Monday, September 19, 2016

Inspirational Quotes

Guys, I’m not one for quotes. I just want to get it out of the way now that I personally believe that basing an entire work of writing upon someone else’s quote is, while effective, usually pretty lazy, and it’s not a literary device that I like to rely on. Don’t get me wrong – I love me a piece of perfectly written prose, and I’ll occasionally pepper one into my writing or display one in a prominent position for inspiration, such as this brilliance above my monitor at work:

The point is, I’m more of a fan of dissecting inspirational quotes and poking holes in them, versus posting them in a pretty font on Instagram. Let's take the phrase, “you are limitless,” for example. I mean, that sounds fantastic, and it’s certainly a great mindset for the arbitrary boundaries we place upon ourselves. But is it true? No, I’m sorry to report, but you are, in fact, “limited.” By genetics. And by a huge variety of outside circumstances. I’ve come to believe that a blind faith in one’s limitless potential can be absolutely bone crushing when results don’t echo effort level. Completely ignoring the reality of boundaries creates an atmosphere of expectation and entitlement. For me, recognizing and accepting limits is crucial to taking a more realistic approach to everything I do and being more satisfied with the effort itself, regardless of the outcome. In this case, a more reasonable approach might be to recognize the boundaries and then try to overcome them anyway. So how I’d change the quote to be more inspirational for my personal mindset is this:

I swear, if I see someone posting this on Instagram out of context...
While this practice of destroying everyone’s favorite quotes may seem a bit cynical, I’ve actually found it to be pretty therapeutic in trying to focus my own mindset with regards to both running and life. It’s helping me transition from a place where more is always better, and everything is all in, all the time. If that sounds fucking exhausting, let me assure you, it is. And that’s where I find myself these days. But the imperative thing is that I’ve noticed it, and I’m taking active steps to get my brain in control before I destroy myself. Checking myself before I begin wrecking myself, if you will. That’s a quote in which there are no holes to poke.

So there’s this Bukowski one that I see all the time, and it goes: “Find what you love and let it kill you.” It’s usually attached to the context of pursuing one’s greatest passion, and it’s really a lovely way to express obsession, to be honest. But what if what is killing you isn’t actually the “thing” itself, but all the other things that go into it? Like blind faith, his cousin, blind ambition, can be extremely dangerous. Nothing is ever singular in focus, and when we refuse to not only recognize but give attention to the myriad of connections that make a certain event happen, (good or bad,) we’re operating in a state of disservice to self and surroundings.

‘Ole Bukowski certainly did love a lot of things – his work, his drink, his women – and he definitely pursued all with a fervor that could have killed him. But what I find most intriguing about his oft-quoted quote, is that in the sequel on his gravestone, he simply says, “don’t try.”  So how in the hell do you do something with such a passion that it could kill you, but give no fucks in the process? That is precisely what I’m trying to do here.

 Gosh, that sounds like an overly deep and dramatic reason for deciding not to run a race next week. Bukowski? Really?! But don’t worry, it gets way deeper than that.

So, I had two 100-milers planned this year: the Hardrock Hundred in July and The Bear 100 in September. I won’t be starting either of them, and neither for the typical reasons, nor any reasons I’ve ever encountered. Hardrock was my dream race, and Bear was to be a redemption run*. I entered the year excited to train hard and achieve shit. It was a good place to be.
*I dropped at mile 75 from hypothermia in 2013.

By Spring, I found myself fully in the throes of planning and crafting my own wedding, working 15+ hour days, but still training, training, training. Admittedly not as many miles as I’d hoped, but I became a hero in my own mind for how well I was “balancing” it all. This balance was not achieved by giving 33.333333333333% equally across items, but rather with 110% effort to each. Which if you are saying is statistically impossible, I KNOW. AND THEREIN LIES THE PROBLEM.

When I finally arrived in Silverton, two-and-a-half weeks out from The Big One, the overwhelming emotion prevailing was not excitement or readiness.  It was relief. I had somehow gotten through it all, and not just survived, but thrived. Everyone had a wonderful time at our wedding and appreciated each of my time-sucking details*. I had a new TV spot on air and a desk full of shiny advertising awards. My quads looked like I had been climbing straight up mountains for a few months, because I had been climbing straight up mountains for a few months. Hardrock was to be my reward for putting my head down and getting it all done. Somewhere along the way, I had decided that running Hardrock was the singular thing that made it all worth it.
*For an example detail, I handmade a unique gift for each of our guests. We had over 100 guests. There were many steps involved.

