I was also interviewed for the Running Stupid podcast if you’d like to take a listen.
It’s nearing 6am, pre-dawn on November 1st and I’m in Arizona, specifically the Pemberton Tailhead in the McDowell Mountain Regional Park which was the main staging area for the Javelina Jundred. My first 100 miler was going to be over with one way or the other sometime in the next 30 hours. A blink compared to the many hours I’d invested in training for this race. I felt as ready and as confident as I’ve ever felt on a start line and yet somehow I found myself hiding in a camp chair crying.
I’d managed to keep my emotions in check in the days leading up to the race. I was “quiet excited” most of the time but now I felt the entire spectrum of fear and anxiety. My amygdala, it seemed, wanted its time in the spotlight. While on some level it’s liberating to give free reign to such primal emotions it’s not exactly dignified. I had friends to see, hugs to give or receive, and a race to run. I needed to get out of that chair.
The course is run in loops washing machine style so for this race odd numbered loops go clockwise, evens go counter-clockwise. There are six full loops of 15.3 miles followed by a final 7th loop of 9.1 miles. Since the race is run close to Halloween seeing runners and crew in costume is quite typical and encouraged which lends an unusual party atmosphere to the event.
The one piece of advice everybody told me was “don’t go out too fast.” It had been drilled into my head. I went toward the back of the pack so I wouldn’t get caught up in the initial adrenaline rush of movement. Not just the last six months but all the years of training, racing, mistakes, and successes now culminated in this mass exodus into the Sonoran Desert. I was determined to put Javelina down into the success column.
I took the time to enjoy the sunrise, the orange sky, silhouettes of the saguaro cactus, and the relatively cool morning. I knew that wouldn’t last once the sun was fully in the sky but it was nice. The first loop passed uneventfully. Everything felt really easy. Nothing about the terrain I was crossing stood out in my mind as particularly trying. Oh, how this would change, but for the time being ignorance was bliss.
One of the things I did for the first time was to put note cards under the front vinyl window of my drop bag with a list of tasks to do. As part of race prep I visualized what time it would be when I’d hit the drop bag and went through what I would need out of it. It wasn’t meant to cover every contingency but hit major bullet points that I could choose to follow or not as the day unfolded. When I got to my first drop bag stop at Jackass Junction all I had to do was look at the card. It worked like a charm.
I completed the first loop in 3:27. That was faster than I had planned since I had been estimating around 4 – 4.5 hour loops and finishing in sub-28 hours. At the time I couldn’t think of how I could go any slower. It had already felt really, really mellow. I had started to feel the sun’s intensity on the back of my head so I picked up my sun hat out of my Jeadquarters drop bag. It had a cape which flapped behind my neck. I felt ridiculous in this thing but sometimes function trumps fashion and I knew it would help protect me from the sun. I was in full heat mitigation mode. I had a handheld water bottle that I filled with ice and water at each aid station. I used it to dowse my head and keep the sun sleeves wet. I also soaked my silly hat in water and filled the cap with ice to hold against my head.
Loop 2 (3:35) and 3 (3:45) passed as uneventfully as loop 1. I won’t say it was easy but the time passed by quickly and my concerns about how I would wither in the heat seemed to be unfounded. I came into each Jeadquarters stop in good spirits to the point where Ann told me, as I was goofing around with her, I find it hard to believe you are ever in a bad mood. Just you wait, Ann, just you wait.
Loop 4 began around 5pm. This was the transition loop from day to night. Sunset was at 5:35pm and I wouldn’t see the sunrise again until 6:50am. Over twelve hours of darkness. I stayed a bit longer at Jeadquarters to make the gear changes from day to night. I had hot weather gear to drop off. I picked up lights, spare batteries, an external battery to recharge my Garmin and a light windbreaker if the temps dropped any lower. All this was on the note card which again I was thankful I had taken the time to write down. I drank the first caffeinated coffee I’d had in two weeks and left.
