Stagecoach 100: Flagstaff to Grand Canyon

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Running through the Aspens around mile 15

It’s been two weeks since I finished the Stagecoach 100, a 100-mile ultramarathon in Arizona that starts in Flagstaff and ends at the Grand Canyon. There are a couple of reasons for this delay.

  • It was a pretty drama-free race. It was difficult, but not impossible, and I made smart decisions the whole way.
  • It was a hard race, but three was nothing particularly insane about it [e.g. awful weather, impossible terrain, etc]. The elevation was a challenge – averaged 7,500 ft of altitude the whole time – but that wasn’t a huge barrier.
  • For the first time since I started racing, I’m very ready to take a break from racing for a while. There’s nothing coming up on my calendar [can’t remember the last time that happened] and I don’t have any immediate plans to sign up for anything. Feels good.

Pre-race

I signed up for Stagecoach race after running Zion in April. Zion was a very hard race, and, if you remember, they shortened the course to 90 miles due to weather. While I made up 10 miles on my own later, I was deeply dissatisfied with not officially running 100 miles on the course, especially after how awful the training for that had been.  I wanted to find another race that I could run to take advantage of the training I had done and the 100-mile shape I was in.

To train for Stagecoach, I did pretty much nothing in comparison to what I had done for Zion. Zion training involved 30 mile training runs almost every weekend. For Stagecoach, these this is the complete list of long training runs I ran that were greater than 15 miles:

  • A failed 50k in the Marin Headlands, where I only ended up running 18 miles.
  • Canyon Meadow 50k. Somewhat fast race but not eventful.
  • San Francisco Ultramarathon, which is the marathon course twice. I was exceedingly slow on the second loop because I wanted to run with friends. This was a pretty lazy (but fun) race.
  • Mount Diablo 50k, which was brutal and hilly.

And that’s it. Four long runs, one of which barely counts, over the course of six months.

Psychologically, I wasn’t concerned about finishing. It may be cocky, but I didn’t think the training was going to hold me back from completing the race. I felt like I had maintained my training decently. Also, I knew my dad was going to come up to crew me, and Will was going to pace me for a bunch of miles, and those psychological boosts are really helpful.

The race itself

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With Dad at the start. It was cold.

I’ve summarized the race this way: It sucked, then it didn’t suck so much, then it sucked again, then it sucked more, then I finished.

1. First, it sucked. (miles 0-20)

The start line was cold. Runners could start at 7am [early start] or 8am [official start]. I started at 8am because that’s what I’d been planning to do – the 7am option was a late add.

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Runners start running

 

 

Honestly, the first twenty miles were mediocrely fun from a mental standpoint. We started at 7,500 feet of elevation, and spent the first several hours climbing to almost 9,000 feet of elevation. On the plus side, this was the highest part of the course, so it was nice that it was early. On the minus side, it isn’t fun to start a race walking uphill with limited oxygen.

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It really was pretty

I spent the entire section of this race trying to appreciate the scenery [which was gorgeous] and not looking forward to 90 more miles of running. I idly wondered if I should drop out, because I was bored and slow and 100 miles is a long way.

2. Then it didn’t suck so much. (miles 20-65)

At mile 20, I saw my support crew for the first time, and it was a great energy boost. Dad was there, and he brought along a sailing buddy who we’d both raced with, Rollin. Rollin had never been to an event like this, and he was definitely more excited than I was to be there at this point, which was really cool.

This was also the first time I saw Will during the race – he’d flown in late the night before, so I didn’t see him at the start. It was great to see him, and he walked for a few minutes with me out of the aid station.

To get to the next aid station, I listened to a few podcasts. I also met a guy from North Andover who was running his first 100. He was pulling like 8-minute miles, so he quickly left me in the dust – I’d see him later.

I also met an absurdly inspirational guy named Larry, who had just turned 70. This race was his 21st 100-miler (!). Also, he’d run all 21 in just 7 years. The dude has been running 100-milers every four months. I spent a good chunk of time walk/running with him, and we spent most of the next forty miles leapfrogging each other.

