All my life, I've been very competitive by nature. In many regards, this isn't a bad thing at all - as it's driven me to push myself and hold myself to higher standards in every aspect of my life. School, sports, work, relationships. I get what I deserve - but I've never been afraid to work really hard to get it.
I've seen competitiveness destroy my running before. When I first started running 'serious' races in high school, I was happy with every result. I just tried as hard as I could and it worked out. Whether I came in 5th or I won, I was pleased because I'd done all I could. Those were the blissful first years.
The latter years of my high school career were riddled with expectations. I had to win. I had to run fast times. I had to qualify for state and I had to place higher than I did the year before. I had learned that I was good, everyone thought I was good and so I had to be the best. I compared myself to everyone, not only in my races but really just everyone I felt threatened my climb to the top - school, dance, social situations, everything. I hated the pressure. I quit running. After a similar sequence of events in college, I quit dancing. I never really considered it, but for a long period of time, I really wasn't all that happy because of the things that made me the happiest.
Are you in a conundrum now? Well, I'm not. Read on...
Over the past three years of opposite-of-quitting-running (i.e. running ultras), I've said countless times that I've never really run a race I'm wholly satisfied with. I didn't run to my potential due to mistakes and bad mental spaces that destroyed my ability to push. I've read many accounts of great runners speaking of everything coming together on one magical day where they just ran brilliantly all day, even through fueling mistakes or tough spots - everything was just inexplicably awesome. Yeah. I've never had one of those days either.
Until last Saturday.
I guess it all started to click somewhere in and around my past few races. You see, I went in with the goal to win, and I won. I was the best on those given days. But it wasn't enough. There were awesome things I took away from the experiences, but something still wasn't right. In my mind, I picked apart the races and found other ways to compare myself and my performance. In each, I was only a matter of minutes or seconds off the course record - both of which were held by talented women I often compete against and accordingly, judge myself by. There were bad mental places in both races where I beat myself up for slowing down, or not taking an extra water bottle, or even said "if so-and-so were running you wouldn't be winning because you're not running hard enough." Are you annoyed with me yet? Yeah… I am too.
I will be honest: I definitely checked the list of entrants prior to last Saturday, and I did, for brief moments of time, fantasize about running with the outstanding names, passing them, and yes, even waiting for them at the finish line. And that's when it hit me. I wasn't going to derive any joy simply from crossing the finish line first. Immediately, I'd cut myself down - knowing that if any of the really big names had traveled down to SoCal for the race, they would have killed us all. True satisfaction could only come from tangible performance goals related only to me and the task at hand, without any extraneous variables. Immediately I set about constructing those goals:
- I reasoned that if I could run under 10 hours on this course (50 miles with 13,423 feet of ups; just as much down and SUPER technical) - I'd feel pretty confident about running sub-24 at Western States, maybe even faster.
- I wanted to push hard enough to be generally uncomfortable for the duration of the race.
- I vowed to run strong but in control over the first 20 miles; effectively allowing me to reach the largest climb of the race - Holy Jim at mile 28.8 - in good enough shape to run the 4,000 feet over 8 miles to the top.
- I knew that if I ran smart, I could realistically run every climb and really not have to hike much at all in this race - despite the high vert totals.
- I understood that there was still some degree of weakness in my knee, but wanted to run as hard as I possibly could on the descents.
|Dawn on the Chiquita Trail|
(photo: Jayme Burtis)
At some point, we were joined by Marianne Barosa (either from in front or behind - I don't really remember) and the three of us cruised into the first aid station at mile 10.8 together. Keira switched bottles with boyfriend, Jesse, on the fly and Marianne was wearing a pack and didn't need to stop - so I lost them as I quickly filled my single handheld. I figured that would be the end of that and I'd never see them again, which again, made no difference to me. I'd arrived at Candy Store around the time I'd predicted if I was having a good day and not running retarded, so that made me happy. Jesse told me that Maggie Beach and Amber Monforte had arrived a full 15 MINUTES before us which just seemed crazy to me. They couldn't have been that far behind the dudes, and that field was stacked (with Jorge, Prizzle, Fabrice Hardel, Eric Wickland and of course, my favorite boy).
