tell you here what I told him then.  I was having a hard time wrapping my brain around continuing to push as hard as I would for the goal, when the goal was no longer attainable.  Had I been tired or had my legs been blown out from running too hard, I’d have had to accept that I had simply pushed beyond my ability.  No shame in that.  But this.  This was some freak system shutdown thing that I had done everything to prevent and then correct.  I was playing by the rules, but the powers that be certainly were not.  What had I done to deserve this?  I’d worked so hard for this day.  I’d been through enough “learning experience” races already.  I deserved to have my day.  My defining moment.  And I had long before decided that was going to be TODAY.

Ah, but then the sky turned pink and the clouds turned purple and I could feel the beautiful light dancing on my cheeks.  I was still here.  In the stillness of remembering what you had… What you lost…, Stevie Nicks persisted.  All morning I had repeated the mantra, “stay in the moment. Just stay in the moment.”  If I could do that now, perhaps I could be happy. What you had... What you lost...

By Shortcut, I had promised both to my dad and to myself that I was just going to have fun with the rest of this race.  I had friends to run with and since my legs felt so great, we’d have a grand old time catching other runners and flying along the trails.  I’d likely look back on the race with a twinge of sadness, but for now I was going to be okay with it and just keep moving forward.  Free life lessons, folks.

Elan was stoked to accompany me for the next 16 miles, and I was actually quite excited that we could have a good run together, rather than a “Katie ran too hard and blew up” suffer-fest at mile 60.  Sure enough, we dug into the 5 mile fireroad descent that is normally the bane of my existence with fervor.  I opened my stride as we talked the entire way down to the river, completely forgetting about the race and my disappointment.  And miracle of all miracles – I started peeing!  I was back on pale ale status, perhaps even approaching blonde and I wasn’t blacking out when trying to squeeze it out.  Improvements.

Newcombs (mi 69) came and went – now that I wasn’t pushing a time goal, I was okay with taking a few minutes to sit, get some soup and crackers in and try to keep my system relaxed.  I talked to my parents and Monica on the screen they had set up and they filled me in on the drama that was Ruperto catching Dom at Chantry and the ensuing battle royale for the win.  At least I wasn’t dealing with that shit.

After running a faster split from Chilao to
Shortcut than Dom. I don't even know
what is happening anymore.
(photo: Joan DeSplinter)
Elan and I kept a good pace on the technical trail down Mt. Wilson – nothing remarkable, but definitely something I could be happy with considering my last bout with ‘ole Sturdevant.  Two years ago, I had been limping down to Chantry with my poor pal, Maruoka; basically rocking two kneecaps on my left knee. This was definitely better.  About a mile and a half from the aid station, we saw two headlamps coming towards us on the trail and soon discovered Chris Price and Josh Nordell.  Though I hadn’t noticed, Ashley was apparently on a cot up at Newcombs.  As we pushed on, my heart sank for her.  Here, I’d been so wrapped up in my own misfortune and deservedness of a good race that I’d failed to consider that others were dealing with the same or maybe worse.  Ashley is one of the most talented runners in the country, and I could only imagine her disappointment at having had to drop at Western States 6 weeks ago and now what seemed to be an inevitable drop here.  We’d also received word that Jorge Pacheco and Tommy Nielson were additional casualties down at Chantry – again, two runners who I respect the hell out of and personally know have put in a ton of hard work for this day.  This day that just wasn’t panning out for any of us.

One of my goals for AC is always to get through Chantry (mile 75) before Dom reaches the finish, but today I hoped that was not the case.  As I saw the lights ahead, I realized he’d need to beat me out of the aid station to break 19 hours and as such, this was the first thing I asked as I was ushered onto the scale.  But before I could get an answer, a little panic.  I was now up seven pounds.  If you remember correctly, less than 25 miles ago, I had been down 3 with a distended belly.  Now, I was peeing again, but had somehow gained a whopping TEN POUNDS in the last 5 ½ hours.  Sweet baby Jesus.

Now for some additional panic.  Apparently, Bowman (who was to be my pacer for the final no crew access 26 miles) had gotten cell service on the way to Chantry, only to discover his wife, Carol, was in the ER with a serious allergic reaction to some antibiotics.  Obviously, he’d needed to get over there. And obviously, I’ll take a pause from the story here to let you know she is perfectly alive and well – I saw her with my own two eyes and hugged her with my own two arms the very next day.  My mom informed me that Kevin would be my new pacer, and I became very concerned.  You see, Kevin is my dad’s name, and Kevin had already run 7 miles with me.  Kevin had been concerned about his ability to run 16, as it was in the mountains with a bit of elevation and he could not train properly for this feat of athletic prowess in St. Louis, Missouri.  While I was deeply touched at this selfless act Kevin was willing to subject himself to for his ailing daughter, I sincerely doubted Kevin’s ability to go an additional 26 miles over two more major mountains on technical trails in the dark. 

Fortunately for all, they were talking about Kevin Chan.

And so, after downing some soup, protein bar and Coke and hearing that Dom had not yet finished but had been lengthening the gap between him and Ruperto, we left the aid station, not doubting for a moment that I would see this thing through.  I ran where I could and hiked where I couldn’t – all was going as well as it possibly could be on a 3700’ climb at mile 76.  And then, it just wasn’t.  My stomach rose, I began dry heaving and the next thing I knew I was puking uncontrollably.  All the food and all the water I had been ingesting, sans processing– gone.