I saw Will and Dad again at mile 34[ish? hard to remember]. Originally, I’d planned to pick up Will at aid station 68, but it was becoming apparent that I might not get there until midnight or 2am, which would be really late. I like to leverage my pacers in the early hours of the morning to prevent me from falling asleep, and I worried that I’d be hitting the sleepy phase long before mile 68. So we re-worked the plan to have him join me at mile 54 instead. This required some herculean logistical creativity on Dad’s, Rollin’s, and Will’s side, which I really appreciated. I left them at 34, looking forward to seeing Dad and Will in a few more hours [Rollin, intelligently, went home and to bed].

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Someone was taking pictures so I had to run into the aid station

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With Will at mile 34

Around mile 45, it started getting dark. We were running through open fields at this point, and there were tons of cows – very southwest vibe. The cows were mooing. By this time, I was pretty much alone – Larry was far enough either ahead or behind that he wasn’t within shouting distance – so I moo-d back at the cows.

Around mile 48, there was a cool aid station with a drone taking video of the race.

Around mile 50, I saw an AWESOME meteor. It was red and firey and shot right across the sky.

Around mile 51, I was getting a little tired, and it was fully dark. Milky Way all the way across the sky was visible to the naked eye. I slowed down a little bit, looking for camaraderie to get me to the next aid station. I found two guys running together, blasting some pretty sweet jams from their backpack, so I ran the last few miles into the 54-mile aid station with them.

At mile 54, I had some soup that Dad prepared and picked up Will. It was a good plan to grab him here instead of much later, and I was very happy to have him this early in the race.

Just after this aid station, we heard some elk in heat. Guys, this is a crazy sound. I thought it was emergency vehicles. Listen to this if you don’t believe me. All that whiny metallic-sounding stuff is the animal sound.

The next several miles were pretty fun. We went to an aid station that had candles leading the way to it, and it was a pretty easy trot to get to mile 68 [at least, I remember it that way].

At the mile 68 aid station, I was getting tired. I took my shoes off and switched socks. It was about 2am at this point, and a little sliver of orange moon started to rise.

3. Then it sucked again (miles 68-?)

Miles 68 through 80 were pretty tough. This was a very very long slog, made slower by the fact that it was dark and the trail was tricky.

I was also getting tired, so asked Will to keep the conversation going through asking me questions. His favorite questions to ask were “What’s your favorite [thing]?”, ranging from ‘What’s your favorite Disney character?’ [Ariel] to ‘marine animal?’ [Leafy Sea Dragon] to ‘tree?’ [Eucalyptus]. We had a lot of miles, so the questions got more granular: favorite book ‘from before middle school’ [I think I said Narnia] and ‘from after middle school’ [No idea what I said here]. He got very creative in finding categories of things to ask about that might include a favorite. When he ran out of ‘favorite’ questions and I got more tired, he started on hot-button political issues, which *really* stoked the fire, as his and my opinions differ materially on many political issues. I definitely was not falling asleep on my feet anymore, so this worked really well.

4. Then it sucked more (miles ?-88)

At one point, it got pretty tough. I’d thought we’d gone about six miles since the last aid station, but then a runner behind us said we’d only gone three. That realization was one of the most depressing moments of the race. Everything seemed pretty hopeless. I really, really didn’t want to keep moving forward. That, coupled with knowing the only way to get out of this misery is to keep moving in some direction, is a really hard thing to balance. Want to stop moving + have to keep moving [even if you want to quit the race] = extremely demotivating.

The only thing to do was truck along. I plugged into some podcasts and kept marching.

At some point the sun came up. This was also depressing, because I still had a lot of miles to move, and usually the sun coming up is the sign of the end of the race. Not this time. Lots of miles to go.

The mile 80 aid station was literally the worst aid station ever [at least, it seemed that way at the time]. Around mile 79, we reached an asphalt road with a sign pointing right. To get to the mile 80 aid station, it was a fairly steep downhill for a mile to a cabin in the middle of nowhere. Going down the hill was brutal, because you knew you’d have to turn around and come right back up as soon as you got to the bottom. It seemed like an unnecessary detour.

I also found out later that the cabin was a mile from a great view of the Grand Canyon, which raises the question as to why they didn’t run the course down there and back, and take out two miles somewhere else. Would have been an awesome view.

The next few miles were tricky because I kept thinking I saw the mile 88 aid station. I was minorly hallucinating [nothing compared to Pine Creek]. This time, literally everything looked like a man-made structure. I saw huts, hobbit holes, ski lodges, tents, cabins. Basically, I was wishfully hallucinating the next aid station. Talk about a roller-coaster of emotions – thinking you see an aid station, then realizing it’s a mirage.

