Rewind: December 12, 2012
“Have you thought about going outside of California for your 100k?”
I had just found out that I didn’t get into the 2013 edition of the Miwok 100k. There went my master plan to finally cross the finish line of the only race that I had DNF’d (Did Not Finish). I’d been injured and got pulled for missing a cut off. I wanted badly to complete my first 100k and had assumed it would be there.
I knew Jen, one of my closest friends and co-conspirator in all things ultra, was trying to help me feel better. There were a number of 100k races around the same time frame relatively near me but none of them felt like the right choice. I wondered what my options might be after Jen’s question and went looking while we were chatting online. The Bryce 100k popped up. It was the inaugural running and the photos that race director, Matt Gunn, had taken during a scouting trip looked absolutely spectacular. It looked nothing like my familiar stomping grounds in the Marin Headlands and Mt. Tamalpais. It also had something else I wouldn’t find there either – thin air. The course would have my sea level dwelling body at an altitude of 7,300 – 9,100 feet covering 62+ miles with 12,500 feet of elevation gain on a completely unfamiliar course. I couldn’t imagine anything more different and I was hooked.
I posted the link to Jen only to find her posting the same link back to me a split second later, both of us asking each other “How about this one?” I believe things happen for a reason and it seems fate and my co-conspirator, who was more than willing to head out to Utah with me as my pacer, had set me on a path toward Bryce. Like that I had a 100k race on my schedule.
Fast Forward: May 31, 2013
You are supposed to cry after the race not before it. It’s two miles to the start line at the Coyote Hollow trailhead and I’m waiting with Jen next to a fire for the last shuttle bus to take me there. I’d had a great training season, PR’d the races I wanted to PR, suffered no injuries and even my touchy right quad/hamstring had gotten with the program and felt great. The Miwok 100k that I had originally wanted to run had turned into the Miwok 60k and I took that as another sign that I was meant to be here at Bryce. I felt absolutely prepared even if a bit emotional. I said my final good-byes to Jen and got on the bus. I’d see her again around mile 26 at Blubber Creek.
The first leg from the start to Thunder Mountain (mile 10.6) was gorgeous. The light from the sunrise brought the red hoodoos alive and the views were spectacular. I found it difficult not to gawk at the scenery at each turn of the trail. I felt awesome and though I could feel the effects of the altitude it seemed completely manageable and not unexpected. I rolled into Thunder Mountain on pace. I headed back out quickly and sent a text to Jen to let her know where I was.
But shortly after I left Thunder Mountain things started to go sideways. I had developed a headache, I was getting nauseous and lightheaded and I was starting to have difficulty breathing. I got nervous. I knew what this was, altitude sickness. No, no, no, no, no. This was not good. How do I right this ship? I fiddled with my eating and drinking. I thought if I told myself “I feel good” I actually would feel good. Mind over matter! Nothing worked for any length of time. I ran with a woman named Terry for a little while. She gave me some ginger and that seemed to settle my stomach. She told me when I got to the Proctor Canyon aid station to stay there as long as I needed to regroup. I asked her if there was anything I could do to feel better. Descend. Okay, that wasn’t an option and the course was actually taking me higher.
When I arrived at Proctor Canyon (mile 19.5) I grabbed my drop bag and just stared at its contents wanting it to give me the answer I needed. A Magic 8 Ball might have been more effective. I sent a text to Jen that I wasn’t feeling well. It was as if I hit the panic button because within seconds she called me. I know she could hear the stress and fear in my voice.
“Do whatever you need to do to get to Blubber Creek. If you need to walk, do it. Just get here,” she said trying to calm me down.
I ate and drank anything that looked remotely appealing. The typical nutrition that worked for me in the past was not working now so I had to toss that strategy out the window. It was the first of many things that would get tossed out the window. I needed to adapt and do so quickly. I started to feel a little better so I left Proctor and headed out for the 6 mile stretch to Blubber Creek and Jen.