At first, there was elation.  My stomach was suddenly free from the confines of cramping and the rise and fall of what I can only assume was battery acid and warm, spoiled milk.  I ran the rest of the way to the turnoff for Upper Winter Creek, where I knew I’d need to immediately start replacing what I’d just lost.  I struggled with a gel, but got it down.  My stomach immediately wretched.  Drinking or eating anything was only making the situation worse, yet I knew I wouldn’t even make it to the next aid station, much less the finish, if I didn’t keep the calories coming.  I was beginning to get extremely sleepy as a result of the deficit, but was reluctant to take any real caffeine, lest it upset my stomach even worse.  Eventually however, I deemed that it really couldn’t get any worse, so I took down a yerba maté shot.  And I was clearly mistaken, as evidenced by a new episode of dry heaving.

The climb was slow going.  Every 10-20 minutes, I’d sit down on a log and choke down a gel in 4-5 parts, praying that it would process.  But none of them were.  Nothing was getting to my muscles, so my legs were glycogen-depleted and heavy.  Nothing was going to my brain, so I was dizzy, sleepy and increasingly hopeless. It was all just sitting there in my stomach and chest – it was honestly to the point where I was adding up the money I was wasting with performance food that wasn’t doing anything.  We eventually got to the bench and I sat down in a moment of true despair.  I wanted to cry, but I didn’t even have the strength for that.  So I just looked out over the city below, let the breeze blow across my face and began to let go.

Hey, remember this girl?  Yeah, me neither.
(photo: Mike Epler, Islip, 50+ miles ago)
We continued up to the toll road, where I decided that if I could run, I could feasibly get myself to the finish line.  If I couldn’t, I could maybe still get there as well, but deep in my heart, I just wasn’t willing to do that.  I’d completed this race before, dragging a broken body to a 30+ hour finish.  There was nothing in me that possessed any desire to do that again and seriously mess up my body in the process, as I was legitimately scared about what was going on.  For the first time in my life, simply finishing would not be enough.  And I felt like a fucking coward.

I frantically tried to run to dispel these dissenting thoughts.  To prove to myself that I was the fighter everyone thought I was and that pride could never get the best of me.  But I’m not a hero.  My stomach wretched, my abdomen seized, my kidneys ached, my entire body was shutting down.  Running made everything remarkably worse.  More puking.  Oh God, please just let this end.

Right before the aid station, I discovered Dom and my names written in the dirt and the tears finally came.  Idlehour was run by friends and they were a) going to do everything in their power to get me to leave that aid station; and b) were going to be horribly disappointed in my having given up.  Sure enough, I was ushered into a chair, handed some warm salt water and Tums and told under no circumstances would my bracelet be cut.  I buried my head in the blanket and began to sob uncontrollably.

I sat for over an hour and soon thereafter a hint of light graced the sky.  I had been watching friends come and go and a few times tried to talk myself into getting up and walking it in.  To be courageous and tough like them. I thought about the other names in the dirt - the other friends who would have given anything to continue this race but had been cut off at a previous aid station.  I still had plenty of time.  I could drag my ass home.  I was so utterly confused.

The scene of the crime. Flanked by two finishers.
(photo: Jack Cheng)
Instantly, I could no longer stand to be here – still technically a part of this race.  I had to go somewhere, and my choices were either 5 miles down the toll road to the city or 7 to the next aid station.  I stood up, took a deep breath and that’s when it happened – the moment I knew everything in my body was officially over.

Guys, I shit myself. 

No joke. I had now lost control of my bladder, kidneys, stomach, legs, mind, eyesight and well… the one thing you never want to lose control of.  It was horrific.  And I knew I was done in the most epic way possible.

Luckily, my friends took extreme pity on me and gave me a ride down to the city (I sat on a garbage bag).  The next thing I knew, I was lying on the floor of the shower listening to Dom recount his victorious race, unable to feel anything any longer.  It was almost as if I was in shock, unable to mentally process that I had really just DNF’d Angeles Crest at mile 85.  My race.  The race that was going so well until it wasn’t.

I cried a lot in the days after the event.  Disbelief turned to anger, anger turned to sadness and honestly, while sadness has greatly dissipated, it is still very much a part of my conscious.  While I was still peeing blood on Sunday, I was confident I had done the right thing, but once my body began feeling better, I was flooded with doubt.  What did I do wrong?  What could I have done differently?  Could I have safely kept going? 

Truth is, I don’t know and I physically can’t care anymore.  AC100 2013 is over.  In the wake of it all,  it's not so much the DNF that is bothering me, in as much as that I am still left searching and pushing and praying for that one magical day when it all comes together. You see, the failure itself did not define me.  But did I choose to fail when I felt like I already had? Am I not as tough as I thought I was?  And more importantly - am I still running and racing for the right reasons, or have I defined myself in a new category where it is acceptable to drop when you're not having a good race? I wasn't medically pulled. I wasn't even advised not to go on. The choice was all mine.  Sure, I pushed through some serious shit with a great attitude from mile 35 to mile 85, that much I know.  But mile 85 wasn't the finish. AND I'M NOT A QUITTER.

Or am I?


Regardless of outcome, I must thank a few folks for sharing the day with me:  
Mom, Dad & Bowman for a long weekend of crewing
Dad & Elan for some most excellent pacing
Momica for the endless support, no matter the outcome
New Balance (1010s and 890s)
Injinji (Trail 2.0. Blisters 0.0) 
Hal, Ken & the awesome volunteers
Tiffany & Trey for talking me through one of the harder moments of my life
and finally,
Kevin Chan - who did not sign up for that shit, and most assuredly had a less than idyllic Saturday night/Sunday Morning. I owe you, bro. Holy hell, do I owe you.

Back to training for 2014. (sigh.)