After I DNF’d Pine to Palm I did not want to do another race. The only thing left in my year related to running was the interminable wait to see if I got into the Boston Marathon. I didn’t. Once the dust settled from the two week long registration process the magic number was revealed. If you were 2:28 under your qualifying time you got in. I missed it by 28 seconds. Receiving the rejection letter two weeks after Pine to Palm felt like pouring salt on a still open wound. It was polite and encouraging but it also made me angry. It sugar-coated the only message it could give – you are too slow, get faster, try again next year. I would have preferred that rather than the paragraphs of words to soften the blow.
Unfortunately, since I didn’t complete Pine to Palm, I didn’t have a Western States qualifier required to enter the lottery which meant I would have to sign up for another race. In addition, consecutive entries means the number of tickets with your name on it double each year if you don’t get picked. One, two, four, eight, sixteen, etc. Miss a year and you’re back to zero. I didn’t want to lose my tickets since I’d be up to four. I registered for my backup qualifier, Rio Del Lago, in a discouraged mental state where I felt like my entire running year was a wash.
This is not happening. That was the last thought I had as I took a hard tumble on my morning run. My left elbow looked like hamburger, my left hand sliced open and bleeding, and my right knee cap looked like I had put a dent into it. I was less than two weeks out from Rio and my body looked like I landed on the wrong end of a bar fight.
Four days out from Rio, I got really sick, so sick that the next day when my sister, Pauline, asked me how I was feeling, I realized there was a whole conversation that took place between us via text that I had no memory of having. This was the strangest taper ever. If it went on any longer I feared I might end up dead. Maybe it meant I’d gotten all the snafus done early and Rio would be smooth sailing. Or not. For my sanity I chose to believe the former.
And We’re Off
Rio Del Lago takes place in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada near the towns of Folsom, Granite Bay, Auburn, and Cool. It pulls together parts from classic races like the American River 50, Way Too Cool 50k, and Western States. While not exactly in my backyard it wasn’t entirely unknown either. I found comfort in that familiarity.
I didn’t know how recovered I’d be from falling and being sick but running felt great despite the awful taper. The weather was perfect and I had friends around me to pass the time with silly banter and bad jokes. Then Christy pointed out we were on track for a 7-hour 50k. I hadn’t really been paying attention but that’s not good news to me, not at the beginning of a 100 mile race. I didn’t feel like I had been pushing that hard yet by the time I rolled into Rattlesnake Bar (mile 36) I was crashing. Even though it was 1pm on a bright sunny day, it felt more like 10pm on a moonless night. I desperately wanted to curl up into a ball by the side of the trail and sleep. This does not bode well when I’d be facing 13 hours of darkness.
On the approach to the aid station I saw Tony, who was the Pamakids race day captain for Rio. “Get down there,” he said, “there are a lot of people waiting for you.” I didn’t understand. While I knew many at the race no one was specifically waiting for me until I got to mile 60 at Cool. But I got to the aid station and immediately found myself in a protective circle of friends. Little did I know that Karen, who was doing her first 100 and had come in ahead of me, had told them I was in a bad spot and to help me get to Alina and Jen, my two pacers. I answered their questions. We were all in problem solving mode. This was new. I’d never felt so depleted so early in a race. I was also a little nauseous but it seemed a minor problem compared to having no energy.
Ken handed me a blister pack of pills.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Vivarin.” Oh boy, straight up caffeine. I do a caffeine taper two weeks before any event where I know I’ll be up at night or an “A” race where I want the boost so that the caffeine is more effective.
“But it’s too soon to take this,” I protested. I prefer to hold off until night before pumping caffeine into my system.
“If you are feeling like this now, it’s not too soon.” Point taken and I really couldn’t argue with the logic so it was Vivarin and Coke down the hatch.
Tawnya gave me a Zantac to help with the nausea plus what I’ve now termed as life-giving, her homemade banana bread. I immediate ate about half of it. At that moment it was the most delicious thing I’d ever eaten. I looked at Jenni, concern written all over her face. She was my eyes and ears on the ground keeping Alina, Jen, and Pauline in the loop with updates on my whereabouts and condition since I wasn’t carrying my phone.
I stood up to go, someone holding up my race vest like a coat I needed to put on. I think it may have been James but it was sweet and gracious, a moment of quiet civility amidst the chaos of a busy aid station.
