Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Two Cool Things

I know I've not yet completed my AC race report… which was 2 months ago. Yikes.  But, considering that that story has turned into an epic work of non-fiction, I've decided to take a quick break to post some more relevant, timely and exciting news.  

1.  I'm now running for New Balance!
This is super exciting to me for a variety of reasons.  The main being that over the past few years, their minimal line has helped to completely transform my running.  The R&D they are putting into their trail (namely minimal trail) shoes is like no other company out there and I am excited and honored to start being a part of it.  

If you've followed this blog for some time, you may note that I did run for another shoe company for a number of years.  During this time, I would still experiment with other shoes on the market for comparison purposes in everyone's search to find/create the perfect shoe.  When New Balance created the WT100, the gravitational pull could not be ignored.  In short, my feet fell in love.

Elissa and I flying down from the high country in our
(photo:  Dominic Grossman)
While I definitely consider myself a more minimal runner, it has become important to me to build an arsenal of shoes to train and race in.  Just as I need to vary my workouts to see the max benefit - so do I with what is on my feet.  Most days call for the WT101, others work in the Minimus.  Road runs and trail runs involving a lot of steep downhill firewood are done in the RC1400.  Soft sand runs and grass striders are done barefoot.  A flat, slow recovery day even works in the 890s, which is about as much of a heel as I'll ever go.  I can feel what my feet and body are calling for, and fortunately, New Balance has got an answer for me at every stage of my building up and breaking down.

The two recent additions to the New Balance Outdoor
Ambassador team @ Mt. Baldy Race to the Top
(cancelled mid-race due to weather)
photo:  Andy Noise
On a more emotional level, representing New Balance is special to me as an old pair of 760-somethings in a narrow width were my first "real" running shoes back when I started running cross-country in high school.  The very first pair were a set of mismatched size Reeboks from an outlet store in the Ozarks… which is why I say "real" pair with the NBs.  I've had about 16 pairs of the things over the last 13 years, and they've seen me through all sorts of running excitement and accomplishments.  I always try to emulate that first year of running - where I knew no boundaries and truly believed I could do anything.  Sometimes that's hard with all the ups and downs I've experienced, but slipping into a pair of kicks with a nice crisp N on the side is a good reminder of where I started and that unquenchable thirst for greatness. 

So basically, I can sum this all up by saying I don't believe in simply slapping a logo across your chest and getting free product if the product itself does not work for you.  In short, New Balance works for me.  It works really well.  And I'm stoked that they believe in me and my commitment to the sport enough to help support my efforts in making excellent happen.  And I'm getting on that as we speak….

This brings me to exciting thing #2:
I won a race!

I haven't won a race since high-school cross-country, so this is pretty cool.  It wasn't just my first ultra win; it was my first win in a very, very long time.  And the best part is, it was a last minute entry into a situation that was designed simply to kick-start my confidence into taking on higher mileage training again.  More on that:

Since finishing Angeles Crest with a nice, large swollen mass on my left knee; I've been purposefully timid in my reintroduction to ultrarunning.  I've sworn to myself that I would not race again until I was back to 100%, but also that I would continue to do as much as I could since I believe in active recovery for just about everything.  That has resulted in me spending every meeting at work digging my thumb into the large ball of scar tissue in my knee to work on dissipating it, and lots of running, stretching and strengthening.  I'm proud to report that it IS getting better.  But I have been dissuaded over the past few months by anything really long and with long downhills.  The pain comes back and I freak out that my body is not yet ready to handle the effort to train for and race the 100 mile distance.  And after a largely botched attempt, that is really what I want to do right now.

I was looking forward to crewing and pacing my amazing friend, Erin Maruoka, in running her first 100 miler at Rio del Lago.  She'd accompanied me during some very dark (both physically and metaphorically) miles during AC and I couldn't wait to return the favor.  Unfortunately, the Marocket came down with a nasty injury and on Tuesday made the responsible call to wait to run 100 miles when her body was ready.  The following few days went like this:  On Wednesday, I contacted our friend Lukas, the Pride of Slovakia, who was also running his first 100 to see if he'd like an extra crew member - since I was already going to be riding up with him on Friday and had the day off.  He thought it was a good idea to add, as he said, "a woman's touch" to the mix of very fast and very competitive boys, so that was done.  Then on Thursday, I got a wild idea:  maybe I should run the race?  No, no… running 100 miles would be an entirely foolish idea.  But wait.  There's a 50k….