About a quarter mile away from Jeadquarters I noticed the screen on my Garmin was blank. The battery charger wasn’t charging the watch but instead causing it to lock up. I had tested the set up before and it worked so I didn’t know what was going on. Three attempts to fix the situation failed. I stopped after that. I was just getting increasingly more frustrated and I didn’t want to waste anymore energy on the charger. I had about a third of the battery life left and then I’d lose the watch. I was frustrated, angry, and unhappy.
“I don’t need a stupid watch to run,” I told myself and stomped off into the sunset.
It’s usually a little thing that starts a landslide and for me it was the watch. As I thought about what alternatives I might have, which I eventually determined to be zero, I got more and more negative. Losing the watch felt like I was losing a companion that would give me objective information about where I was and how I was doing; a proxy for the pacer I did not and would not have. The thought of traversing the night without it was disheartening. I wouldn’t even be able to determine something as basic as the time.
I was in the depths of this tailspin when I crossed paths with Jenni and her pacer John, both teammates of mine from Pamakids. Jenni was doing the 100k and would have been on her third loop. She gave me a hug and asked me if I was ok. I didn’t respond immediately because I almost started crying. Then I blurted out the whole tragic story of the watch; basically the contents of my head over the last hour in Cliff Notes form. They reinforced what I already knew. I needed to stay positive. My emotions had been circling the drain and speaking the words out loud to another human being seemed to snap me out of the cycle I was in. I’m embarrassed I had to subject them to my weird watch psychosis. So much angst over a watch seems silly in retrospect but at that moment, standing in the middle of the desert in the dark, it felt far from it.
When I got to Jackass Junction I realized I hadn’t been eating or drinking. I was so caught up with the watch that I had stopped paying attention to anything else. My stomach had gone south on me and absolutely nothing looked appealing at the aid station nor in my drop bag. I knew at some point the gels and Ensure would no longer work for me and I had finally reached it. I needed to get some solid food in me soon.
Crossing the rocky sections between Jackass Junction and Coyote Camp suddenly became challenging. I hadn’t given these “rock gardens” much thought in the earlier loops but now they were proving to be a physical and mental obstacle I had to overcome. There were two sections where the trail became choked with loose rocks of all shapes and sizes. Footing became more unstable on tired legs and the sharpness of the rock edges more uncomfortable on increasingly tender feet. My legs and my psyche were taking a beating. Emily came up behind me on the smoother trail between rocky sections and it was nice to run for a little while with a friend. But once we hit the rock garden near Coyote Camp she was gone and I was struggling.
It was a little after 9pm when I got back to Jeadquarters and finished loop 4 (4:14). I was at mile 61 and 15 hours into the race. I was frazzled and needed to re-group. Nothing going on was so bad I couldn’t recover but things had to be addressed. First and foremost I had to get some real food in me. I needed the calories and I felt it would help improve my mood. I got some pizza from the aid station table then headed over to Karen. I sat down in a chair and told her what was going on. She had some soup warming up on the stove. While she prepared that I got rid of the charger and picked up my phone, which I had forgotten was in my drop bag. At least I would have something that told me the time and from that I could figure out roughly where I was. Dumping the charger was also liberating. I’d finally accepted that I was going to lose the watch.
“I’m so sorry. This is way too much. I won’t be able to eat it all,” I said as Karen handed me a bowl of soup.
“It’s not really that much. Just eat what you can.”
It only took a few spoonfuls for me to decide I was eating – the Best. Soup. Ever. It was a potato soup with bacon and it was so good. It was more hearty than broth and easy to eat because I didn’t have to chew too much. In the end it really wasn’t that much soup and I easily ate every drop of it. Karen’s primary responsibility was crewing for her husband Ken but thank goodness she was more than willing to be ad hoc crew to trail orphans like myself who had no crew of our own. The turnaround in how I felt after sitting and eating was substantial. I felt ready to go a few more rounds with the Javelina Jundred.