I left feeling like a new person. Unfortunately that was short-lived. My stomach became more of a pressing concern. Anytime I tried to eat anything I’d feel nauseous which was mild if I walked but acute when I tried to run. The 10 miles between Last Gasp (mile 42) and Cool (mile 52) was a slow grind playing a balancing act between taking in food, feeling sick and managing my exertion. I found a trail friend in a woman named Samantha who was feeling about as good (or bad) as I was. “We just need to get to Cool” was something we said often to each other as we pressed on.
The Loop of Darkness
I was miserable by the time I reached Cool (mile 52). The sun had set, the long night ahead felt daunting, and I was so very, very cold. Sam was helping me. He tried to get me to eat something, a saltine with avocado that I looked at dubiously. I found it easy to eat so he went and got me two more. I was putting on my warm layers or trying to at least. I was shivering so badly that I couldn’t put my wind pants on. Sam had to do it for me. I started the day as a capable adult but now needed help dressing and eating. Ultras are awesome.
I’ll get you there if you follow me.
I was sad and lonely. I asked Sam if Alina was here but he didn’t know. It didn’t matter, she wasn’t meant to pace me yet. I had to get moving. The longer I sat, the colder I got, the more dispirited I became. Sam walked down the road with me for a little ways. We passed Jenni as she waited for her runner, Christy, to come in. I hugged her hoping to somehow buoy my flagging resolve. But I had to leave them and soon I found myself alone on the road.
There was two-way traffic on the Olmstead Loop since runners must do it twice in opposite directions. I was jealous of anyone crossing paths with me. Every once in a while I’d hear a familiar voice or someone call out my name. Mostly it was a greeting in passing but sometimes there would be a brief conversation followed by a hug like with Bree and Erica. I lived for hugs on that loop, the human contact helping me feel normal. The best hug of all though was when I got back to Cool (mile 60). Alina was there.
Straight On Till Morning
I had wanted to get to Cool so badly earlier and now all I wanted was to get the hell out but I had one more loop before I could start heading home. I handed the reins to Alina, relieved to let someone take over for a while. We’ve trained together for several years and I’ve paced her at some of her races. This would be her first time pacing me, first time pacing anybody actually, but I wasn’t concerned. I trusted her completely.
We got through the second loop then headed to No Hands Bridge (mile 71). We continued to babysit my aching stomach and were back to playing that delicate balancing act between eating, moving, and controlling the nausea. We got to No Hands at 1:30am. We would need to cover 4.2 miles in 1.5 hours to make the next hard cut-off, 3am at Camp Flint Gate (mile 75). I knew it was mostly uphill. We barely stopped at the aid station, staying long enough to be told that we essentially had our backs against the wall. There were five of us that left together with Alina leading our train. We were running. I don’t know how but we were all running, running for our racing lives up the climbs.
I could hear Bruce behind me. We’d been together off and on since before Cool. He and Samantha helped fill some of those lonely miles before I got to Alina. There was another woman too but I didn’t know her name. All of us tucked behind Alina as we continued to keep running. My heart burst with pride for the work she was putting in to keep us in the game. That’s MY pacer! As we got closer to Camp Flint Gate the three of them pulled ahead of us and I had to call Alina back. I chugged along as best as I could but I could tell from her actions we had not one second to spare. We finally got to the top of the climb where a short stretch of pavement meant we were near the aid station. Alina ran ahead. “Come on! We have got to go!” I could hear one of the volunteers up ahead also urgently shouting the same thing.
We had no time to linger. Alina wanted me in and out of there looking solid before anyone changed their minds and benched me. We left right at the 3am cut-off. As the lights of the aid station behind us grew dim and night enveloped us once more the reality of my situation became crystal clear. There would be no reprieve from the clock, no time to take it easy. I had put in a huge effort just to get to Camp Flint Gate and felt completely spent as the effects of the adrenaline rush to make the cut-off faded. How was I going to wring another 25 miles out of this body? I could feel myself crumbling.
“No, you cannot fall apart on me now. Let’s go!” I always said if I ever got into a brawl I’d want Alina with me. Well, we were in one now.
That jolted me right out of my head. We started running and eventually passed Bruce and his pacer, then passed the woman who’d been with us as well. It was downhill to Last Gasp (mile 77) and probably the closest thing to a break I would see for a while.
