Thursday, September 15, 2011

AC100 Chapter 2: Heart of a Champion. Knee of a Flamingo.

Our house.... is a very, very, very fine house.
Go Back to Chapter 1

Cloudburst also held a lot of memories for me, as this was another one of Dom and I’s go-to camping spots.  In fact, we’d just had a wonderful evening there two days prior, and I smiled at the love and gratitude I felt in my heart.  I came around the first turn, where we’d legitimately showered on the trail (thanks to this) and I realized that there was no possible way I could love my life and our lifestyle any more right now.  The race was simply a celebration of all the fun disguised as training we’d had this year, and I was utterly happy.

Dom demonstrates proper safety while off-roading.
(photo:  Jorge Pacheco)
Unfortunately, my legs were not utterly happy as well, and this “easy” section felt less easy than all the tough climbs I’d already completed.  I reasoned that this must be normal, given the nature of the course, and that I just needed to stay strong and carry on.  I turned on some tunes and got into a good rhythm of running and singing, which brought back my smile.  But even still, I was on the brink of something terribly wrong. 

I’m not sure exactly when it started, and I know there wasn’t one thing that did it – but eventually I came to the realization that my knee was hurting.  And this largely downhill section was not helping one bit.  Again, I was forced to slow my pace to slower than I liked or knew I was capable of.  This was absolutely maddening.  Here I was, on a section I’d looked forward to all day, and I couldn’t do shit.  Still, I hoped that things would turn around and that I just needed a change of terrain – but with each step, the pain was growing and my hope was diminishing.

Last run of an 85 mile weekend out of Glenwood - not
wanting to be left out.  (photo: Mari Lemus)
I ran through Glenwood and was filled with conflicting emotion.  On one hand, I’d made it through the heat of the day and the elevation of the high country.  I was hurting, but I was still moving.  And memories swirled of the weekend spent running from Glenwood, when I proved to myself how strong I was.  Yet, on the other hand, I was not moving at a pace that was going to catch me up from the time I’d lost in Cooper, and I felt my sub-24 finish slipping away.  I had to remind myself that finishing was the true goal and as such, I pressed on, despite the increasing disagreement of my knee.

Eventually, my friend George caught up  and ran with me for a bit.  He said he’d had some trouble through the day, but that he felt great – and he looked it too.  We were still making great time by his calculations and his hope was inspiring, but I think that deep down I knew that this was only the beginning of larger troubles to come.  Normally, I’m super optimistic about low points because I know that it will always get better (as George was now demonstrating), but this was different.  This was a problem that I started with and I knew that the reality was that it would only get worse.  Even still, I deeply believed I was 100% capable of dealing with the pain I felt now and that I could still turn in a decent time if I just kept doing  everything I could.  So I twisted and turned and winded down towards Three Points, legitimately looking forward to climbing Hilyer. 

I finally popped up to the aid station (mile 42.72 - still not even halfway) just as George was leaving and plopped down on the bench next to an ailing Sean O’Brien.  He seemed to be in a similar world of hurt.  My dad had cut up some cantaloupe for me (my favorite!) which was a nice surprise and tasted magnificent with a little ice cold Coke.  I took a few moments to regroup, hit the bathroom and level with my crew.  At this point, all I told them was that my knee was starting to bother me a bit, but that I was still okay and would continue to do my best.  And so I carried on…

The situation post-Station Fire, on an equally ominous
day earlier this year 
I wound my way down the next section of trail, resolved to keep my form strong and my body moving forward at the best pace I could.  But there were signs, my friends.  There were ominous signs.  Purple poodle dog bush began choking the trail as I entered the fire ravaged areas of the Angeles Forest.  The trail was open and exposed and flanked with blackened trees, in stark contrast to the lush pine of the high country.  And to really drive the point home, I might add that I almost stepped on the severed leg of what I best guess was a coyote.  Basically, it was just way too early for things to be getting this weird.  The road signifying the next segment of my journey just never seemed to come, and I was alone in my endeavor.

Eventually, I did reach the road and eventually I did reach the top of Mt. Hilyer, which also signified the halfway-ish point of the race (mile 49).  I ran a great majority of the climb, which I was proud of in my given state and which proved that I had not given up.  I did a time check and reasoned that my 24 hour finish was officially a wash, but 26-28 hours was still within reason and reach.  That was actually 100% okay with me, and I reached the aid station in pretty good spirits, all things considering.  I was happy for some ice cold water to soak my Buff and some more ice for my bandana and I downed a few cups of Gatorade, having been disheartened by an exceptionally dark pee situation.  Hal (the RD) told me I was doing really well, and even better, that Dom was enroute to a miraculous comeback up front.  They were around Shortcut and Dom was gaining on Jorge.  This definitely pumped me up and I left Horse Flats, where the Hilyer aid station was set up on another one of our rogue campsites, determined to make a comeback myself and beat this knee thing.  Mind over matter.