|Heading to the Candy Store - clearly|
pissed that I will not actually be getting
(photo: Pedro Martinez)
As I hit the pavement towards the mile 20.8 aid station, I began formulating my plan for my bag of necessary items not being there. See, I had basically thrown my little red bag on the grass by the starting line and remembered something about Steve telling me the aid station wouldn't be there and me replying that it wasn't for Bear Springs. Accordingly, I had absolutely no idea if I'd have my gels and/or what Dom had done with the bag if he had found it. The backup plan was to stuff a handful of Hammer Gels down my bra, knowing full well they would wreck my stomach. Needless to say, I was really hoping to see that red bag. Luckily, as I cruised into the aid station solo, my friend Megan offered up the exact combination of words I wanted to hear, "GO KATIE! Your bag is at the aid station!"
God Bless you, Steve Harvey.
I quickly grabbed a new bottle out of my bag, pre-filled with Carbo-Pro powder and a Nuun tablet, and stuffed with all necessary PowerGels. I threw in some water, slammed a gel, and was on my way, Marianne and Keira both leaving just moments before me. Unfortunately said gel completely bombed in my stomach and I was brought to a screeching halt behind the first bushes I saw. I watched Marianne fade away up the trail and again, figured I wouldn't see her again. Oh well, the pit stop seemed to work and my stomach felt better - time to climb.
This next section involved a steep little ascent up to the Main Divide, and I figured I'd soon know if I'd overdone it on the first 20 miles. Now on my own, I put my head down and went to work, and before long Keira and Marianne appeared around one of the corners. They were hiking the steeper parts, but I felt no need to walk. It wasn't so bad compared to my typical climbs in the San Gabriels, and so I just moved along at my calculated pace - honestly not feeling much of an effort. The best part of this climb was finally getting high enough to begin enjoying the AMAZING view of my favorite snow-capped peaks off in the distance. It was so clear up there - you could see forever, which is a huge deal in Southern California. I let out a little whoop of joy and energized by the beauty, really sunk my teeth into the next steep section. Here I caught up to Keira running with Pam Everett and a little dejected. I told her that she would no doubt pass me on the next long downhill and I would never see her again, so not to worry. 23 miles is no time to make any decisions that you're having a bad day… you're just having a bad spot. Again, I knew I'd never be able to keep up with any of the lead women when the course turned down, as my knee was simply just not strong enough yet. But that was no reason not to try my hardest. Remember, THAT and that alone was the true goal of the day.
I caught up to Marianne at the Main Divide aid station, now almost to the halfway point of the race. She finally had to fill her pack I guess, and so I ended up leaving right behind her. Jesse hollered after me that Maggie was now only 5 minutes ahead of us and reminded me that her strength is the ups not the downs. "Welcome to the club," I said. Still, I was impressed with myself that I was catching back up because Maggie is freaking awesome. I actually really wanted to catch her just so I could enjoy some of the day on the trails with her, but I figured that would not likely be happening on a descent. Soon enough, Robert caught back up to me and then Keira passed - all exactly as I figured. Marianne was long gone, and I just focused on getting down this seriously gnarly, rocky, drop off-y single track as efficiently as possible. I also had to focus on my stomach, which was now rampantly refusing calories on the downhill. Before long, I knew I needed another bush. Damn.