This section of trail passed through groves of aspen and had some very steep climbs. Going up was hard enough but I knew the return and the subsequent descent was going to be just as difficult. I settled into something of a rhythm where I could run comfortably on the flats and downs and slowed to a crawl on the ups. The exertion from climbing was making the nausea and light-headedness worse but I was able to find a pace that, although slow, kept me moving forward. I kept trying to eat and drink even though every mouthful made me want to throw up. I just learned to tolerate the nausea. I even managed to catch up with Terry who was very happy to see me making a comeback of sorts.
I arrived at Blubber Creek (mile 25.5) feeling okay and still smiling. I was so happy to see Jen. It was reassuring to be with someone who knew me so well and knew how to support me. She handed me a cheese sandwich that I devoured. I was able to eat more and drink more than I’d been able to all day. I took this as a good sign and that things might be turning around. One of the marching orders I had given Jen was to get me out of the aid station if I was lingering too long. That was another thing that got tossed out the window. I’m usually in and out of an aid station in a couple of minutes. Not this time. I needed to recover and refuel. It was the only time the nausea would subside and I could mentally prepare for another round of tolerating it when I’d start moving again.
I left Blubber Creek with Jen for the 100k turnaround in good spirits. While I wasn’t feeling anywhere close to 100% I felt I had found a way to manage what the race had decided to give me that day. It was 6 miles to the turn and then we’d head back to Blubber Creek.
When we reached the turnaround my latent multiple personality disorder revealed itself. The time periods when things felt tolerable versus when they didn’t began to get shorter and shorter. I would go from feeling bad to feeling okay to feeling bad. My personality followed suit. I felt manic. The symptoms I’d been managing all day were getting worse. I started needing to stop and sit down. I was in a physical, mental and emotional free fall the likes of which I’d never experienced. If Jen was wondering what the hell she’d gotten herself into by agreeing to pace me she didn’t let any of that on. She seemed completely unfazed by my mood swings and her calm demeanor provided me with the much needed illusion that somehow I was keeping it together.
The sun was setting and the temperature was dropping rapidly. We were now woefully behind schedule and I was dreading the trek back to Proctor in the dark. Jen had a headlamp, thank goodness, because mine was at Proctor. We had another problem. The warm clothes we were going to change into if we had to run at night was at King’s Creek, which came after Proctor, one aid station too far. I hadn’t remotely envisioned still being where we were when I was planning the drop bags. But that was a bridge to be crossed later, if it was to be crossed at all. We’d been at over 9,000 feet for a while and I was hoping if we could get back to Proctor with it’s lower elevation I might feel a little better.
We got back to Blubber Creek (mile 37.5) where I changed into a new pair of socks and tried to refuel as best as my nausea would let me. We didn’t linger too long. The wind and the sound it was making through the trees was unsettling and did nothing to calm my increasing anxiety over the long night ahead of us. I wanted off the plateau badly.
“You’re looking a lot better than when you came in,” came the encouraging words from a woman I’d been playing leap frog with all day.
It was one of those lies ultra runners tell each other to keep ourselves in the game long enough for something to change, hopefully in a positive direction.
We would lose the light about three miles later. We didn’t reach the treacherous descent before dark but Jen and I managed to find a method with the single headlamp that worked and we were able to safely navigate it. We were still a few miles away from Proctor. I had held onto the headlamp for this section since I’d been through there in daylight but afterwards I handed it to Jen to take over. I didn’t know if I had the wherewithal to not walk us right over a ledge. Looking up and around for the LED trail markers was making my head spin. I put my faith in Jen to keep us on course. Getting lost and doing extra mileage would have crushed me and so I turned my race and my safety over to her.
My entire existence consisted of the pool of light around Jen’s feet and her voice.
“There’s a lot of loose rock and we’re going up.”
“There are roots and we’re going up.”
“Watch out for that branch and we’re going up.”
Always going up. I didn’t remember this as going down earlier in the day. It seemed like every ten steps I was stopping to catch my breath. I was mortified by my weakness. The nausea and dizziness were becoming intolerable. I was starting to hear voices.
