Thursday, August 25, 2011

AC100 Chapter 1: High Country High Life


Looking at that you may be confused for a variety of reasons.  If you don't know me well but heard that I'm into running, you may be wondering if that was my time at the last local 5k. God I hope not, as that would mean that I took thirty hours, fifty-three minutes and twenty-one seconds to go 3.1 miles.  Though a 10 hour/mile pace feels about spot on for my rocky decent from Sam Merrill (mile 90) to Millard (mile 95), I guess that wasn't the case as I did complete the full 100.53 miles of the Angeles Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run.

Now, if you do know me, you may ask "wow, what the hell happened?  Gosh, you must be so disappointed... that's your worst race ever!"  OK, well I'm going to go ahead and stop you right there and blow your mind a little bit. 'Cause guess what?  In almost all respects, this was actually my best race ever.

That said, let's go ahead and get the bullshit out of the way up front, so I don't have to recount it over and over.  Plus, if you're only into what physically happened and not what epically transpired, then you should know that the long and short of it was that my injured knee simply did not hold up.  The yucca stabbing was apparently a very violent crime and to be highly specific, my lateral retinaculum is kind of fucked.  So there you go.


What transpired through the brilliant hours in the high country Saturday morning and the painful, broken stride in the wee hours of the following night was by no means a failure. It's funny, you always build that 'coming of age' race up as some glory filled battle that ends with a big trophy or a record deal or something like that.  Mine ended with a fourth place finish, nowhere close to the leader, and a big hug.  But it was definitely a turning point race for me, and here's the story of why...

Dom and I headed up to the high country after work on Thursday and it was immediately apparent that I was more nervous/stressed than normal.  I freaked out about forgetting my camera that I wasn't going to use anyway, cried over cold pasta and spent a great deal of time trying to justify how bad my knee still hurt running the downhills.  I guess it was a little rough going into the race in the best shape of my life, with all this potential - but knowing that there was a very likely possibility that my "injury" would not allow me to truly perform at my best.  The realm of possibility spun from a sub-24 finish that could very well win the thing to being physically unable to complete it. This was absolutely maddening and really, I just wanted to get on with it.

There is no chance I am adopted.
(photo: Natalie Kintz)
Friday morning, we packed up camp and headed down to Wrightwood to check in and begin to absorb the energy surrounding the race.  It was like everyone we know and love was coming to our weekend vacation spot, including one surprise visitor.... my dad!  Now my whole family would be there:  mom, dad, brother, sister-in-law and niece - which was pretty cool, and no doubt instrumental in my will to carry on when things got "difficult." Paired with my all star crew, who we met at the hotel in Hesperia, there was no way I wasn't finishing this race - so let's go ahead and adjust that realm of possibility to everything from a winning time to DFL. As I drifted off to a restless sleep that evening, I knew that I would be running 100 miles this weekend.  The only question was how bad and how long was I going to suffer? 

Not to be all dramatic - but the whole year has kinda lead to this day.
(photo: Natalie Kintz)
In high school, I once gave my whole cross-country team bright lime green ribbons for their hair before our big State Meet.  Subsequently, we won.  I decided to carry on the tradition at the new 'big race,' and gave my teammate some sick laces for our NB 101's.
(photo: Monica Morant)

As I stood on the starting line, counting down the minutes to the start, I wanted to hit fast forward to an hour into the race. An hour in is when I finally relax and get into a groove. Until then, I'm kind of like a manic, ADHD child with a lot of sugar and no parental guidance.  Interestingly enough, five minutes later I already found myself breathing normally and enjoying the dark, cool hours of the quiet morning. Totally, completely relaxed.  And totally in the moment.

It is, as they say, go time.
(photo: Monica Morant)
I began alternating running and walking up the 3,000 foot gain Acorn Trail as planned, ensuring my heart rate stayed low and I felt entirely comfortable, yet not too comfortable if that makes any sense at all.  I spent most of the climb with eventual women's winner, Paulette Zilmer, from Scottsdale.  I told her a bit about the course and we openly shared our respective challenges for the day - I with my knee, and her trying to end a streak of not finishing a 100 since 2008. I was really glad to hear that things definitely worked out for her that day.  And then some.