Of course, by now you know that I didn’t actually get to run Hardrock.  In a historical first, drawn at #5 on the Never Started waitlist, I never got bumped to the list of entrants. And to make it all a little more dramatic, I was standing on the starting line, dressed out, ready to go when the clock struck 5:45am race morning. Someone hadn’t shown up and was given 30 seconds to check in. In what was arguably the cruelest twist of fate of all twists of fates ever, my dream died with 20 seconds to spare. I had sacrificed all my vacation days for this. I sacrificed a honeymoon. I sacrificed a week of tapering in the beautiful San Juans when I could have been running. I probably sacrificed a few things I shouldn’t have, and I felt pretty foolish, to be honest. I was finally standing on my most coveted starting line, prepared, ready and with pure adrenaline coursing through my veins. Just like the other runners. I was finally a part. But the reality was that in a mere second, the pack began the journey, and I remained still.

Fortunately, I was in a beautiful place, with my favorite people and there were still 147 other runners who were out there running, battling and altogether Hardrocking. So I dried my tears, and went out for a great time cheering on top of Grant Swamp, drinking beers in Ouray, pacing all night, drinking a few more beers, and watching finishers. As I have for the past 6 years at Hardrock, I had an amazing time. And before I knew it, I was back at my desk, working long hours and hoping I would just find my running spark again the next week so I could take advantage of my altitude training and get to work for The Bear. I thought I was fine, because while I went all in for Hardrock, I always knew that there was a chance I wouldn’t get to run. I had a backup plan with a September 100. And when it all went down, I never felt “crushed” or “devastated” or all the other words people tried to ascribe to my being. Just because I’ve been obsessed with the race for almost a decade doesn’t mean that I deserved to run it any more than anyone else. So while I was disappointed, I wasn’t angry. In fact, I was surprisingly optimistic.

If I had run Hardrock, I wouldn't have been doing this. And this was awesome.
photo: Gina Lucrezi

But the spark never really came. An unexpected opportunity arose to jump into the Angeles Crest 100, the only other race that has the same kind of power over me that Hardrock does. Although I was hesitant, Dom and I decided I should go for it. And I failed hard. My legs and lungs felt amazing, and I was running extremely well – but from the first gel, my stomach was unexplainably off. I ended up puking for many, many hours and finally dropped at mile 42. I was still puking, had started peeing blood and despite the heat, was absolutely freezing cold.* This just sent me deeper down the hole and grasping even harder to get out.
*Fun sidenote: I just discovered that I was using some protein powder that expired in 2014. I don’t know for sure that this is what did it, but at least I now know that protein powder can expire.

For my next trick, I decided that I was going to go run the entire High Sierra Trail, because I always said that if I didn’t get to run Hardrock that’s what I was going to do. It was awesome, but again (but unrelated), I ended up puking halfway through and didn’t keep any calories down for over 12 hours.* Somewhere in the middle of the Sierra backcountry, I sat down on a log and completely melted. I wasn’t going to run long anymore. No more races. No more adventures. Nothing. Of course, once I finally was able to keep food down, via a fortunate opening and dinner at Bearpaw Meadow, the “never” aspect of those statements was recanted. But there was still something true at the core of them.
*Another puking sidenote: I suspected that it might have been a yerba mate shot that did it. I took another yerba shot in a recent race and puked immediately. These things have been my liquid gold in races for years, so I am horribly disappointed.

72 miles across the High Sierra. We can just pick up and do something like this any weekend.
Life ain't so bad.
It sure is beautiful. But remember, it tried to kill me.
At this point, I knew that I was still very capable of running 100 miles. Even decently well. And I loved getting out for adventures on the weekends. But during the week, I just couldn’t get myself out of bed before work to train. I’d wake up to the alarm and immediately be paralyzed by the overwhelming thoughts of how much I had to do that day, and how there would be even more asked of me and I’d fall further and further behind and I still had nothing to show for it. (Besides a shiny new husband, but you know what I mean.) And so most days, I’d bury my head and hide until the very last minute I had to get out and head to work.  So it wasn’t really running that I was avoiding, per say. Once I was on my bike and on the way to the office, I always wished I could just ride to a trailhead then and there. And so I’d make a pact with myself that I’d go after work. This worked on occasion. But more often than not, I’d work too late, come home, crack a beer and go hide in my cave. I started reading a lot, not necessarily for enjoyment, but to distract me from the obligations of my own life. That’s when I realized I had a problem.