Ah yes, but the matter was just not improving.  Somewhere along the steep rocky descent into Chilao, the nagging turned to stabbing.  And the stabbing eventually brought me to a halt on more than one occasion.  No. No. NO. This was not happening.  I remembered how just a few months prior I had run so hard down this section that when I clipped a rock and went tumbling, Mari was sure I had broken something.  And now I’m pretty sure that I wouldn't even scratch myself if I fell - I'd just sort of crumple into a melodramatic heap, reminiscent of the Wicked Witch of the West.  I went on this way for awhile, and then suddenly there it was.

The choice.

"The choice" was a two stage process, and the result would be whether or not I continued this race.  Out there, alone and in an increasing amount of pain, things got very real, and I knew that to finish the remaining 50 miles would require me to ask way more of my body that it was in any shape to give.  So the first thing I had to decide was if I was really, truly willing and prepared to suffer.  To welcome in more pain than I have ever known or even considered, just for the sake of finishing what I started.  This decision was actually relatively simple.  Knowing that I was likely not doing any permanent damage and promising myself that I would take the time to fully heal once the race was over, the choice was clear:  fucking bring it.

Now, the second part… the second part was a bit more sticky.  As I thought about it - I mean really, seriously explored the decisions, the motivations, the implications and the possible outcomes - I realized that this was one of life's defining moments.  My choice would speak volumes about the kind of person and runner I was - not just to others; most wouldn't judge either way - but to myself.  Loud and clear, I was about to learn something really important about who I was.  I just needed to decide if my ego could handle going from the front of the pack to the back.  Because over the next 50 miles, that would most assuredly happen.  It already was.  And I was honest to God doing the very best I could with every step I took.

Dreaming of the race at Guffy
(photo: Dominic Grossman)
No one would blame me for dropping.  Hell, a lot of people couldn't even believe I started not being able to bend my knee and all taped up at the check-in. (In retrospect, now that the blind ambition has cleared, I can't even believe I did it.)  They'd see the growing, swelling mass that had replaced the joint in the middle of my left leg and tell me I was smart not to continue and that I was a hero for making it this far.  Ultimately, they'd still be proud of me.  But would I be proud of me?  Like I said, I can't reiterate enough that I knew I was not doing any permanent damage.  If that were the case, I would've dropped immediately.  I'm not an idiot.  And besides, the pain in my heart was much greater right now.  I had trained for this race all year.  I'd watched my body change as my legs grew stronger, my lungs more powerful and my mind more resolute.  I'd morphed into a runner who truly believed in herself and who many believed could even win the whole thing.  I was truly capable of doing great work today, and I was doing it too!  That was, until this knee thing crept up.  Now, I was just doing OK things and for a large part of me, that was honestly not enough.

The truth is, I've never really had a great race.  One where I've really run to the full potential that I've demonstrated in my training.  There's always a stupid mistake, or crazy weather situation or some other unplanned, unanticipated thing that keeps me from the time and place I know I'm capable of.  And deep down, I really believed that it was all to better prepare me to have the race of my life thanks to all that I'd learned.  Well, long ago, back in the fledgling months of the year, I had decided that the 2011 Angeles Crest 100 was going to be that race for me.  It just had to be.  And yet, somehow, it totally wasn't.  I needed to decide if I was OK with that, and it was hurting my head.

I continued stumbling down the rocky, bouldery, dropp-off-y trail down through the burn area and towards my crew.  God, it hurt.  My mind swirled right along with the scenery as I contemplated whether or not just finishing would be enough for me.  I now doubted even my worst-case scenario of 28 hours was possible and actually knew chasing cutoffs could likely become a reality.  I wasn't going to live up to the runner everyone, including myself, thought I could be.  I was now in a battle of survival.