A typical evening at Guffy
(photo: Jorge Pacheco)
I hit the top of Acorn in :57 which seemed about right and began rolling along through the campgrounds and limber pines of the high country.  Memories began flooding in as I passed each place I trained, slept, talked and burned into my mind.  Each place where I grew into the person that had stepped across the starting line an hour earlier with a confidence and peace I'd never known.  I flew through Guffy, smiling as I imagined the joy of glissading down Mt. Baldy with Dom and Jorge - who were now likely battling for the lead.  I glanced down into Vincent Gulch and first thought to curse it, but then remembered the amazing things I saw the day of the yucca and how Maggie, who I'd just met, stuck with me and helped keep me warm.  She was cruising up ahead as well. I remembered all the sunsets at Blue Ridge followed by nights around the campfire, talking about life, the race and other hopes and dreams which were unrelated - yet could never be entirely separated. All these people. All these moments. And now we were finally out here doing it.

As I came down into Little Blue Ridge, a familiar shout from behind the trees broke me out of my little reverie. (Seriously. I was creating a truly stellar YouTube montage in my head.) Moments later, I crested a bump to see my half-asleep little but not so little brother running out of the woods, cheering me all the way. Apparently he’d overslept a bit and woke up to voices in the trees. So he runs out of the tent in a panic that he’s missed the race and won’t be able to find my crew, and here I come bobbing down the trail. Talk about impeccable timing. I was really glad to have my brother there to be part of the race, as he’s leaving soon for his second tour in Afghanistan with the USMC. I knew he would love the mountains as much as I do and I really wanted to share this part of my life with him before he had to leave.  Needless to say, I was really happy to see him.

The remainder of the stretch down to Inspiration Point was mostly downhill, and I focused on remaining relaxed and not charging too much. My knee was admittedly quite tight, and I knew any excited mistakes here could be my downfall. As such, I continued on at a comfortable pace, intermittingly enjoying the company of a new friend/fellow SoCal Coyote, Tiffany Guerra and the Acorn Comedy Hour duo of George “White Lightning” Gleason and the Broman, Adam Bowman.

Rolling into Inspiration Point, legitimately
quite inspired.
(photo: Joe Gandara)
As I came around the bend approaching IP (mile 9.3), I could hear the roar of the crowd gathered, with at least 50 people screaming my name. It was like the Wellesley of the Angeles Forest, and it was all quite magical. As I cruised in, it was so deafening and packed that I panicked with the inability to find my crew, despite my highly superior skills at Where’s Waldo. As I began pulling off my long sleeve while walking through, Erin grabbed my arm, shoved a fresh bottle in my hand and I was off in less than 30 seconds. It was all kind of like a dream and I’m still not 100% clear on if it actually happened or not.

Erin had told me that the lead women were only about three minutes ahead, which I found to be pretty weird. I thought I’d been extremely conservative during this first section, but hey, maybe everyone was running a smart race today! This was going to be fun. But for now, my mind was completely focused on this next section and what I planned to do with it, regardless of what the competition put into action. It’s funny, I had multiple conversations leading up to the race and even during the climb up Acorn from people who maintained that not knowing the whole course was better because it was less overwhelming. But ultimately, I believe my knowledge of every twist, turn and downed tree of the day’s challenge is what kept the whole thing in a manageable perspective for me. AC read like a book, and I just had to take it chapter by chapter. So for now, I knew I just needed to take it easy on the way down to Vincent Gap, stay on top of my calories and drain my 16 oz. bottle of water. That’s exactly what I did, and I rolled into VG (mi 13.85) feeling remarkably stellar and ready to climb. RAWR!