“Do you hear that?” I kept asking. I wanted to get to Proctor so badly I was convinced I was hearing them just beyond us in the dark.
There would still be over 20 miles to go after Proctor to the finish line. It might as well have been on the moon. I wanted to get to Proctor and drop. I was done. Hell, I just wanted to sit on the ground right then and there and have someone come get me. I had nothing left to give. I told Jen as much.
“Maybe when we get to Proctor you can try and get some sleep. Then we can talk about how you feel afterwards,” she responded.
Ugh. That’s not what I wanted to hear but I had given her marching orders that the only reason to drop was, well, there was no reason to drop. But I wasn’t kidding. I’d reached my limit and it was the first time in my short ultra running career that voluntarily dropping was a serious consideration, not just a passing thought or part of a petulant temper tantrum. I resisted the idea of sleeping but after several minutes of glacially slow movement I reconsidered her advice and agreed. I’d try to sleep and see if that would make a difference.
“Do you hear dogs barking and voices up ahead?” I asked Jen.
“Now that I do hear.” I saw two headlamps coming toward us.
“Are you Proctor aid?” I called out.
“Yes! You are really close!” A couple of guys had come down to look for runners.
I’ve never been so happy to reach an aid station (mile 43.5) in my life. Tony, a pacer we met at Blubber Creek, led the way.
“It’s only 1/8 of a mile. You can do it,” he encouraged. I felt so weak; I could barely move my feet.
“Tony, I feel terrible,” I confessed, “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“Just get to the aid station and rest. You can stay as long as you want then check in with your body. Decide then.”
An aid station volunteer asked for my bib number and remembered me from my first pass through Proctor many, many hours earlier,
“Hey, San Francisco! How you feeling?”
“Not so great.“
“Then just rest and stay as long as you need. Can I get you anything?” Dammit! Why won’t anyone just let me quit?
Jen asked if there was any place where I could lie down and get some sleep. A spot was quickly cleared on the drop bag tarp and a sleeping bag placed on it. I stared dumbly at it for a moment.
“Should I take off my shoes?” I asked the woman who brought it to me. She laughed.
“It’s okay. Just get in.”
She left and came back a moment later with someone’s down jacket for a pillow. I tried to sleep but I was so cold and shivering so badly that I couldn’t relax. I could hear Jen talking with Tony, thanking him for his help. His day was done and he was leaving. My mind let out a whimper of protest – take me with you! But I couldn’t utter the words. I just lay there shivering. When Jen checked in on me I told her I was freezing. I don’t know why I didn’t say something earlier. I was dragged en masse next to the fire and another sleeping bag put on top of me. I was finally able to rest.
June 1, 2013
I was half asleep and half aware of the goings on around me. I could hear the occasional runner coming into the aid station then leaving. Cheers of greeting and departure. A volunteer making and bringing hot food to people. Crews talking about their runners. I’d have violent coughing fits and hear concerned voices and Jen warning people off not wanting them to bother me. I’d hear random bits of conversation. I discovered there was a Boulder in Utah. It was comforting; the quiet hum of life around the fire.
Jen tried to have me drink some broth and eat a quarter of a grilled cheese sandwich (normally one of my most favorite things). It was all I could do to just eat half. I lay there in my half conscious state coming to terms with my second DNF at the 100k. I had come so far and had felt so prepared. This was how it was going to end? It was heart breaking and with how sick I felt it seemed the only realistic outcome. I don’t know if I remember this correctly but I think I told Jen again that I wanted to drop. She asked me if I was feeling any better. No, not really. I think she told me to go back to sleep.
I woke up for a little bit, still nauseous, and tried a couple of remedies offered by some other runners. One was peppermint oil. Another was papaya extract tablets. The papaya extract seemed to settle my stomach and for the first time in hours the endless, unrelenting nausea went away. I fell back asleep again.
“There is a guy leaving.” It was Jen, trying to wake me up.
“Leaving? He’s going to run?” I didn’t understand.
