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.)


  1. Wow Katie... thank you for sharing. As a father, I am sure you have some very proud family members. Though we don't know each other, I wish you the best of luck in the future.

  2. Good shit Katie. Let's make it happen in 2014.

    ...or whatever you might decide to do first ;)

  3. You are one tough gal Katie. Much respect.

  4. Wow. Takes some balls just to get that into the ether. Sounds like you had/have the smarts to medically pull yourself. Live to die another day friend. No doubt it sux for now but it certainly doesn't define you. Peace Out. Steven in Austin. See ya soon!

  5. Can't wait to see your review next year Katie, it's going to be awesome!

  6. Katie Lady -
    If I could stand to write about my 2012 AC experience, it would go much like this. Sigh. I get this so much and give you much props for going on as far as you did. One day it will all come together, and then it will fall apart again. That's the nature of these silly things we do.

  7. Very honest write-up. Shit happens especially in 100 mile runs. I have no doubt you will be back in 2014 for that run of your life!!

  8. Thank you all so much. This was actually kind of hard for me to write - I kept having to take breaks when things got too heavy or I felt like I was sounding too negative. Because even after, I'm definitely not in a negative space whatsoever! On the contrary, I'm looking forward to what's next and already excited to push even harder next year. Feeling grateful that I did nothing that might have taken away the chance to try again.

  9. Hi Katie, I just came across this and it sounds similar to problems I experienced at UTMB this year. At least the painful urination and bladder issues, etc. Mine turned to vomiting and nausea and not shitting myself, but at some point, I just opted to call it a day as sometimes you can just tell that what you're doing is causing bodily harm and that it's just not your day. Some issues you fight through (sore quads, etc.), and others it just really doesn't make sense to (major internal systems imbalance). Live to fight another day and protect a body that will continue to carry us through the mountains for years to come if we respect it. And while we all pour our hearts into training for these things, no race is worth risking permanent damage. I hope that you get back out there soon and have the day you dream of. I can't wait for my next try.

    1. Thanks, Amy. I totally agree with you, and your words definitely add to the peace I've made with it all. I am very sorry to hear that you dealt with the likes at UTMB:( But I will only be cheering even harder for you when you take it on again.

  10. 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 love language quiz 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?