Note adorable niece in background with
panda and panda pants.  Through
Facebook, she has discerned that I am a
legitimate Panda bear.
(photo:  Natalie Kintz)
I flew in and immediately spotted my niece, Chyler, holding up her stuffed panda and cheering louder than you would think is possible for a five-year-old. I was all business in switching out for my pack and moving through, but not before a high-five from Baby Sass. I’ve also got to break here for a second to call out my incredible crew here for not only being attentive and very sexy (as specified), but also having ESP, which was an unknown feature.* I had scolded myself for failing to write down (on my expertly created spreadsheet using colored markers in favor of Excel) that I wanted my gels in the boob pockets** of my Nathan pack rather than the back. However, this mind-blowing trio of magicians knew that the back pocket was for the birds and I’d obviously want my shit up front. Obviously. Good lord, they rock.
*Trust me, there will be excess crew loving in this post, but it won’t get really awkward until around mile 60.
**Technical term.

I was having pretty much the best time ever.
(photo:  Jayme Burtis)
Out of the aid station, I put my head down and got straight to it. I normally hate running with a pack, but immediately recognized the unanticipated advantage here (besides carrying enough water, as opposed to not enough). I could use my hands on my thighs to do "the Killian" and power my way up the beast that is Baden-Powell. I felt remarkably fresh, was breathing easy, and as such, began making my way up the switchbacks. I noticed Keira, last year's champ, only one up from me and again was surprised, but vowed not to do anything stupid here and blow myself out. Instead, I stuck to the plan of power hiking and running where I knew I could. I pulled over to pee and was caught with my pants around my ankles by the next dude, which was awesome. I offered up a heartfelt "howdy," as he rattled by, but I think he was sincerely conflicted about the whole thing. Over the next few miles, another group of dudes caught up to me, and I was seriously disturbed to see that one of them was none other than Mr. Sean O'Brien. Sean is the resident king of the climb, and I was seeing no reason as to why I should be ahead of him climbing Baden-Powell of all things. But I also knew he was very smart in these things and he eventually passed me towards the top, which made me happy.

Cresting the high point on the course -
Mt. Baden-Powell @ 9,399
(photo:  Gareth Mackey)
Now, one would think I'd be extremely happy to reach the top of a 3,000 foot climb taking me up to 9,399 feet in a fun series of 41 switchbacks. And I was, but here's the thing:  now I had to go mostly down for 8 miles and that was definitely not my strong point with a tight knee. The good news is that it was my absolute favorite part of the course, with sweeping vistas, yards of limber pine and a spectacular section of single track cut into and around the ridge. So, I took a deep breath, leaned forward and just floated right along. I remembered the day I'd run up Baden-Powell after two weeks of nothing in the aftermath of the yucca incident. I was so happy at being able to run again, I'd nearly cried. I was still in pain that day, but when you've barely been able to walk for weeks and you can feel your goal race slipping away, a mountain can do that to you. And now here I was, running incredibly strong, feeling amazing and loving every second of the race I'd planned for and trained for since the beginning of the year. It was all going so remarkably well, and I felt absolutely no pressure to do anything other than what I could in each passing moment. Very early on, I adopted the mantra, "run within yourself," which was in stark contrast to my typical credo of 'relentless,' which is actually tatooed across my right rib cage. There would be a time and place for that, but that was miles and chapters ahead. For now, I needed to remain in the moment and focused on my race and my race alone. And so it was me and the mountain, just as it always was.

As I began navigating the switchbacks down to Islip Saddle (mile 25.91), the roar of the crowd once again became deafening. Still, I picked out my dad's less loud than everyone else's scream and the unmistakable whistle of my mom. I had to laugh, knowing that they had absolutely no idea that there were actually quite a few switchbacks to get down to the road and they had started cheering very early. Now they were going to have to keep it up for another 3-4 solid minutes, which they did. The excitement of my friends and family at the little blue dot (and big puff of hair) bounding down the mountain pulled me right in and down to the scales.
Numbers. Cool. Can I go now?
(Photo:  Katelyn Benton)

Erin and June were on it, grabbing my pack and preparing my bottle as I weighed in.  I was about 4 lbs. down already, which seemed weird considering that I’d been eating regularly and just downed my entire 50 oz. of water – but then again I’d weighed in a little heavy the day before, so I wasn’t too concerned.  I grabbed my bottle and a Lara Bar and headed up Mt. Williamson with some troublesome news from Peter."This is a marathon, right?  I only have 0.2 miles to go!"  He said no.  But also that he was really proud of me, and I believed him, because truth be told, I was proud of me too.  I was completely nailing this first chapter – the high country section – and I felt fantastic.  