My friend and coworker Bob used to always tell me, “see Katie, the problem is that you tried.”  This was usually in reference to some piece of creative that I had spent an inordinate amount of time on, fought for and/or had completely decimated by someone else involved in the process. And while it seems all a bit dark and fatalist, there is an important bit of truth in it.  Often our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness. And often we can’t recognize it, because it is usually serving us so well that we don’t see all the tiny ways it is simultaneously destroying us. Killing us. My husband is probably one of the most optimistic people I know and doesn’t have a cynical bone in his body, but expressed a similar sentiment to Bob. “Katie, the problem is that you just care so much.”

And it’s true. I do. About my goals. About my work. About my obligations. About every single person in my life and what they think of me and whether I am affecting them in a positive or negative way. About hand-making every single guest to our wedding a gift and stressing every day about how I still haven’t written thank-you notes and the internet says that is super rude of me and how it’s going to take forever because I can’t just write a scripted note to each person and sign it and I definitely can’t have Dom help because his handwriting is atrocious and that I know that I should let it go but I won’t because I secretly love writing letters. About how I’m perceived. About every word I speak. About my actions. About everything I’m doing. About everything I’m not doing.

And maybe, just maybe, I cared a little too much about Hardrock. Of course, that’s the rub, because caring is exactly what got me to the starting line, confident in my ability to complete the hardest challenge of my life. But what happens when the rug comes out from underneath? What happens when you don’t even get to try?

To be honest, I don’t think I ever really gave myself the chance to process what transpired and assess my own mental state. Usually when you either don’t start or don’t finish a race, there is some very tangible reason why. You overtrained, you undertrained, you got injured, a life event occurred, nature occurred, you had complications during the race, etc.  Someone saying “no” 15 minutes before your dream race is a very new experience.*
*For the record, Dale did not actually say no. He gave me a hug.

But I buried it. NEXT GOAL. Furthermore, I pretty much refused to talk about any of it, for fear of how I might come across. It is human nature to view things through our own perception. And by most people’s perception, I must be heartbroken about the whole thing, so it would only make sense that I speak from a place of anger and jealousy. I have spoken and posted very little about my experiences this summer, but even those drew weird, fruit-themed accusations of sour grapes and cherry picking. While these interactions were few and far between, they only made me feel even weirder and guiltier about the emotions I was experiencing about not getting to try at one goal and failing at the next. And the emotions about having emotions.  OF COURSE, I REALIZED IT WAS JUST A RACE. OF COURSE, I REALIZED THERE WERE WAY MORE IMPORTANT THINGS IN THE WORLD. OF COURSE, I WAS GRATEFUL FOR WHAT I HAVE. OF COURSE, IT WAS NOT THAT BIG OF A DEAL.

But of course, it also wasn’t about running anymore, was it?  I’ve been fully aware of my tendency to overcommit and my seemingly inability to successfully balance the various aspects of my life for some time now. But I’ve also always, always been praised for it. Wow, you really do it all! And though it has always been a source of pride, it has also been a source of guilt. I joked about giving 110% to three different areas of my life, the the reality is that I wasn’t even giving each 33.33333%. I was giving each about 30% and there was a wasted 10% of sheer exhaustion. My wedding was a blast, but I felt tired and crappy the whole weekend. You can see it in my eyes in our photos. At my job, I’ve been putting in the work but haven’t been playing the game. You have to do both to have anything to show for it in the corporate world. Instead I just feel jaded.  I show my husband unconditional love every day, but I’m not doing a very good job of building a home with him. I have piles of old clothes and gear that I’ve been promising to get rid of for years. I own an old cabin with him that needs work. And I don’t have time for any of it. When it comes to running, well… we’ve already discussed how completely off-kilter I am there, so let’s not beat a dead horse, right?

A few weekends ago, I headed out to complete a route in the San Gabriels I’ve had my eye on for a long time. It involved cross-country travel, unknown, very seldom traveled areas, some Class 3 climbing, a ton of vert and represented a pretty bad idea. Nevertheless, I headed out into the morning with a friend to see what we could see. It was harder and slower than expected, but for the first time in a great long while, I really enjoyed every bit of it. Both the beauty and the suffering. I started to talk myself back into running 100 miles in a few weeks and told myself I’d book all the travel arrangements the next day while recovering. I was BACK, baby.