I thought about my crew gathered at Chilao - selflessly following me around all weekend, taking care of my every need.  For them, just finishing would be enough.  I thought about all my other friends, either running, crewing or just out to cheer - part of the hundreds of people who had been screaming my name and encouraging me along my selfish journey - just 'cause they're awesome like that.  They wouldn't care if I finished DFL - they'd still support me.  I thought about my family, all of whom had traveled here to be there for this day in my life - not knowing or understanding anything in particular about the endeavor other than it was important me.  You're damn right they'd still be proud of me, even if I walked the rest of the whole thing.  I thought about my brother, who probably understood the concept of survival better than anyone there.  Though he'd never agree, I kind of owed it to him to see the race through before he left to go fight a much more important battle.  Anything less would be cowardly by comparison.  I thought of Dom - the one person who could possibly know the mental warfare that was currently waging in my mind and how much this day meant to me.  He was also the one person who would truly understand what I went through to finish and he would respect me for it.

Finally, I thought of myself.  I thought about who I was, what I stood for and what was truly important to me.  I thought about why I was there, what was driving me and how far I'd come.  I thought about who I wanted to be.

There was a time in my life, not too long ago, where I physically could not run.  There was a time when it didn't look too likely that I'd be able to even start this race, much less finish it.  Now, though it wasn't how I imagined, I was on my way to physically finishing this race.  All I had to do was leave Chilao.

Believe it or not, all the excessive soul searching occurred over only what was roughly 2.8 miles.  It also consumed my entire being, and as such, I was greatly confused when I heard an unmistakable, "It's Katie!" from whom I later determined to be Carol Bowman.  I turned the corner and was upon the buzzing aid station and ushered onto the scales.

"You need to have a seat and start drinking."

I was seven pounds down, which I could only attribute to the loss of all my pride and dignity somewhere on the decent off of Hilyer.  I had paid great attention to my fluids and nutrition all day, so I had no clue how this could otherwise happen.  Nevertheless, I agreed with the medics that I could be approaching a not so great situation.  I guess these mountains were really taking it out of me.  Literally.

Ye brother of gnar points South.
(photo: Jessica Fugulsby)

Chilao, mile 52.8, was hopping with crews and spectators and lots of SoCal Coyotes who'd come out to cheer us on.  I wanted to soak up more of the amazing energy there, but alas,  I had to focus on soaking up the calories and fluids instead.  I explained the reality of the situation to my crew, but they already understood.  Things were going to be different this evening, but there was no talk, nor would there ever be, of dropping.  Instead we talked about the highly plausible case that a baby yucca was actually growing inside of my knee, given the ridiculous knot protruding from my left leg.  We laughed and I left.  That was it.

The best part about the rest of my painful journey was that I would no longer be going it alone.  I had my first of three pacers along with me, and little did I know, I'd planned the timing of their arrival absolutely perfectly.  There was no one better to remind me of the importance of earning the finish line, regardless of time, than June Caseria.  A month prior I had forced my knee to cooperate so that I could pace June to her first 100 mile finish at Western States.  June had struggled on and off with a foot injury, and it unsurprisingly had flared up by the time I picked her up at Bath Road, mile 60.  Gingerly picking our way down Cal Street, we were only 10 minutes ahead of the cutoff and it became glaringly apparent that we weren't going to make it.  I leveled with June on what was going down and what we had to do, and after fixing what we could with 'apparel adjustments' and duct tape, she put her head down and got to work.  What was most impressive to me was that she did not complain or cry out or become negative; rather she pushed beyond her limits and did what she needed to do.  By Green Gate, we were almost 40 minutes ahead of the cutoff.  June continued to earn every single step of the rest of the course and crossed the finish line at Placer High in 29:50-something.  It was inspiring.  And for me, I would remain resolute and draw upon her strength, now in my own world of pain.
June Caseria, checking charts and
breaking hearts since 1984.

June did an amazing job of encouraging my progress and keeping me from walking too long on the flats/downhills when the pain flared up.  I was very much enjoying the conversation as a nice distraction to what was going on internally.  It was also nice to hear how everyone else was doing and how my friends and family's day had gone, since I'd never had enough time in the aid stations to check in on that stuff.  Amazingly, I even passed a couple runners here who were much worse for the wear than I - physically and mentally out of it.  I was most assuredly still in this, on all accounts.

The sun was beginning to set as I popped up at Shortcut Saddle, mile 59.3, and the colors hitting the huge expanse of Station Fire burn was very Tim Burton-esque.  i.e. beautiful in a totally creepy, but hauntingly mesmerizing way.  I should have been through here hours ago and was glad I'd packed an extra headlamp for my now worse than worst-case scenario.  That said, the plan was to get in and out of here with a smile - just as it had been all along.  I sat for a few minutes to switch out my bottles and get some calories down, and then did just that.  No one on my crew or in my family questioned my ability to carry on or my sanity.  They simply echoed my facial expression.