Pulling back onto the trail, I realized that the likely reason my legs still had so much zip was that I'd been downing calories like a champ between the gels and CarboPro. However, at some point it had become too much for my gut to bear, so I was going to have to chill. I started craving pure water over the CP/Nuun concoction, so I decided that I'd switch to pure water at future aid stations and see if that helped. I guess this stomach thing was my low point of the race, but funny, I never seemed to care too much because I was still moving decently well. I'd only lost a few minutes to pit stops, and look, now I had a new friend to run with! I was joined by Beto Campos, and we traded war stories of running AC with yucca spikes in the knee vs. rhabdo. By comparison, this day was magnificent for both of us, and before we knew it, we were entering the Holy Jim aid station, mile 28.8, and treated to a hearty greeting from Big Baz Hawley.
I quickly refilled and ate a gel on the way out, stomach lurching again. And two seconds later, I realize I failed to adjust my timing when I switched from my gel flask to the full gels. So I had just consumed over 300 calories in an hour - no wonder my stomach hurt! "Oh well, it will fade," I thought - better than the alternative of not eating enough. I also realized that yet again, I'd forgotten to inquire about how Dom was doing. I was hoping not to see him on the out and back, because that would mean he was running extremely well. We'll see soon enough.
Now for the fun part.
I'd been looking forward to the Holy Jim climb all day. It was the longest of the day, ascending 4,000 or so feet up to Santiago Peak, but over 8 miles, so not too steep. I'd run it before in training and knew that I should be able to run pretty much every step, unless I had completely destroyed myself in the first half of the race. Now was the time to see how much I had in me. Now was the time to push. Beto and I ran together for a few miles, passing another dude and chatting all the while, before I finally pulled away. I felt strong and in control and my stomach had settled down. In short, I was murdering this climb, just like I'd planned and I felt like I'd run about 10 miles… not 30. FREAKING SCORE. Maybe a half mile from the fire road, I heard an unmistakable yell which could only belong to one man. DOUBLE SCORE. Dom was passing Bear Springs already, and a quick glance to my watch told me he was on track for an awesome time.
When I had just about reached the end of the single track, I downed the last of my bottle, which I'd been conserving for the last mile. I probably could have taken another bottle here, and was just thankful that it was warm, not hot - or I would've definitely had issues. Just one last little push and up to the fire road…. where there was conveniently no aid station. Oh. Fuck. Had something happened? Was I going to have to go all the way to the peak completely dry? This was bad. This was very bad.
Luckily, I soon saw Fabrice and Eric hammering down the road and letting me know that the other women were not far ahead. They mentioned something about the aid station, so I knew it must be around one of these bends. Thank you, Jesus. Jorge flew by next, also encouraging me to keep pushing and catch the other ladies. I saw Keira's bottles on the side of the road, not yet retrieved by Jesse, so I knew the boys were right - they couldn't be too far. One turn later, I ran up to the aid station and realized that Dom and Chris were either way far ahead, or I had extremely poor yell recognition skills. There were so many activities going on and so many questions I wanted to ask, but I had to get my shit and get moving. Jesse confirmed that Dom was running in 2nd behind Chris as I dumped out the CarboPro in my pre-packed bottle, filled it with ice water and sucked down another gel on my way out. It was go time.
Here's a great example of how to use competitiveness effectively, learned by me on this 24th day of March, 2012: I had been running and observing all day, and my learnings concluded that while I wasn't quite back to downhill shape, I was running the climbs faster and easier than anyone. I originally thought I'd be hiking pretty frequently up this last push to the peak, but considering how fresh I felt, I knew this was the time to really go to work and see what I could do. Once we headed back down, I'd be annihilated, so my only hope for staying close to the leaders was to really work every little uphill I had left. And so I did just that. Not because I necessarily felt any need to catch everyone and win the race; but rather because I had learned a bit about how to use my strengths to my advantage and run the best time possible.