That was, until I tried to eat the Lara Bar.  It was immediately apparent that my stomach was not going to be tolerating solid foods any time soon, so I suffered down half of it and shoved it in my back pocket.*  I continued power hiking up the climb, focused on how relatively short this section actually was.  I desperately wanted to run more of it than I was or had planned for, but the heat was rolling in and combined with the Lara Bar situation, that wasn’t really happening.  Even still, I began to see carnage, now on the third major climb of the day, at elevation and now with the added element of heat.  Passing a few dudes, I got a great boost of confidence and continued hiking like a champ.  I got to the top in one of my best splits ever and took my first brief pause to really breathe in the beauty of the day.  Again, I cringed at the technical downhill that lie ahead of me,** but got right to it nonetheless.  I thought about Memorial Day, when over 70 miles into the weekend, I’d caught up to Dom and Jorge at the highway crossing between Williamson and Cloudburst, running an out and back from Glenwood.  They told me their plans as I felt the weight of the mileage in my legs and knew that turning around now, I’d have quite the time getting out of Cooper Canyon and all the way back.  But I smiled and said, “Fuck it.  I’m going over Williamson.”  And so I did, laying down my fastest split ever and then powering through the remaining 18 miles of my run, finishing wholly exhausted.  This was only 5 days after I’d run the Bishop High Sierra 50 miler.  It was the most solid block of training I’d ever put in and the result did wonders for my mental toughness. I was no longer afraid of AC.
*Sidebar:  I just found the other half in the bottom of a bag earlier this week… nearly a month later.  Yummo!
**So sad.  Normally I love this shit.

As I approached the highway crossing off Williamson, I could hear the excited shouts of friends Kevin and Crispin and let them pull me across the 2 and right up the last bump before Eagle’s Roost.  I drained most of my water on the way up and before I knew it, I was already upon the million little switchbacks that would take me down to the road.  Soon I’d be at Eagle’s Roost, where we used to camp back when the 2 was still closed and the peaks were still covered in snow.  We’d run as high as we could and pray all week that maybe next weekend we’d be able to getover Williamson and eventually Baden-Powell.  We’d huddle in our tent, trying to keep warm and entertaining thoughts of summer days and perfect nights.  And mostly, we’d talk about the race.  It was always like that on these weekends in the San Gabriels.  There was nothing else.  Just me, Dom, the mountains and the race.  And that’s all I ever wanted.

I cruised past the road workers and into Eagle’s Roost (mi 30), knowing I needed to get myself aptly prepared to handle the heat a brewin’ down in Cooper Canyon.  I sat for the first time to switch out of my 101’s and into a pair of Lunaracers to handle the road section a little better, and P-Dubs made up a nice, pink ice bandana.  But before I could get comfortable, I grabbed two fresh bottles and began my little jaunt down the highway, encouraged by everyone in the aid station remarking on how good I looked in comparison to most everyone else.  I figured they were just telling everyone that, but as I ran up and then down the 2, I noticed another woman not too far ahead and began slowly gaining.  Even still, I kept the pace easy and enjoyed my family, my crew and June’s bare ass rooting me along.  As I told some random encouraging me through his window, “I ain’t trying to cook myself out here mang.”  My Missourah comes out when I’m in nature.  At any rate, the theme from all the traveling cars seemed to be that I was “running really smart,” and that all the women up ahead were looking a bit frazzled.  I still felt pretty good, but knew just to stick to my mantra and run within myself.  That was the only way I was going to get out of Cooper Canyon alive.