It wasn’t smooth sailing after my rough loop 4 by any means. Just as loop 4 transitioned me from day to night it also transitioned me from fighting to accepting my current circumstances. The rock garden was still going to be there to annoy me, my stomach was still going to be touchy, and I was still going to lose my watch. When the terrain was more suited to me, I’d run. When I was in the rock gardens or sandy washes, I’d walk. I’d dose out my energy expenditure as strategically as possible. Each pass through an aid station I’d grab a cup full of ice chips to help settle my stomach. When my watch started giving me the low battery warning 70+ miles in I didn’t let it drain to nothingness but saved what I had, reset it to zero and turned it off. Instead of hanging on, I cut the cord. It was a symbolic way for me to wrest control on my own terms.
“How’s your first hundred going?” asked Myles, a photographer I knew working the race, in one of my passes through Jackass Junction.
“It’s a little ugly at the moment.”
“Well then you’re doing it right.”
That gave me a good laugh. That’s how loops 5 (4:31) and 6 (4:56) came to pass, with a determined stubbornness and perhaps fueled by a touch of anger. Maybe “anger” isn’t the right word. It’s not like I was suddenly immune to feeling negative emotions, it’s just that it didn’t matter anymore. If I couldn’t get around a wall I was going to go through it. Surprisingly, I never got sleepy. Tired, absolutely, but feeling the need to lie down or that I was sleepwalking or in a sleep-deprived altered state didn’t happen. I managed to stay sharp, focused, and aware. My life for those hours had a certainty and clarity of purpose that I wish I could tap into at will.
It was around 6:30am, 24.5 hours into the race at mile 91, when I crossed the timing mat at Jeadquarters to start my 7th and final lap. I was given the coveted glow-in-the-dark necklace. It’s an outward symbol to everyone who sees you that you are almost done. Every time I saw a runner wearing one I was deeply envious. Now I had one of my own. I did a final stop at the crew area. I had some more soup, changed into a fresh shirt, and ditched the race vest and lights.
I bolted out of Jeadquarters and the adrenaline rush I’d felt getting the necklace quickly dissipated. I still had 9 miles to go. So close yet so far and I knew I had to go back through a section of the rock garden one more time. A pair of runners familiar with the course passed me and told me that once I got to the turn off it would be smooth sailing to the finish. I just had to keep it together and get through the rocks. Finally I saw the sign for the turn off. I had to pass that sign six times and now it was my turn to take it. I turned on what jets I still had and started running. At one point I had to stop and take a breath because I felt like I was going to pass out. I still had a few miles to go and it wasn’t going to be over in a couple of minutes. I got my heart rate down a bit then started running again at a more sustainable pace.
I had one more turn to reach and then it would be less than a mile to the finish. Getting there seemed to take forever as time and distance always seem to stretch when you are close to the end. I felt everything and nothing at the same time. I reached the final turn which put me back on the familiar trail I’d been going back and forth on since 6am yesterday. I knew every roller and sandy wash. Then there was the tent city of Javelina Jeadquarters. I threw my water bottle at Ken and made a dash for the finish line. I don’t know why I sprinted. I crossed the finish line in 27:09 at 9:09am and got my first 100 mile belt buckle. I crossed an imaginary line and transformed from a starter to a finisher.
There were so many Bay Area runners doing the 100 mile or the 100k despite the fact we were in a completely different state. We crossed paths several times during the race and it was always so nice to smile at a familiar face or hear a familiar voice in the dark. I knew many who were there in a support capacity either crewing, pacing, in front of or behind a camera lens. The Ultra Adventures crew from Utah was there. I even had a connection to my sister and my home state of Arkansas via Mike, who was running and Jeff, who was a race photographer. When I’d see Jeff pull out his phone to take a picture of me, I knew it was going to Pauline so she would know how I was doing and that I was okay. I am deeply grateful for all the love and support I received. For someone who is as inherently shy as I am it’s a wonder to me that I have all these beautiful gifts of people surrounding me.
I think I can safely put Javelina in the success column now.