“You know what that reminded me of?” I asked Alina, referring to our down-to-the-wire entrance and exit at the aid station.
“When you paced me at Miwok and I was the last one through Cardiac Hill?”
It was an eerily similar situation but now our roles were reversed. The next task at hand was to get to Rattlesnake Bar (mile 84) ahead of the 5:45am cut-off. Two hours and 45 minutes to cover 9 miles. The terrain in this section was rolling so there were sections where we could make up time. At this point I wasn’t eating or drinking much. I think the last time I had any significant intake of calories was back at mile 60 in Cool. I could only tolerate small sips of water or puréed fruit to keep the nausea under control. We toned the pace down when I felt bad and picked it back up when I felt a little better.
Alina’s demeanor changed as we got closer to Rattlesnake Bar. She started picking up the pace, getting farther ahead, and encouraging more effort out of me. As a pacer, gauging the tipping point where pushing your runner turns into blowing them up is a difficult and risky thing. She had gotten me this far and it was now all or nothing.
“I’ll get you there if you follow me,” she said as she played the carrot while I desperately tried to keep up. I noticed landmarks that indicated we were close, certain foot bridges and clearings, but still no turn off to the aid station. Where was it?
“You have five minutes to get in and get out. Five minutes!” shouted a woman’s voice but I couldn’t see lights or any sign of people. How far can voices carry? I heard the warning again and finally saw the reflective flags indicating the turn. The path down to the aid station is short, steep and deeply eroded but I flew down it recklessly nonetheless. Alina told me later that she was screaming Jen’s name to warn her we were coming in hot. I don’t recall hearing it. I was too hell bent on keeping my feet under me and crossing the timing mat.
5:42am, three minutes. I was ahead of the cut-off by three minutes. We had made it to Rattlesnake Bar and now Jen would take over for Alina. She’d been with me for 24 miles since around 9:30pm and helped me survive two hard cut-offs. Over the years I’d sometimes jokingly call her “grasshopper” and I’d get “Confucius” in return. It implies a student-teacher relationship that may have been true early in our running lives but isn’t the case anymore. She was perfect.
The last hard cut-off was 11am at the finish line at Beals Point (mile 101). I had five hours and 15 minutes to cover 17 miles with a significant part of it in an area known as the Meat Grinder. It’s not particularly hard or technical and can be quite fun on fresh legs. However, I did not have fresh legs. I knew it would be difficult to keep any sort of rhythm through the jagged ups, downs, and deeply eroded trenches. It would be slow going.
After being alone in the dark with only Alina’s voice for hours it felt like madness and chaos at Rattlesnake. Lights, people running around, shouting. Jen was so excited to see me. I had thought about her as we had gotten closer. Thinking about her endlessly waiting for me. She wouldn’t have known how close we’d been cutting it since I left Cool. Alina had her hands full keeping me moving so texting an update with spotty cell coverage was a distraction we couldn’t afford. I thought of her waiting for me at Pine to Palm, the clock passing the cut-off time and me nowhere to be found. I didn’t want that to happen again.
No, this time I was still in it. We could keep going. Tawnya had left a few items for me with Jen. A small thermos of broth and rice. I was able to eat a few spoonfuls of it and prayed it would settle. A slice of banana bread that I took with me and then we were off. We still had so much to do.
Jen has paced me many times over the years but this was different. The stakes were higher and I didn’t give her much to work with both in terms of time and my weakened condition. We did have one blessing since I came in so late, we’d be going through the Meat Grinder in daylight.
We had barely cleared the climb back to the main trail when I heard an air horn. The aid station was officially closed. I was so grateful that I still had a chance. We took it easy at first to let my stomach settle from the food I had eaten but then we started pushing. Jen has an incredibly fast power hike that I have to run with just to keep up. I’d lag behind on the ups and catch up on the downs. I could feel the nausea getting worse and something turned in me. Maybe I got angry but I’d hit my limit with feeling like this.
“Jen, I’m going to make myself throw up,” I stated matter-of-factly. And I did. I stuck my finger down my throat and dry heaved nothing but at least I felt a lot better.
“Let’s go.” I didn’t want to dwell on what I’d just done. This scenario repeated itself two more times as we worked our way through the Meat Grinder. I’d try to take in some nutrition, the nausea would kick in, and I’d be dry heaving off the side of the trail. After the third go round I stopped trying to eat. My stomach was just too messed up at that point and it was taking too much time performing what I’ll euphemistically call a “reset”. It was small sips of water and the occasional hard candy from here on out.