About 6 minutes before I hit the turnaround on top, Keira came absolutely bombing down the road, high out of her mind on adrenaline, sunshine and other such awesomeness. Later dude. See you at the finish. She was not going to be caught. 2 minutes later, Marianne passed, also running strong and clearly hunting Keira down. Looked like fun, but I was going to be out of that one. Good thing that wasn't my goal. A minute later I finally saw Maggie, who I'd been missing all day because she was being rude and running too fast :) She told me to catch her on the downhill, and I told her to catch the chicks in front of her. I was very much looking forward to seeing which of those two things might actually happen.
|Eating more gel, running every step up to Santiago|
(photo: Mieko Morita)
Before long, I was switching to my final dropped bottle at Bear Springs and officially on the home stretch. Unfortunately, said home stretch, was likely going to be the worst part for me, as it involved a largely downhill, hard packed, rutted out fire road. Plus, my toes were starting to feel really weird - almost like I had blisters, but that seemed entirely implausible. (I later learned that the poison oak between my toes had turned to giant blisters, which is why my feet were itching and burning all day. Thank goodness my Injinjis kept that shit under wraps.) There were no real breaks, and the uphill rollers were significantly steep - enough to halt you if you blew yourself out. The Goat wasn't going to let you off easy, even in these final miles. Fine by me. I didn't sign up for a spa retreat.
|At mile whatever on the Main Divide -|
probably singing to myself.
(photo: Deborah Acosta)
I ran strong on the downs, I pushed the ups, I ate more gel and I smiled so big my cheeks hurt. I could not believe I was feeling this good over 40 miles into a race. If it were 100k, I would be fine to keep moving. Hell, if you had told me to run 100 miles - I honestly believe I could've kept going. All this after admittedly running way too many miles the week prior, including the LA Marathon only five days ago. I blew right through the next aid station, waving to the volunteers and Pedro and Chris, who I'd now seen three times on various parts of the course, out supporting all the SoCal Coyotes running the race. A consult with my watch confirmed that even with the climbs, I was maintaining closer to an 8 minute per mile average pace, and if I could just keep it up, that PR would be mine. I couldn't remember if my best was 9:42 or 9:44, so I reasoned that I just needed to be under 9:40 to be sure. A little while later, I suddenly heard someone behind me. Oh shit! At the turnaround, the next guy was a good 10 minutes back or more - and I wasn't going super fast, but I also wasn't going slow. How was someone catching me? And why am I so bad at math?
|Why is the finish there? I want to keep running|
All said and done, I firmly believe I ran one of the best races of my life thus far - despite the fact that I know I can go even faster on this course once I have my downhilling back. I never once had a single negative thought - it was all pure business and pure enjoyment. I finally had that fabled perfect day, and I know why:
I only focused on what I could control.
I could control how hard I pushed.
I could control my fueling.
I could control my attitude.
I could control my race and my race alone.
Everything and everyone else were simply outside variables which I could use to further my goal, but that's it. So how could I let anything they did affect what I did? Just like I couldn't control them, they couldn't control me. And there it clicked. I was truly and deeply satisfied.
I know there are many more Old Goat experiences in my future as I continue to progress as a runner, because it's all finally enough. I'm finally confident enough in myself and my training to run my own race.
FINAL BIG THANKS TO:
|"Baby. I had to use rocks."|
(photo: Jayme Burtis)
- Steve & Annie Harvey and family for a truly excellent race
- Pedro Martinez for giving me his spot in the race and then ninja-ing his way about various points on the course all day
- Chris Hays for the cheers and scaring me into running faster on the Main Divide
- Jayme Burtis for being out on the course and taking awesome photos
- Mieko Morita, Don Ozaki, Carmela Layson and all the fine volunteers for their amazing support, encouragement and rapid-fire bottle filling
- Robert Whited and Beto Campos for the great conversations on-trail
- Soup Lady - your post-race vegan chilli was excellent and honestly, about all my gel-tummy could take
- Monica Morant & New Balance for your endless support
- Injinji for the awesome socks for my freak toes
- Keira, Maggie and Marianne for helping push me to be my best; and finally...
- Dominic Grossman, for always believing in me. Now I believe in me too.