5. Then I finished (miles  88-100)

Finally, we got to the mile 88 aid station [it did not look like any of the mirages I’d visualized. Dad was there. I think we got in at 8am, and we’d been planning to get there at 6am, so he was pretty anxious. It was really great to see him there. He’d had a couple of hours of sleep, but not many. After we’d last seen him, dropping Will off at mile 54, Dad ran around for a few hours in the dark helping rangers safely deliver runners who had dropped out to their cars or crew. It’s really neat how much Dad likes to help out random runners at my races – he does this sort of thing pretty much whenever he comes along.

Originally, Will was going to stop running with me at mile 88, but he heroically agreed to continue plodding with me. Ultimately, he ended up doing 46 miles of the race with me, which is insane and awesome in its own right.

The final miles were pretty tough. I was moving pretty slow – mostly walking, but ran as much as I could. Will set his phone alarm to go off every 17 minutes, which was a good goal, because it motivated me to chunk the task into one-mile increments to beat the clock.

The finish line

Was extremely uneventful. We ran under a freeway, then ran down a path, and finished in the IMAX movie theater parking lot. The finish line was literally one orange cone. There were maybe 20 people there. Dad ran across the finish line with me and Will [I wish someone had a picture of this – it was really cool]. The belt buckle is neat. Also, the race director seemed very earnest when he thanked me for coming, which was awesome. He seemed to really care about each individual runner.

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Finisher buckle

When we drove by the parking lot two hours later, everyone was gone and the cone was removed. The race was over.

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Running with Will to the finish line

Reflections

  • Support. One of the best parts of this race was having the support of Dad and Will. Seeing them at mile 20 was a literal game changer. I had been grumpy and not excited for the first few hours of the race, but seeing them come out to support me was really inspiring and motivating.  I’m someone who is motivated by defusing the worst-case-scenario, e.g. I think of the worst-case-scenario and then say “well that’s not so bad.”  In those early miles, I thought about what it would feel like to drop out. Fear of other people judging me for failure is a pretty big deterrent from dropping out, but realizing that Dad and Will would still love and respect me even if I dropped out was really cool. I could fail and they’d wouldn’t be disappointed in me.
  • Data. 45 people started, 28 finished. I’m proud of crossing the finish line. Timing-wise, I finished in 28 hours, which is fine. Slowest 100-miler, but also most difficult. Not sure if I could have gone faster, but it doesn’t really matter to me. Only woman under 35 to finish. 4th 100-miler I’ve run.
  • Decision-making. I made great decisions throughout the race in terms of pacing [go slow and walk a lot], fueling, gear, and asking for support [e.g. having Will come early] . Wouldn’t have changed anything. Very proud of the process.

Overall, I’m proud of what I accomplished on this race. That said, I’m very ready for a break. Running is fantastic, but there’s also an opportunity cost to doing so much of it. Other sports are probably cool, and hanging out with friends is cool. Also, doing more 100-milers, or taking on a longer race, isn’t that inspiring of an idea to me right now. Maybe something will change, but for now I’m pretty comfortable with my empty race calendar.

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Running through the Aspens

Some additional details that may be interesting for runners:

  • Trail was overall pretty runnable. There was a lot of double-track dirt road, and the tire-tread areas weren’t super easy to run on. There were also a lot of pretty rocky sections that were difficult to run on when tired. The hardest single-track was at night around mile 70. Markings could have been closer together to help decrease late-night paranoia. There were no insane stretches of climbing/descending that were unmanageabley[sp?] steep.
  • Aid stations were great. Everyone was friendly. The stretches of 10+ miles were hard, but that would be true anywhere. Carry your own food/gu even if you think you don’t need it.
  • Gear – it was cold at night, but not unbearable as long as you were moving. I brought a running jacket and the inside puffy part of a snow jacket [not worn at the same time] and some light gloves and was fine. Wore shorts the whole time. I like to use handwarmers, but they weren’t totally necessary. Used a handheld 20-oz bottle for water and nothing else. I brought extra batteries because that is smart.
  • Cell phones do *not* work on “most of the course,” which is what the race packet said.

 

 

Zion 100 – Race Report

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Tl;dr: ran 100 miles in Zion. Course was gorgeous, challengingly vertical, and extremely muddy. They pulled us off the course at the end due to weather and mud, shortening the official race to ~90 miles, so I ran another 10 on my own in Zion National Park. I’m feeling great today, and proud of my effort on this very difficult course.