After less than an hour of contemplation, I was registered.  A low-pressure 50k seemed to be just what I needed to get my confidence back and test where my body was.  Plus, while the course was hilly, it was all rollers - so there would be no long, hard-packed fire roads to destroy my knee.  After the Baldy Race to the Top was called off 2 mi from the summit (due to lightning and possible hypothermia) a few days prior, I was hungry for a race.

Dom, Lukas and I drove up Friday morning - after only a few hours of sleep, thanks to seeing these guys down in Orange County.  We immediately noticed how incredibly hot and muggy it was outside, and I was immediately thankful I wasn't the one running 100 miles the next day.  I was still running 31 miles…. but I kept forgetting that.  I was too wrapped up in the excitement of preparing Lukas for his first 100 mile adventure.  And laughing at the antics occurring in an Olive Garden, thanks to a four beer deep Tyler Olson and an encouraging Dominic Grossman.  

Team Lukas:  Tyler, Ankur, me, Mighty Mouse and Dom
Personally, I like the variant display of shoes - Newtons,
Toms, WT101s, Hokas and MT101s.
photo:  Tyler Olson
The next morning we rose early to make the 5am 100 mile start.  We saw them off and 2 miles in, and then the boys took off for a long and fun day of chasing Lukas around the lake.  I hung out for an hour, followed by an anticlimactic "go," signaling that I must start running.   A few guys took off immediately, as guys often do, and I settled into a solid and effortless 7:30 pace along the bike path.  It was still dark, but I was already sweating.  This was going to be fun.  

After about a mile, a ponytail went blowing past me to take the lead.  Mind you, I was still clipping along at that sub-8 pace for a 50k.  I knew there was absolutely no reason to give chase, so I let her go and enjoyed the easy, gradual downhill on the bike path to the turnaround.  Even still, I was already looking forward to being done with the concrete, so I was delighted when that turnaround point came.  As I doubled back, I couldn't help but size up my competition - even though I had vowed that this was only a race with myself and to test my current fitness level.  I couldn't help it.  And actually, it was a good sign that I still had a little fire in me.

When we hit the first hill on the way back, the girl from mile 1 slowed to a walk and I cruised past never to see her again.  I later found out she was only 15 years old!  Running an ultra!  AND it wasn't her first.  Crazy, seeing as though I didn't even know this shit existed when I was 15.  Mad, MAD props to Ms. Sarah Neal for being awesome.  

I crossed the levee to the other side of the lake feeling pretty good and took stock of the beach that I would be visiting in a few hours for a heavenly post race swim.  The air was sticky and I was already looking forward to that.  As I rolled along the trail next to the lake, I was treated to an absolutely stunning sunrise over the hills…. a flash of fiery red cutting through the morning clouds and reflecting off the water.  I was immediately glad I decided to do this.  Epic sunrises signal amazing adventures ahead, and that was exactly what I needed.

I quickly jammed through the first aid station, Twin Rocks, and begun my first go with the 'meat grinder' -  a delicious 6 mile section which Lukas and Jimmy would get to traverse 4 times.  Now, my first experience with this section was, "Really?  This is not bad at all.  Some rolling up and down.  A few technical sections.  Kinda rocky.  A few big uneven steps.  Eh."  Actually, I was kind of savoring in the whole "not as bad as I thought mantra" for the whole thing.  I thought I might hurt the whole time.  I thought I'd be running slower.  I thought the heat would be worse.  But none of these things were the case, and I was running pretty strong.  Even pushing it a bit.

As I got to the next aid station, Horseshoe Bar, the heat was definitely starting to rise and I looked forward to getting some ice in my bottles.  I also got a little unplanned 2 1/2 minute break here, as I think the two volunteers here were used to the more relaxed visits from the 100 milers and 100k-ers.  Oh well, they were super nice and it was nice to have a little conversation, as I'd been running alone all day.  Once filled, I took off for Rattlesnake - which would be mile 17.5 and my turnaround point.  I couldn't believe I was already almost halfway done and I was still running at a really great pace both up and down the hills.  Freaking sweet.  With the heat, the hills and my current state of rehabilitation, I reasoned that a sub 5 hour finish would be an A goal for the day - but as long as I was done by noon, I'd be happy.  The way things were looking, I was going to far surpass that goal and if I really wanted to explore where my red line was, I may even be able to crack a PR at the distance.  