Shortcut Saddle, mile 59.3

Before leaving, I got some of the best news I had received all day.  Dom had just arrived into Chantry.  First.  It sounds really cheesy, but this truly renewed my spirit and I left seriously pumped up.  That's love, kids.

The 5 mile, hard-packed fire road descent which lied immediately ahead was going to be tough on a good day.  It was going to be tougher on a hard day.  It was going to be damn near impossible on a day where going downhill was the one thing that had been crippling me for over a month.  Nevertheless, pacer extraordinnaire #2, in the form of Erin Maruoka, and I got to it and I vowed to myself that I would not walk this shit.  Little breaks were fine, but I was going to run to the river if it killed me.  Obviously, it wasn't going to actually cause death, so I requested that Erin ignore my little shrieks of pain and just tell me stories about anything and everything.  I couldn't participate much, as my heart rate had now officially achieved out of control status in response to the pain, but her voice provided a welcome distraction.  The sun had gone down, but I was soaked with a cold sweat and I really had to focus to try and control my erratic breathing.  In short, I was a hot mess.  To make matters awesome, the river just never seemed to come and at this point, I wanted the river more than I have ever wanted anything in my whole life.  I wish I was kidding.

Finally, FINALLY we heard the roar of the West Fork of the San Gabriel River and dumped out at the crossing.  The water was freezing and caused my legs to cramp a bit, but I didn't care because the godforsaken downhill was over.  Furthermore, it reminded me that I was about to close another chapter of my journey - the creepy, burned section - and start working on the final pages.  In a few miles, the terrain would shift again - this time to densely packed woods, filled with flowing streams and steep, rocky single track and though challenging, I was looking forward to the change.  But for now, I just had to get up to Newcomb's.  

I had done this climb in the heat, with loads of miles on my legs, and I'd run the whole thing.  Though now in an entirely different and much more compromising situation, I vowed that I would run as much as possible.  As an added encouragement, my friend Diana was catching up to me, and though I was in no position to win - I was also in no position to be passed.  I still had a bit of fire left.  On a related note, I also remembered my goal to reach Chantry before Dom finished, and if nothing else, that dream was still very much alive.  And so Erin and I pushed up to Newcomb's Saddle, head down and mind resolved.

Perhaps I got a little behind on calories, or perhaps I was just losing my ever loving mind - but when I hit the aid station at mile 68, I felt depleted - physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.  I saw my family and friends on the big screen, happy to see me and sending nothing but love and support from a mere 7 1/2 miles away.  But I knew what that 7 1/2 miles would entail, and I was beginning to panic.  So I made a quick joke about them making the mistake of giving my mom a microphone and walked away from the camera.  I could feel tears stinging the back of my eyes, and I didn't want them to see me like this.  Apparently, I didn't move far enough away and they could see that I was shoving a stick of Body Glide in the general vicinity of my girl things.  With this, they marveled at how I must still be so mentally "in it" that I had the fortitude to move away from the camera where I would have treated all of Chantry Flats to a quite graphic show.  So in reality, I had done the exact opposite of what I feared.  Point: Me.

I could tell I was a bit out of it here, and knew I probably wasn't taking in enough calories for what my body was going through.  I couldn't really do solids, so I double fisted some broth and Coke which obviously tasted delicious together.  Then Erin and I went along our merry little way.  Minus the "merry" part.  

It was here that things really, officially unraveled.  As I navigated the fireroad down to the turnoff at Newcomb's pass, the pain began to mimic the very feeling I had when the stabbing originally occurred down in Vincent Gulch.  I grasped to focus and harden my mind, but eventually one stride over the rocky terrain brought me to the ground.  I fell to the side of the trail in the weeds, and honestly began struggling to breathe it hurt so bad.  Erin came to my side and worked on calming me down, telling me we could stay there as long as we needed, but that I would get back up and finish this race.  At this point, Diana and her pacer caught up and after stopping to see if I was okay, moved ahead.  I began to wonder how many more millions of people would pass me before I got to Altadena... you know, since there were obviously millions of people in this race.  The key thing to note here, though, is that I still was not doubting my ability to physically get myself to the finish line.  And as such, I got up and we started walking.