This Friday, Will and I ran the Zion 100 mile race, just outside of Zion National Park in Utah. This felt like my first “real” ultra hundred, because it was deep in nature and on punishing terrain. Featuring four massive climbs, here’s what the course profile looked like:

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Four major climbs

Leading up to the race, we received a series of very scary emails from the race director.

There is a high likelihood that we will be receiving rain during the race this weekend. Of all the races that we put on, this one has always been my biggest worry of inclimate weather due to the potential safety hazards and nasty trail conditions that would accompany it. Approximately 80% of the course is run on soil with a high clay content that turns slippery and sticks to the bottom of your shoes when a sustained, heavy rain ensues.

The race director even allowed runners to defer their entry to next year’s race, which is an option that is generally only offered in cases of very extreme weather.

Understand that there is a chance you will be running in a muddy slimy mess with 5 pounds of clay stuck to the bottom of your shoes and slipping all over the place and you could be putting your life in danger on the steep climbs. If you are not up for this challenge, please consider NOT starting the race so that we are not left with a large number of runners stranded at remote aid stations waiting for rides. Due to the conditions, we are offering a full rollover towards any Ultra Adventures race through next year’s Zion event

As you agreed to when you signed the waiver during the registration process, you are running at your own risk- And we could see extremely risky conditions this weekend.

I was already paralyzed with anxiety about this race due to the amount of vertical climbing we’d have to do. These emails from the race director did not help allay my fears, and in the week prior to the race, I was very nervous.

A couple of friends helped me work through these pre-race nerves, saying things like “It’s not like you’ve never run in the rain before” and “what about [your strategy of] not checking the weather until [they day of] and then making a game time decision?”

It wasn’t until a day before the race, when Will and I were in Zion and driving around in the beautiful scenery, that that anxiety finally translated to excitement. In Adam Grant’s new book, Originals, he explains that reframing anxiety as excitement will improve performance, for example, on math exams or in public speaking engagements, so I also employed this technique for my own nerves. As Adam summarizes, “labeling an emotion as anxiety reduced [singing] accuracy to 53 percent [off of a baseline of 69 percent]. Calling [the emotion] excitement was enough to spike accuracy to 80 percent.”

My parents came to crew me for this race, too, which I was very much looking forward to. We had dinner with them the night before, and they joined us at the start line.

The start line was one part expo, one part camp site. Fire pits dotted the area. I found a chair and moved it as close as I could to one of the fire pits to stay warm.

The start of the race was delayed for five minutes to allow a few late shuttles to arrive. Then the race director counted down and said “Go!”- no gun, no timer, literally just when he felt like it. We all wandered through the chute and onto the trail.

Unlike shorter races, there are very few people who take off at a gallop at the start of a 100. There’s a long way to go, so there’s no reason to expend extra energy. We hit a small hill about 300 yards after the start. Most of us walked it.

The cadence of the race was unlike others that I’ve run. Specifically, the terrain would be flat or rolling, then we’d shoot up a vertical trail on the side of a mesa, run around the flat part of the mesa for a bunch of miles, descend the same steep hill, and be back on the flat or rolling areas. We’d repeat that pattern several times.

Flying Monkey – the first big climb

Within the first few miles of the race, the trail narrowed to single-track, and we started up the side of our first mesa on an ascent called Flying Monkey. We could see the trail of headlamps behind us making the climb in the blue pre-dawn light.

This climb was the first of four major ascents, and nobody was running. It wasn’t a challenging climb, because we were full of energy and it was early in the race.

Partway up the hill, everyone slowed to an even slower walk due to a traffic jam at a particularly tricky and rocky section of the trail. A rope had been installed here to help runners ascend a ten foot sheer rock face. I gripped my water bottle with my teeth and, feeling like a pirate, scrambled up the rock, pulling myself hand-over-hand up the rope and mentally appreciating the weight lifting I’d been doing prior to the race.

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Runners heading up the rope. Photo credit: Will Mroz

Once we reached the top of the mesa, we hit an aid station – our first – and started on a loop around the top. The sun had mostly risen, and the reds of the mesa’s sandstone were vibrant.