I mean, come ON. This view was going to leave me with the feeling of
invincibility, whether I liked it or not.

But then as I laid in the sun, completely covered in cuts, bruises, bites and the rashes of two different poisonous plants, I knew that it still didn’t feel right. I gave myself until Tuesday to decide, but I already knew my answer. While at Hardrock, I didn’t get to make the choice not to run, for The Bear, I still had the chance. For the first time in my life, I willfully took myself out of the race before it even started. Healing my compulsory behaviors isn’t going to come from one of the most compulsive activities on the planet. 

So for now, I’m going to work on finding a way to care enough but less; the proper amounts of fucks to give, if you will. On a macro level, I understand that it is all meaningless. What is running compared to REAL events and problems of the world, right? But on a micro level, it’s exactly how I deal with that horrifying fact. Running ultras is my feeble attempt to add meaning and structure to an otherwise chaotic and inconsequential existence. I realize how extremely dark and cynical that sounds, but it’s actually quite the opposite if you think about it. It’s how things matter to me, even when they don’t matter in the grand scheme. It’s how I get a glimpse into a feeling of connectivity with the world, when the scientific reality is that to the world, I am but a blip who will eventually return to dust. At my high school graduation, when I was but a wee naïve laddess, I spoke about how there is always a focus on finding the meaning OF life, when it seemed to me, like we should be focusing on just putting meaning IN our life.  I’m not sure that I really knew what in the hell I was talking about at 18 years of age, but I now see that I was on the brink of a deeper understanding on where I needed to keep my focus in order to stay generally happy in life. I mean, I royally fucked that up for some number of years in my 20s, but I think I’m coming back around to that idea now.

That’s why it’s so hard for me not to run The Bear. Running 100 miles is always a journey for both my body and mind, and I always feel fulfilled while and after doing so. No other distance can do it for me quite like that. It’s hard for me to say no to trying. Especially when there’s a good chance it could be a decent if not great race for me. It’s hard not to care, when caring is exactly what makes me feel whole. But the deal is, until I can get a goddamned grip, I have no business doing so. I know I’ll be better for it in the long run, and my running will stay as a positive addition to my life rather than an unsatisfied compulsion for feeling like I’m enough.  So I’m not running Bear 100, and instead I’m going to work on this cool thing I learned:

You don’t have to care so deeply that it defines you. This notion is romanticized, but if you do, it will fucking destroy you.

In other words (to keep this thing epigraphical), as my dad has been telling me for years - 

I should def start an Instagram of these things.

Here’s to a beautiful Fall of 50ks, adventures, a second wedding, fixing up our home, volunteering, loving my husband, and being ok with saying no.

ADDENDUM:  Guys, it’s working. I decided to go forth with a skyrace style 50k for which we already had travel booked, but truly approached it as a sightseeing adventure. It never once felt like a race, because deep in my heart, I didn’t want it to be. And as it turns out, it was probably one of my best efforts ever. (My goal is to write more on this in a separate post, because the awesomeness that was Ultra Santa Fe, and Santa Fe in general, deserves more than just a little mention.) This past weekend we erected some scaffolding at the cabin, and successfully built, wired and installed recessed lighting, plus we bought a wood pellet burning stove! While I won’t be running 100 miles at The Bear in a few days, I will, instead, be beginning a massive insulation project where I get to use power tools. Also, I have written two thank-you notes, it took way too much time, and I have no regrets.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Georgia Death Race

When going into a race undertrained, the mind passes through three distinct phases.  

The first is the harsh realization of the general state of things, and even worse, that there’s not a gosh darn thing you can do about it. At this stage, the best idea seems to be to just back away quietly. Cancel plans. Stay in bed. Be responsible. You know this is the logical thing to do, and you congratulate yourself on being so smart and mature.

And then the second stage hits. This is the fantasy portion, with a heavy focus on delusions of grandeur. Maybe the lack of miles in training has left you fresh? Maybe you’ll actually run better this way?  Further evidence is found in vindicating every single thing you did in the last two months that was even moderately good and how it all applies to the task at hand. You find yourself saying things like, “that run was only 15 miles, but there was an AXE involved.” This stage is actually really fun, because it mainly consists of telling yourself how fantastic you are.