But we were moving and passing people, which was a stunning surprise. Jen was so steady and so fast while I felt like the awkward duckling trotting behind her being pulled along in her wake. The terrain was starting to smooth out so that meant we were closing in on the last aid station, Granite Beach (mile 95).
Yes, But No
The time period right before and right after Granite Beach was my Fifth Circle of Hell. I don’t even know what triggered it but I fell apart with hard, racking sobs, the kind that finds no comfort. Jen looked concerned but there wasn’t anything to be done and no time to deal with it anyway. The conflict between the desire to console a friend with the need to keep kicking my ass must have been great. She took the only course of action there was to take, she kept kicking. I don’t know how but we got to Granite Beach. I went straight through the aid station while Jen used the bathroom.
“You keep pushing,” she pointed to me.
I tried to run. Nope. I tried to shuffle. Nope. I walked, slowly. In the few minutes she wasn’t with me my downward spiral accelerated. I had 5.7 miles to go and I knew I couldn’t do it, at least not in time. I’d be able to cross the finish line, probably still get the buckle, but I would be over the official cut-off. I’d lose my qualifier and all my tickets. AND I DIDN’T CARE. This is the state Jen found me in when she rejoined me, sadly trudging along having given up on myself and this race.
We probably had the closest thing we’ve ever had to a fight. I was being stubborn, digging my heels against any forward momentum she was trying to coax out of me. I had been pushing and fighting for hours and had finally hit the bottom. I became uncooperative, none of this making any sense to me anymore. Western States didn’t matter anymore. I can’t do this.
“Yes, you can! You’re not disabled, you’re just exhausted! We’ve got 70 minutes to go less than 5 miles. You can do this!”
Jen is yelling at me. Jen never yells at me. Once more, something turned inside, a switch flipped.
I started running, really running. The terrain to the finish is gentle rollers for the most part. Jen encouraged me to take advantage of the downhills and I’d run them as hard as I could with gravity and momentum as welcome allies. I ran the up hills and if I couldn’t she’d remind me to power through them as I hiked, arms pumping. The only protest I made was early on when I realized the hard running I’d somehow found myself doing was not sustainable. We dialed it down a notch but kept going, kept running.
I thought about Alina and all the hard work she did to get me to Jen. I had an image in my mind of us running uphill, uphill in the dark from No Hands Bridge. I couldn’t let her down. And what about all the work I put in to get to this point? Stop with 4 miles to go? I was 29 hours in. I couldn’t put my heart and body into one more hour? I looked at Jen. So strong, so determined to get me across the finish line in spite of myself. How could I not rise to the challenge she was throwing at my feet?
There is a small climb to get to the top of the levee that signals the approach to Beals Point. Jen was waiting for me this time instead of running ahead. She was laughing and smiling, a significant change from the stern taskmaster who’d been keeping me company. As I neared the gate to the levee I heard my name being called and saw familiar faces. I dropped my race vest to the ground. I knew I had to circumnavigate the parking lot before crossing the finish line. I asked Jen how much time I had. Twenty minutes. Okay, I can make it around this parking lot in twenty minutes. For the first time since I left No Hands Bridge, how all this was going to end was no longer a mystery.
As I circled the parking lot car horns were honking. Cheers came from inside cars, some from people I knew, some I didn’t. Jen was following me but as I got closer Alina joined in as well, the three of us running together until I got to the chute. I put my hands on my head and shook it in disbelief. This was really happening. I was going to finish. It seemed so impossible just an hour ago.
Crossing the finish line was a surreal experience. Jenni came over to put a medal around my neck and the flood gates opened. All the stress, anxiety, and despair from the last 30 miles came pouring out of me to be replaced by relief and joy. I didn’t know what to do with all these conflicting emotions but to hug Jenni and cry.
I’m not tough enough to do a hundred by myself, that much is clear. Without Alina, Jen, and timely help from friends I would have dropped or missed a cut-off. There are so many things I still need to figure out, like my stomach, which has been so problematic for me this year. But one thing I do know, it was critical to have people with me who cared about my goals long after I convinced myself they didn’t matter anymore. Jen and Alina carried the flag when I couldn’t then gave it back when I could. They are Team Fun Size and they are with me.