I was waiting for my body to ‘wake up’ properly – I still felt sluggish. Everything just seemed to be moving a little slower. I wasn’t too worried – there was a long ways to go – but I did notice it.

Until about five miles in, I’d been ahead of Will – a rare phenomenon! He stopped to say hi before passing me here.

We headed back down the same way we came and started towards our next climb.

Guacamole

At mile 15, we crossed a river and arrived at Dalton aid station for the first time. I saw Will coming out of it, just a few minutes ahead of me – that was the last time I’d see him on the course until about mile 80.

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Runners crossing the river before Dalton. Photo credit: Will Mroz

After leaving the aid station, I found my parents at an intersection not too far away, making a surprise appearance. Mom had co-opted a bunch of random spectators to cheer for me, which was energizing. When I talked to runners in the next few miles and introduced myself, they’d say “Oh, you’re the person they were cheering for!” I had to explain that I didn’t know most of those people – just my two parents.

Dad took some great pictures here. This is one of them:

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Cruising a downhill! Photo credit: Andrew Donchak

The trail widened, becoming a dirt service road that wound between horse paddocks on its way to the next mesa. This climb, retrospectively, also didn’t seem too tough, although we did see a few runners coming back down, which meant they were about ten miles ahead of us.

The circle around the top of Guacamole Mesa was beautiful, and one of my favorite parts of the course. The views were stunning, featuring sweeping vistas of the valley below and more mesas in the distance. The trail itself was rocky, and very close to the edge of the mesa, so our views of the mesas and valleys were unimpeded.

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This was our trail and view. Photo credit: Will Mroz

This was our first introduction to the “white dot” trail tracking system, which was polarizing amongst the athletes. We’d been following pink and silver reflective ribbons to this point, and those ribbons were much more sparsely spaced at the top of this mesa. Instead, runners had to intuit that we would follow spray-painted white dots on the rocks, which were not always easy to find, and did not always coincide with the trail that the pink ribbons suggested. Trail finding was a big challenge in this part of the course, and continued to be later on.

After this loop, we headed back down to Dalton aid station, hitting it for the second time. We’d done 30 miles and were about a third done with the race.

Goosebump

After leaving Dalton, we began a very long, straight run to our next mesa. I started running with a woman from Sacramento for a bit, and we shared stories about our training and the running trails there. After about a mile, we were in a wide-open field with huge mesas looming in the distance. They seemed very far away. It turned out that we were heading towards the massive one directly ahead of us. It seemed really, really far. Once I realized that we also had to climb it once we got there, I sunk into a tough period of demotivation, and let the woman from Sacramento run ahead.

I still wasn’t feeling physically great. The mesa was really far away. We were only a third of the way done with the race. And, to top it off, I was questioning my training; I wasn’t sure that it had prepared me for the race. Naturally, I spent the next several miles mulling over my (perceived) poor training choices in the past few months.

In previous hundred-mile races, I’d done a lot of my training runs as trail races, which were fun and had the added benefit of introducing technical terrain for speed. For this hundred, I’d followed a specific training plan, which didn’t involve racing, and I spent a lot of training time running far on flat concrete. Now that I was out on these rolling hills, approaching our third climb, I was frustrated at what I perceived to be a terrible, urban, training plan, since it didn’t give me nearly enough preparation for hills or trails. I was angry at myself because these concrete 30s now felt like “junk” miles, or useless training, which had done nothing other than waste time and make me tired.

(In reality, as part of my training, I’d done 30 miles of hilly altitude in Tahoe, 26 miles of trail hills in Big Sur, and a fast trail 50k, so the demotivation was partly in my head here. But no less real and difficult in the moment.)

Also, I usually added in some longer races – like 50 milers – but this training plan didn’t call for any of those. The longest I’d run in the last four months was 70 miles, and that was in early January – about three months ago, so in my mind, it didn’t count. My training runs since then had all been about 30 miles. Now that I was running miles 31, 32, and 33 of the race, I had run farther than I had in the last several months, which was tough to handle mentally so early in the race.

In short, I was grumpy.

When I arrived at the base of the toughest climb on the course, I realized I had to do something to fix my mental funk. Although I’d promised myself no music until mile 40, I knew I had to get up this hill somehow. I picked a song – one that had motivated me on my first 50-miler – and set it to play on repeat. And started charging up the hill.

The music helped a lot. It set me into a rhythm of climbing – one foot, another foot – and it felt like I was flying up the hill.