Axe-based things.
So, while it’s good that you’re now focusing on what you have done, rather than what you haven’t, in some circles, that’s also described as over-rationalizing. And when the fog of self-importance clears, and you begin to understand that’s what you’re actually doing, the final stage hits.  This stage could best be described as “Fuck it.” In other words, you just pack up what you got, sashay out the door and proceed.

This is how I found myself sitting in the conference room of the Amicalola Lodge last Friday evening, watching people receive snakes from the backpack of an Army Ranger. We were told this was to help us conquer our fears. Apparently there was a lot to be dreaded in running from Vogel State Park back to Amicalola – 68 miles through the Northern Georgia Appalacians, as the t-shirt stated. Which was actually more like 70 if you asked someone, and in reality was more like 72 if you consulted a GPS.  Also the race very clearly had the word “Death” in the title.

Undeterred, at 8am, I, along with over 200 other souls left a lake in the woods and went to work on the old mountains. The air was heavy and sticky, with the afternoon’s storm clouds hanging low. Within a few miles, I was already drenched in sweat, but a delightful breeze kept me quite comfortable. I knew that even if the miles eventually caught up to me, at the very least, I was going to have a few hours of flow and happiness out there. I could tell from the start it was going to be a good day.

Straight away, I watched the lead pack of ladies fade off into the distance, like a majestic pack of steeds. They were chasing a Western States Golden Ticket, four of them for only two spots. While it would have been a blast to mix it up with the thoroughbreds for awhile, and pushing just a little harder would have allowed me to do so, I knew that I was not a horse in this battle today. If I had any hope of finishing this thing in one piece, it was absolutely imperative that I made all of my own choices in relation to myself and myself alone.

I thought a lot about the legendary Diana Finkel out there, and her seemingly singular focus on one race year in and year out. I can’t say if it is her calculated plan, but from the outside, it appears that she runs a few spring races pretty chill compared to what she unleashes every July in the San Juans. I’ve seen it firsthand – she picks tough races, starts off closer to mid-pack and just runs consistent as hell throughout the day. And while she always finishes close to (or at) the top, it’s nothing compared to the insane performances she throws down at Hardrock. I can’t help but think she’s got her eye on the prize from the moment the clock strikes midnight on the new year. And boy do I want her prize.

Once the pack began to spread out, I found myself going back and forth with a handful of characters. There was an Atlanta local with a fantastic beard who gave me intel on what to expect throughout the course.  There were two women, and a couple other dudes – definitely a motley crue of sizes and ages. What they all had in common, however, was that they were absolutely crushing me while hiking the steep uphills. By this point, we had reached the famed Duncan Ridge, and it was all playing out as billed. Straight up, straight down, up and over, do it again.  I’d actually fully expected to be destroyed by some locals on this kind of stuff. But what I didn’t expect was how well I was taking the downhills, by comparison. They were rocky and steep, sometimes muddy, and sometimes following the Missouri-style “trail by braille” – with a layer of leaves obscuring the rocks and roots underneath. What this meant was that we all kept jostling for position for hours on endThis was a bit difficult on the narrow trails, so in some cases, I found myself putting on the brakes, rather than deal with it. It really didn’t bother me at all, though, because I was honestly just thankful to be feeling pretty good while I was tackling the most difficult part of the course. To make matters awesome, the sun was finding a way to break through the deep indigo clouds every now and again, casting spotlights on the green valleys below. While the forest all kind of looked the same to me, at least it was a beautiful and familiar same. It reminded me a lot of the trails of my home state – the Ozark Mountains of Missouri.

This isn't actually terrible!
(photo: Dom)
I chose the Georgia Death Race specifically for Hardrock training. While not at altitude, the 20,000’ of vertical ascent in 68-or-70-or-72 miles seemed like a good thing to tackle in March, since I wasn’t going to be running up over 13,000’ anywhere anyway. I knew there would be a significant amount of hiking involved, and I knew it would be difficult – plus I’d always wanted to run an East Coast ultra. There were also other reasons.