First, I was horrified that I'd broken down so severely.  I highly regard Erin as one of the toughest women I know - both physically and mentally - and as such, I was embarrassed for her to see me in that state.  I had told myself I would not allow any tears during this race, but they had come and I couldn't stop them.  That said, I realized I actually felt a little better just releasing it all - admitting that I was in a world of hurt, rather than trying to fake a more ideal situation; but that I would continue.  And so, at this point, I decided to confide in Erin my dark thoughts and release those to be heard no more as well.  What I told her was that I was fully accepting of the way things had played out, the fact that I was going to finish much slower than anticipated and that I was suffering so greatly.  But a part of me was angry as hell.  I'd trained my ass off for this day and was in wicked shape to do something amazing.  I'd felt light as a feather during a flawless first half of the race.  I was after that silver buckle, and I'd worked harder than I'd ever worked in my life.  And yet some stupid freak accident had completely wrecked my big plans.  Not an overtraining injury, not a careless mistake, not a result of prioritizing something else over my running.  Nope.  I had been cock blocked by a plant. And it wasn't fair.

Fitting that my parents were here, because my whole life they have loved to remind me that life isn't fair.  And I totally agree, which is why I wasn't going to just give up, go home and pout on the account of not having the day I "deserved."  I knew this next section was going to be hard.  Actually, it was going to completely blow to be honest, but I was going to have to just take it one step at a time and be at peace with the fact that at least I was moving forward.  

Erin was amazing at encouraging me down the steep, rocky descent into Big Santa Anita Canyon and I am so thankful for her patience.  She assured me that what I was doing was meaningful and necessary... even inspiring, but even still, I couldn't completely shake the feelings of embarrassment at what I'd become.  It was hard to be taking this section so slow when I'd practiced it so many times, flying down and around and off the walls.  

Nevertheless, we pushed our way down to the stream as I pushed the negative voices out of my mind.  Not repressed and hid.  But really let them go.  I remained resolute, focused and committed to still reaching my goal as fast as I possibly could.  In short, it was still a race.      I began thinking of next year, when I'd arrive at this point much earlier and call upon this very moment and how bad I felt, and know that I could handle the pain it would take to chase down the leader refuse to relent until I reached the city.  I now fully believed Erin - this was important and I was definitely going to finish.  

If I remember correctly, once in the canyon, I began running for longer stretches at a time with less shriek-filled ouch fests that required halts in the RFM.  I do distinctly recall Erin being quite impressed with my ability to rock/log hop across all the water crossings with ease, especially after we saw a dude totally eat it  and get dunked.  Style points.

After a great, longer than ever while, we reached the bridge that signified the half mile climb on the road up to Chantry Flats.  It would be the last time I could see my crew, and I knew that once I left, there was no turning back.  The absolutely absurd thing about Angeles Crest is that when you are 3/4 done with the race, you are actually only 2/3 done with the climbing. While many races, most in fact, give you a bit of a break in the last quarter... with maybe some nice downhill or at least diminishing the climbs only to rollers, AC hits you with a long, 1,000 ft/mile trek up Mt. Wilson followed by another 2k or so climb out of the subsequent canyon.  Then you get some downhill, but it's the rockiest, most overgrown, steepest, nastiest shit you've seen all day and you get to do it with 90+ miles on your legs.  You see why I signed up for this.

That lying ahead, I put my head down and ran/power hiked up the steep hill, hearing the roar of the aid station above.  After a few minutes, Erin ran ahead to alert my crew and get things ready, and I took the few moments alone to really absorb the experience.  I switched off my headlamp under the clear, dark sky and took deep, fulfilling breaths of the clean, pine scented air.  This was where I wanted to be.  This was who I wanted to be.  I turned the final corner and approached the large, stone steps, the lights glaring in my eyes.  I had reached mile 75 of the hardest thing I've ever done and there was no stopping me now.

Continue reading the Final Chapter


  1. "I had been cock blocked by a plant. And it wasn't fair." love this.
    great read. so awesome to relive what you went through during parts of the race where we only saw you at the aid stations. revealing and very honest. very cool indeed.

  2. Katie, I freaking LOVE YOU. I commented before, but it was unfortunately lost to the blogosphere -it's alright though, cuz how I feel hasn't changed a bit. YOU are so amazing - we all see what you're capable of - your mad trail running skillz and your pure love for it are completely infectious to those around you. You are a beautiful, strong-willed, fun person, and I was so stoked to help you out there in any way you needed it. I have no doubt you're going places (winning RDL 50K?!!) once you deal with those random setbacks like yucca babies and the 3P's. You are insanely talented and can CLEARLY achieve anything you set your mind to!!