I had begun passing some 100kers by this point and again, it was nice to see some other folks, bust out some high fives and altogether keep the energy rolling.  The heat was now in full swing and as I hit the exposed, dusty sections of the trail, I could feel it bearing down.  I only hoped that my stomach would not go south if I continued to push.  I had broken a few cardinal rules in the racing/nutrition department:  1.  never try anything new; and 2. especially don't try any new food.  So I already had that going for me.  BUT, I have to say, my little experiment was pretty much the best idea ever, because this is what I came up with:

Hydropak Softflask

Genius setup for speed
I call it the Moo Cow System.  Double the spouts for double the fun!  The system consists of a Hydropak gel softflask and my trusty Amphipod handhelds.  Normally, I can only fit 4 gels max in each zippered pouch and getting them in and out when stuffed to the gills is a challenge.  Especially when there are rocks to stumble on and trees to run into when you're not paying attention.  BUT, with the soft flask, I reasoned that I could load in 5 gels and rig it up so that I'd never have to fumble with wrappers.  This brought me to experiment number 2:  I normally use GU, simply because it never fails me.  Partially because the consistency is thinner than GU and would more easily flow through the valve, and partially because I had not consumed a GU since AC, where I ate roughly 57 of them, I decided to try Powergel instead.  Dom uses it and it hasn't killed him yet, so I reasoned that this would be an OK thing to do.  Let me just tell you, the results were astounding.  I took two pulls from the flask every 20 minutes, never fumbling with a wrapper and never breaking stride.  My only regret was only having purchased one softflask, so that eventually I had to duck into my traditional supply of GU packets.  Needless to say, I will be rigging up both my bottles like this for all future races.  Now if I could only find a solution for more easily popping my Saltstick.  I do have an idea on that, but it has yet to be engineered.  Stay tuned.

Same Rattlesnake Bar - post-race crewing Lukas, now
in the lead of the 100mi, never to be caught
(photo:  Dominic Grossman)
OK, miracle invention aside, back to the race.  The heat was up, my stomach was fine, my legs felt great and I was approaching the turnaround at Rattlesnake.  This was exciting, given that soon I'd see where the four guys up ahead of me were and see if I could work on picking any of them off.  Because that would be fun.  I soon discovered that the lead guy was way out front and uncatchable, the next two were maybe a possibility if I really started burning it and fourth was only a few minutes ahead.  I thought with any luck I might be able to catch at least one of them, but I wasn't going to burn myself out trying.  There wasn't really much point to that, considering that I wanted this race to begin a really solid block of training to build me back up to 100 mile weeks.  At the turnaround I decided to skip the refill, given that I was carrying two bottles and really only needed one and set into chase.  There were another couple guys in the 5-10 min range behind me, but the next women were spaced out 20-30 minutes back.  I realized here that unless I totally blew up, I was probably going to win this race.  Cool.  Now let's see how fast I can do it.

By the time I got to Horseshoe again, I was starting to cook a bit and realized my legs were starting to feel the hills a bit.  My pace had slowed a little and I realized the PR situation was now officially out of range, but sub-5 was still alive and I wanted to make it hurt just enough to deem the day a descent effort, but not enough to require recovery days.  Recalling the previous impromptu rest here, which seemed nice at this point but would not really be helpful in the above goal, I decided to forego the ice and simply fill one of my bottles myself with tepid water.  In and out and onward.

I reasoned that the next 6 mile section should take me an hour tops and that I'd be fine sans ice.  The volunteers had told me I was on the 'down' side of the course, whatever that meant, because I was pretty sure it was all just up and down - but that gave me a little confidence that maybe I could do it even quicker.  Enter the fear of the meat grinder.  I now understand.  This section actually took me closer to 70 minutes, meaning that my pace had slowed to above 10 minute miles, even though I was sure I was averaging 9.  The sun was scorching and the little patches shining through the trees and off the rocks created a dizzying effect, resulting in more than a few missteps.  I was eating, I was drinking and I was running - but I was really starting to hurt.  In short, my meat was ground.

By the time I reached the final aid station at Twin Rocks, I was ready to get this race over with.  Mind you, I was still running well and experiencing no real lulls of energy or cramping - but I was definitely getting tired.  I figured the runners up ahead were long gone and it was actually possible that someone might catch me, though I hadn't seen anyone on my tail.  I decided to stop here and load one bottle up with ice after what I'd just been through, and to my surprise, the girl at the aid station had a message for me.  "Hey, the guy ahead says your about to catch him and you should go ahead and get on with it."  This actually seemed like fun as I would have loved even a mile of company, so I decided to go on and push it in for the last five miles.