I hit another extremely steep up and for the first time, I actually stopped to catch my breath halfway up. My heart was about to leap out of my chest, and my lower back was killing me. My legs felt great, but I wondered how much more of this I could take before I fried myself from the inside. I had done so much hiking in my training – so I was surprised it was having this effect. Another reason I signed up for GDR was that it seemed to favor a gritty climber over a pure runner. And since I consider myself much more tough than talented, I figured this might be a good fit for me. You figured wrong, Katie. You figured wrong.

But just like that we hit another downhill, and this one really went down for awhile. Eventually, I turned off on the one indicated out-and-back of the course, which would take me down to the next aid, plus give me a chance to see how the battle royale was ensuing. My main focus, however, was attempting to stay in the moment and enjoy the nice cruise down. Because in this case, what goes down must come up. And this was going to suck.

Actually though, it didn’t really suck at all. Perhaps it was discovering that I was actually only minutes behind the chase pack of ladies. Or perhaps it was hearing from the bearded Atlantan that I’d just completed the Dragon’s Spine portion of the course. And most likely it was filling my little soft flask with Coke. But the point is that I started running sections of the climb back out. A few weeks prior, I had found myself running with my friend Marshall, who had completed last year’s edition of the Cruel Jewel 100. He regaled me with tales of this Dragon’s Spine bullshit, where he claims he walked every step for 20 miles.  While I realize that this was during the later stages of a 100-mile race, I was still pretty apprehensive about arriving to this section. And yet here, I’d completed it before I even knew it had begun! Rejoice!

The next aid had me finally seeing Dominic – now 28 miles into the dang thing. The sun had begun to really heat things up, and I was happy to get a full dousing as well as sit and stretch my hips a bit as I refilled my pack for another 20 miles without crew. There was a chance it could be dark by that point, so I threw in some extra caffeination and treats, figuring if the moment of undertrained truth came, it was likely going to happen somewhere in the next 5-6 hours. I wanted to give myself a fighting chance. And maybe something that tasted like candy, so I would be less sad.

(faces: me)
(photos: Dom)
What this meant was that my pack was again, quite heavy. 1.5 liters of water, a small flask of Coke, 6 hours of calories, plus all the required gear including the railroad spike. Did I mention we had to carry a railroad spike the whole way? We did. It was weird, and I was into it.  Hiking hard out of the aid in the heat, plus a belly full of protein recovery drink to digest was the perfect recipe for instant sensations of crappiness. Legs good. Stomach wonky. I understood what was happening though, and focused on getting the caffeine from the Coke down to try to speed up the digestion. Salt was burning my eyes. The same folks were catching up to me and passing me, this time what seemed for good. Was this the classic ‘first phase of discomfort,’ which I experience in every long race somewhere between mile 30-40, but which always passes? Or was this the way it was now going to be? It was hard to say.

Initial discomfort always leads to questions of why I am running. Now, it’s never because I want to stop, rather more of an existential thing that I can never quite come up with a good enough answer for. Today, instead of trying to answer it, I let my mind wander to the thoughts of others.  I became very sure that they, too, had these feelings and so I thought it proper to give them a name. The Way DTs. The Why-Are-You-Doing-This moments. Subconsciously, I found myself talking another imaginary runner down from these thoughts, and in the process, talked myself down as well.

It was if the trail sensed a change of chapters at that very moment, which obviously necessitated a change of scenery. The sound of loud, rushing water gave way to fleeting glimpses of a river through the trees. I suddenly remembered I had been promised a swinging bridge of sorts, and for whatever reason, this excited me greatly. I motored down to the water to see what I could discover.

What I discovered was awesome. Tourists moved to the side as I bounded across the bouncing bridge, giggling gleefully to myself. On the other side, some dude offered me moonshine. And then the heavens opened up, the wind howled, and it freaking POURED. I started running, and I didn’t stop. I felt everything.

Here I was, having had the worst flu of my adult life only weeks prior.  Here I was, with admittedly undertrained legs but what I was realizing was an extremely well-trained mind.  It was so far from where I’d been not too long ago.  A place every run was a chance to push as hard as I could. Every race was a battle to prove myself. And yet every single day was an utter disappointment. For a generally happy person, that’s a pretty shitty way to live your life, let me tell you what.

The rain eventually abated, but my renewed sense of stoke did not. At this point, I had cranked some Marshall Tucker Band, and was bordering on D-Bo level.  The MOST stoked person I know. I sang every other word as I went to work running every step, both up and down.  Nothing hurt. Nothing mattered. I was fully and wholly in it. The flow I had forseen.