“No, he’s leaving in a car.”
The question hung in the air and remained unspoken between us but I knew what it was. Later I asked her about that moment and she said she knew her marching orders but she also didn’t want to needlessly prolong my suffering.
“No, we’ve got to go. Get to King’s Creek.”
It was time to leave Proctor. If I stayed there any longer my fate would be sealed. I got up from the sleeping bag so fast that my calf cramped up and someone caught me before I fell down. I looked at Jen.
“Are you up for this?” I asked.
Bless her heart, she was game. At least I had gotten some sleep. She hadn’t.
But we still had one problem. We didn’t have any warm clothes and it was freezing. We both had a thin shell and gloves plus the running gear we’d been wearing all day and that was it. Two long sleeved shirts and two pairs of chemical hand warmers were placed in our hands. The shirts were labeled with the bib numbers of the runners who lent us their extra clothing (thank you #137 and #180 – I hope you got them back) and before I could change my mind about the sanity of trekking out into the freezing dark at 2:30am for King’s Creek aid station we left the warmth and comfort of Proctor Canyon.
My momentary burst of energy was just that, momentary. It was bitterly, mind numbingly cold. I later found out it was in the 20’s. I couldn’t feel my hands even with the hand warmers in place. I know I’m much more cold tolerant than Jen and when I would glance over at her I could tell she was uncomfortable. We both were but there was nothing to do about it but just keep moving through the night until we got to King’s Creek. The shadows from the headlamps were playing tricks on my mind. Pine cones looked like giant spiders and I swore I could see people sitting on the side of the dirt road. There was the occasional snippet of conversation but in general there wasn’t much talking. We hadn’t done any training for night running. I wasn’t supposed to still be out here and neither of us were prepared for the reality of it. I just hoped she’d still speak to me after dragging her through this mess.
“The sun’s going to come up in about an hour. I know I always start to feel better then. You will too,” said a man who passed us.
I hadn’t said anything to him but a feeble hello but I guess I didn’t have to. He knew. Hang on for an hour. Daylight will come and end this long, cold night.
Finally, inevitably, we’d made it to King’s Creek (mile 53). I needed to rest again. I was tired of being sick, of being cold, of being exhausted. I drank some hot chocolate and lay down. Again sleeping bags miraculously appeared out of nowhere to cover me. I didn’t need to sleep for long this time. I heard pancakes were ready and that perked me up. Food was appealing again. Jen and I ate then headed back out to finish this thing. What seemed impossible as I was lying near the fire at Proctor Canyon now was a foregone conclusion.
It was a new day and I almost felt normal again. The altitude sickness had calmed down to tolerable levels, enough that I could now feel other discomforts, like how badly my feet were hurting. Nothing in my training had prepared me for being on my feet for over 24 hours. I had figured 18. At most. It was really painful. It was just another thing to endure. That, it seemed, I knew how to do.
June 2, 2013
Who finishes a 100+k in 30 hours and 43 minutes? Apparently I do. Who spends countless hours at aid stations trying to pull themselves back together again? That would be me. Who drags one of their best friends through an ordeal of epic proportion? Guilty as charged.
We are back in San Francisco and Jen is dropping me off at my house, as if she’s dropping me off after a movie. It feels awful but there is no other way to elegantly end this adventure but to just end it with a hug, a wave good-bye and an “I’ll talk to you later.”
Honestly, I don’t know how I feel about what happened at Bryce. I’m still sorting through it all. I’d hardly call what I did a race. Perhaps it was a test although I can’t say for certain if I passed or failed it. I can say I finished a 100k. I’ve never had so many complete strangers be so excited and happy to see me cross the line. They had seen firsthand what a rough time I was having. I think even Matt knew of my struggles from his reaction when he saw me. It wasn’t the race performance I was expecting to have yet it was the toughest, most rewarding and beautiful thing I’ve ever done.
An experience shared is a precious thing. To all the folks I met on the trail, to those who lent a caring hand at the aid stations and especially to my dear friend, Jen – I thank you.