Now, I was in an interesting predicament here.  My legs were starting to feel a little weird and nasty, which I attributed to the change in terrain, and possibly the softer shoe as well.  As such, I desperately wanted this road section to be over.  However, while the majority of the day I’d completed each section of the course hugry to sink my teeth into the next, Cooper was the one chapter I was really dreading.  Not only was it difficult and hot, but I really just don’t like it all that much, even on a perfect, fresh day.  It was going to be really hard to run well and stay strong.  I finally hit the turnoff into Buckhorn and walked a bit over the rolling concrete hills through the campground.   For the first time, I was beginning to feel a little fatigue, but that seemed completely reasonable, given that I’d just completed the hardest 50k of my life and it just so happened to be at the beginning of an unrelenting 100 mile race.  I stopped to top off my bottles and drench my Buff in the spigot before catching the Burkhart Trail and beginning my descent down into the canyon.

Almost immediately, I noticed that my quads were really screaming on the downhill and began praying I’d reach the creek soon.  Nothing stabbing or unbearable – just enough pain to make running well a bit more uncomfortable.  I had been religious on my gels and saltstick all morning and water was flowing like wine, so I was at first a bit confused by the soreness I was feeling.  In retrospect, it’s easy to see that I’d been using my brakes quite a bit on the descents through the high country to protect my knee and as such, I was beginning to feel the logical effects.  If you run mountains, you know that by brakes I mean quads, and now you too can hypothesize as to where some of the troubles began.  Nevertheless, I did my best to get down to the bottom and double-checked the turn taking me across the water.  You’ll tend to do that when you miss it in training and end up with a helicopter out looking to rescue you and two friends who apparently wanted to go to Palmdale.  I couldn’t help but laugh at the though of Peter running up to the campground and grabbing some kid’s beer out of exhaustion, dehydration and relief.  And then I shuddered at the memory that it was a Miller Lite.

Once on the other side of the canyon I began slowly picking away at the climb, trying to run as much as possible.  This wasn’t working.  The heat had my heart pounding in my head and I could feel the GU rising in my chest.  Unless I slowed things down, I was going to be puking out my calories, which was only going to make things much, much worse.  So I reeled it in a bit and began hiking a little slower, allowing my heart rate to go down and my stomach to settle.  Eventually, a few runners began to catch up which didn’t surprise me, but did dampen my spirits a bit.  How was I, the girl who loves the heat and had heat trained for months via barre classes in a 115 degree room, having so much trouble and all these other people weren’t?  Tiffany and Andy Salinger caught up on one of the steeper climbs, working hard, but looking much fresher than I felt.  Andy had paced Dom last year and implored me to keep up – it was my turn this year – but I knew my limits and let them go.  I walked an awful lot through the canyon and a lot more of the gradual fireroad than I care to admit.  Even still, I recognized that low points were bound to happen and I was simply having one of mine.  I just needed to stay focused, do everything I could with everything I had and take notes for next year. *  As such, I began ordering myself to run intervals up the climb, remembering that I was usually always capable of a little more than my mind wanted me to believe.  Before long, I had reached the last section of Cooper, which involved a series of way too many switchbacks leading up to Cloudburst.  I powered through, remembering it wasn’t as bad as it seemed and knowing that there was a bunch of ice waiting for me at the top.
*which is why this blog is ridiculously, ridiculously long

I popped out of the forest at mile 37.54, now back at 7,000 feet, and my crew immediately went ot work on cooling me down.  June draped a towel filled with ice water and particles of heaven over my back, and I sat for a moment to get down some Gatorade and Pringles.*  Again, everyone at the aid station told me how much better I looked than everyone else coming out of the canyone and that I was running a smart race.  I just told them I wasn’t trying to run myself retarded today… which interestingly enough, reminded me to inquire about Dom.  The word was that he’d had a rough morning, but was coming back alive.  I didn’t know exactly what this meant, but I knew he was out there suffering too.  As such, I got up, grabbed my new bottles and jogged right out of the aid station to the cheers of my family and friends.  I was looking forward to this next section – which was highly runnable on a little more forgiving terrain.
*Snacks of Champions

My amazing crew of Erin Maruoka, June Caseria and Peter Williams gets me ready for the next chapter of my journey.  @Cloudburst - mile 37.54  (photo: Kevin Chan)