Unsurprisingly, I started catching various groups of people.  At first, it was the folks I’d been jockeying with earlier on Duncan Ridge – I told them I’d see them later as I passed, but I had an unshakable feeling that I wouldn’t. Then it was others, whom I hadn’t seen all day – and people who looked way faster than I. I tried really hard to doubt myself, but I couldn’t. “Ride me a Southbound…. All the way to Georgia, now… ‘till the train run out of track.” Yes guys, that’s my plan.

Eventually, I hit a gravel road and soon after, another aid station. Just as unexpected as my 40-miles-but-fresh-legs was the knowledge that I’d be running this same rolling road all the way to the next crew spot.  Now, while I’m normally a total slut for singletrack, the ability to open my stride on the road was melting all the tension away from my lower back and hamstrings. So I was elated with the news. As such, I filled up with more Coke and set about getting to Dom again before dark. I had told him that if I reached him there before nighttime, that would mean I was doing way better than expected. This was clearly going to happen, and I was overjoyed, as I’m sure was he. Crewing at 2am is the worst.

The race had officially turn into a runner’s race at this juncture, and the most confusing thing in the world to me was that I was now excelling in the part that would normally be my downfall. I had hiked hard, yet been supremely outhiked in the first 30. I spent the majority of the first half of the race in 8th-10th place for the women, back in the 60s overall.  Now I was cruising the groomed road and and most of the folks I passed were walking.

I rolled up to my last refill with Dom, and we did another big protein reboot. I didn’t want to drink it, knowing how I felt the last time, but knew I needed to, again – remembering how renewed my legs felt once it digested. I threw in extra caffeine, extra solid food, and plenty more VFuels – which were the one thing I was loving all day. At each juncture, I had eaten every single one of them in my pack, with a heavy emphasis on the Peach Cobbler flavor. Because, Georgia.

Being a runner in the runner's race portion.
(photo: Dom)
Also, did I mention I gave myself a Death Day for my Birthday? HOW DID I NOT 

Heading out into the evening, Dom ran alongside and talked tactical things with me – like, not getting cold, remembering to eat solid food, and keeping my general wits about me. He was happy to see that I was doing so well up to this point, better than expected by both of us, but also knew that there was almost a marathon to go and I hadn’t even run a marathon in distance yet in 2016. We were both acutely aware that there was still plenty of time for shit to go haywire.

I hit a lake just as the light was beginning to change, and stopped for a moment to soak it in. Whatever happened tonight, I had done so much more than I ever expected, and I knew I could take the pain of a few miserable hours if need be. During the “Fuck it” stage of my pre-race mentality, (which you can recall was the third and final phase), I began to get the feeling that I could at least finish the thing. That was now increasingly seeming like a reality, and I felt really, really proud of myself. I set about getting to the next aid station before dark. I later discovered that I was now catching people that were at one time an hour or more ahead of me. I was legitimately Diana Finkel-ing this thing.

The rest of the race was pretty uneventful, to be honest. My stomach never really recovered from the last round of protein – probably because I started running pretty hard, so I felt a little shitty for the rest of the evening. At one point, I started running on a concrete road, which was actually a backwoods highway to a very, backwoods community and if there was ever any doubt about my body’s ability to produce cortisol and adrenaline, said doubt was now officially vanquished. For starters, I didn’t really know how long I was going to be on this thing, so I kept wondering if I had missed a turnoff. For seconds, a kid told me “you gotta go all the way up the mountain. GOOD LUCK.” which seems sweet, but he said it in a super ominous tone. And for thirds, this lady in an SUV pulled a U-ey going like 40 miles-per-hour and almost slammed into me. Her husband, or guy or whomever was standing on the corner and basically told me she was drunk and I “gotta watch out for her – she’s crazy,” despite the very apparent fact that he was also drunk. And crazy. Of all the things I’ve ever encountered while running in the mountains, this immediately became the worst. There was actually a very good chance of getting hit by a drunk driver out here. It was concerning.

On the last roller of Take-Your-Life-Into-Your-Own-Hands Road, I caught up to Nicklaus Combs from Boulder, who was to be my compatriot for the rest of the evening.  Unsurprisingly, he knew Dom, or knew OF him, which meant he had seen my run bun in a great number of Instagrams and could see me approaching. He, too, was happy to have some company and we began to work together on the rest of the climb up the mountain.