I knew soon that the trail would widen and the footing would be a great deal easier, meaning that I could really run hard to the finish.  The sub-5 time was going to be close, but if I worked hard, I could do it.  Sure enough, I soon hit the rolling section along the lake and really sunk my teeth into the steep ups and downs.  I was crunching the numbers in my head and I still had a shot.  I hit one particularly steep hill and focused on powering through, feeling a deep burn in my legs.  I reached the top and saw a yellow building that I didn't remember from the way out and there were no markers telling me which way to go next.  I actually didn't think this was all that weird, as there were a few places where intersections weren't quite clear and I just had to figure it out.  I knew there shouldn't be any more single track at this point, so I turned right past the structure and began heading down.  After a few minutes, I knew I should not be heading down for that long and realized that I was officially lost.  So I climbed back up and experimented with the other way.  Definitely also wrong. The only place to go was backwards until I found something that seemed likely or another person.  As such I ran back down the hill, shouting all the way - trying to hear if there was anyone else that could point me back onto the course.  A woman came out of her yard and told me she had seen ribbons back down by the road and maybe to check there.  Eventually I spilled out to a place where the trail had forked left, and upon studying the footprints in the dirt, concluded that this was the way to go.  Seeing that I'd already lost around 20 minutes on the ordeal, and that it was certain I'd been passed by at least one or two people - I decided to run back to the road where there were ribbons a plenty and grab one to mark the turn.  I'd heard that Rio del Lago is famous for having markers taken down by possessive homeowners along the lake that don't want us out there on "their trails," so I wasn't surprised by the lack of marking in a crucial place and don't fault the race management one bit.  I hoped that by putting a new ribbon up, others could avoid the same mistake and frustration… at least until some other self-entitled prick decided to rip that one down too.  Ugh.  Don't even get me started on that.

At any rate, I was a little annoyed after the detour - especially since I now only had about 10 minutes to go over 3 miles.  Obviously that wasn't happening.  However, I decided to turn that aggression into speed and made myself run hard all the way home.  That was the true goal - to push myself beyond my comfort zone and get back into racing mode… so that's what I would do.  I couldn't help the unfortunate detour - if anything, I got at least an extra mile or so in there and these trails around the lake were quite enjoyable.  More bang for my buck.  I will admit that my knee was starting to flare up a bit in these last 5 miles, but nothing stabbing and nothing I wasn't able to push through.  Still, it makes me a little concerned as to whether or not I am going to be able to handle another 100 in November.  

As I finally opened up onto the levee, I could see another figure off in the distance - presumably one of the guys who had passed me.  I doubted another woman had caught up, but who knew at this point.  I ran hard, enjoying the last mile of the run and looking very forward to both a swim in the lake and meeting up with Team Lukas to see how the Pride of Slovakia was doing.  As I crossed the finish line, I heard the shout of "first woman!" and realized I had actually won.  I looked back across the levee and couldn't see any other figures approaching, so despite my detour, I guess it hadn't even been close.  I thanked the race organizer for a great day and then ran down the beach for a heavenly swim/salt removal.  But not before running into Ben, the guy I was trying to catch, who had apparently been the figure on the levee finishing right in front of me.  "How didn't you catch me?  I was dying out there, and I got lost for a bit!"  Ha, unsurprisingly we'd both had the same trouble - only he realized the mistake immediately, whereas I tried desperately to prove that I hadn't gone the wrong way.  At any rate, we were both shocked that no one had passed us.  
Trick or Treat, bitches.  I'm the champ!
(photo:  Tyler Olson)

For my next trick, I proceeded to swim around the lake for an hour or so, which felt absolutely heavenly.  When I finally got a hold of Dom, he told me the fantastic news that Lukas was closing in on the leader and running ridiculously strong.  Soon after, he and Ankur picked me up on the side of Auburn-Folsom road and we were off to crew a victory.

Yep, that's right, Lukas won his first 100 miler, in his first attempt at the distance!  Mind you, he's no stranger to endurance events - with multiple Ironman and Kona finishes; as well as 50 miles and 100k.  But still, there's nothing quite like running 100 miles and he took that challenge like a champ.  Quite literally.  It was very inspiring to see how dialed in he remained all day and how he took care of himself in the heat.  He obviously knew what to do to get the most out of his body in the steamy conditions and I learned a lot.  Oh, also we had a ton of fun since unlike many mountain 100s, we got to see our runner every 3-6 miles!  Plus, Jimmy was right behind Lukas - so each aid station was like a little party with all of our friends.  Such a great weekend.

In the end,  Lukas finished first in 18:41, followed by Jimmy in a personal RDL PR of 19:29.  Then we all went to In 'n Out and I attempted to fall asleep back at the hotel in the same shorts I'd slipped on almost 24 hours prior.  Race number still attached.  

Dom promptly kicked me out and into the shower.

Late night fun.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The choice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shortcut Saddle, mile 59.3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading the Final Chapter