We continued to reel people in, and eventually caught one of the last women I’d remembered seeing pass me early on. At the last aid station, they had told me I was in fifth, which meant that someone had dropped. I now knew it was one of the four women vying for the Western States spot, and I knew how badly at least three of them wanted it. My heart went out to whomever that might be, but from what I’d heard, it had been a proper battle for most of the day, so I hoped said lady was now resting with a beer and the knowledge that she’d given it a very good fight.

Nicklaus and I kept it up all the way to Amicalola. My stomach was officially jacked and I’d decided to just rely on a drip of Coke for the last few hours unless it became apparent that I would need some major calories. I had one VFuel left amongst my arsenal of solids, and I knew that was all I could stomach if it came down to it. The last two aid stations require 9+ mile sections between them, so at the last I made my final move: stuffing my pack with Ritz crackers and downing the Yerba Maté shot that had been jabbing me in the ribs for the last few hours. I knew there was a chance it could wreck my stomach, but also, I didn’t want to carry it anymore and it was $4, so I didn’t want to throw it away. This constitutes the biggest risk I took for the day, and it was mainly based on economics.

Running with a new friend for the last few hours really added to the experience for me. There was no focus on legs or self or place or really anything other than getting to the end. We chatted about our upcoming weddings, life, and all sorts of things. We waited for each other to take bathroom breaks. He pulled me on the uphill hikes. I pulled him on the downs.  Before long, we were reaching the lodge and the descent to the Amicalola Visitor’s Center. The first descent, that is.

Now, this is where Run Bum goes from some fun heckling about how we’re all going to die, and making us take the hardest route at all times, and being #sorrynotsorry and whatnot, to just being plain mean.  You literally get within yards of the finish line, and instead of collapsing across it in a blaze of relief and glory, you turn right.  YOU FUCKING TURN RIGHT.

Then you run up a trail to the base of 600 stairs that climb straight up the waterfall. There is even a sign that says, “Very Strenuous.” And if you are me, your heart goes absolutely haywire and you repeatedly exclaim up to Nicklaus, “This isn’t good, man.  Iiiii’m going to puuuuuuuke.” But then you eventually reach the top, and you look out on the land like you are Simba or some shit and everything the light touches is yours. Only it’s dark, so it’s not, but you still FEEL that way. And that’s what’s important.

Amicalola Falls, as depicted by the painting hanging in my parents' bedroom since 1980.
Amicalola Falls, as depicted by Dom's calves.
As we headed into the final descent, I chuckled to myself. Yet another reason I’d chosen this race is that it was more than 100k but less than 100 miles. I’ve been saying for awhile that my ideal distance would be a race of 78 miles, and now here I was, not exactly wishing for more miles, but knowing that if I had them, I’d continue to get relatively stronger.  72 just wasn’t quite long enough.

But like I said, I was perfectly fine with it being over. Now. For the Bum’s final trick, he made us cross a freezing creek rather than use the perfectly good bridge, but honestly at that point I was too out of my mind on an exhaustion/endorphin trip to find it anything other than a completely acceptable request. Nicklaus and I crossed together in 15:52, before midnight, in exactly the timeframe I thought possible if I had a good day and ran a smart race. We exchanged our rusty railroad spikes for new, also rusty railroad spikes, but these were engraved. The one that made the journey on my back was now laid to rest in a coffin, where I immediately noticed not many others resided. I ended up in my very favorite position – 4th – for the women, and 19th overall.  Seemed like a pretty good day for someone who was convinced she was horribly undertrained. 

I’m thinking it was definitely the axe.

Dom celebrating the death of Katie DeSplinter. The next race, I'll be a Grossman.
(photo: Ashley Walsh for EastUltra)

Shoes: New Balance Vazee Summit, aka the best shoe of all time
Socks: Injinji Snow OTC. Very stylish.
Pack:  Nathan Vapor Airess – my new fave
Fuel:  VFuel, Coke, 1 Picky Bar, Recovery mix, and 2 Ritz crackers. Just 2.
Headlamp: Petzl NAO

Shades: Didn’t wear any on my eyes, but I wore Julbos on my heart.

Recovery items.

Thank you, Mr. Run Bum for an absolutely fantastic race that we will for sure be back to do again. Georgia is good people. Thanks for having us!