To top it off, there was a beautiful red and pink striated rock formation on our right. I got to see it from many different angles during this climb. It was in this moment of the race, more than any other, that I felt that I was appreciating the uniqueness of the environment as it should be appreciated.

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My favorite rock formation. Photo credit: Will Mroz

This section also reminded me of a particularly difficult stretch of the Inca Trail Marathon. During a tough ascent in that race, I used the “take twenty steps, appreciate the view for twenty seconds” approach. At Zion, give myself permission to stop for a few seconds when I needed to – between repeats of my song – to appreciate the view.

Once at the top of this climb, I was feeling energized again. Three of the four big hills were behind me, and the immediately upcoming sections were flat, similar in nature to what we’d experienced at Guacamole.

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Runners on top of the mesa. Photo credit Ryan Weidert

I switched audio gears to podcasts. I’d preloaded two in particular that I wanted to listen to, both from TED Radio Hour. One was about courage, and one was about endurance. Listening to both helped me realize the ridiculousness of my particular endeavor, and how it paled in comparison to the impact that others were having out in the world and the challenges they were facing. Perversely, this minimization of my own efforts was motivating. If other people could do incredible things like fly into warzones or save hundreds of community members from asbestos poisoning, surely I could trot around, selfishly fulfilling a personal goal that benefited nobody else, for another 60 miles.

Onward.

Grafton – I’ll stay until I’m fired

After hitting the Goosebump aid station a second time, we left for a lollipop loop – we’d come back to Goosebump again after another 20 miles.

This stretch, to Grafton aid station at mile 52, was tough, for several reasons.

First, we were back on flat service road, which is boring and uninspiring. Will likes these because he can run fast. I dislike them because they are not technically or visually inspiring.

Second, it had started to drizzle, so the mud was beginning to get tricky, just like our race director had predicted. I started playing through all of the worst-outcome weather scenarios in my head, which did not help.

Third, it was becoming increasingly clear that I was far behind the estimated pace I’d given my parents. I was worried that they would be worried, and also that they’d be waiting unnecessarily for me at aid stations. Prior to the race, my mom had reassured me that it wouldn’t be a problem if she had to wait for me at Virgin (mile 76), where she’d be pacing me, but I was still anxious, because she was going to have to wait a while. Also, I was looking forward to possibly seeing my dad at Grafton, at mile 52, but I would be at least two hours behind the time I’d given him.

As part of that, I also started thinking that I was going to get pulled off the course because I was going to miss a cutoff. In races like this, runners need to reach certain aid stations before certain times to ensure they’re on track to finish before the total time expires. In my mind, during this stretch, I somehow was convinced that I was really close to missing a cutoff and was going to be stopped from continuing.

I addressed the possibility of this negative outcome by remembering something that someone had said at a recent work training: “I’ll stay until I’m fired.” At the time, this philosophy resonated with me. I interpreted it to mean that my colleague was going to stay at the company as long as he could, putting in his best effort and learning everything he could, and not leave until he was kicked out. I resolved to do the same with this race. I’d stay until they kicked me off the course.

Fourth and lastly, it was getting dark. I’d been on the course for 13 or 14 hours, and the sun was very much setting. I wanted to get to Grafton before the sun set, and I also thought there was a chance my dad would be there, so I kicked my pace up for the last two miles of this stretch to get to the aid station.

On my first of two passes through Grafton, an aid station volunteer assured me that I was far ahead of the cutoff time, and was kind enough to let me text my parents and Will with a quick update. This helped alleviate a lot of my tension. Dad wasn’t there, which was initially disappointing. I found out later that the mud was so bad on the road to this aid station that he couldn’t get his car up, and that other cars had actually gotten stuck in the mud there, so I was glad he decided to skip that aid station.

There were a number of runners sitting in this aid station tent looking pretty demotivated. I checked in on my body, and despite the tough prior stretch, I realized it was mostly mental, and physically I felt pretty good. My spirits buoyed, I left the aid station and started the steep descend to Cemetery.

The next ten miles would take us down to Cemetery aid station, then right back up to Grafton, on our last of the four big climbs. On the way down, I fell into step behind a runner named Mindy, and her pacer, Rick, who were generous enough to let me tag along for a while. Both ultra veterans, they had fun stories to share, and it was great to have some companionship as it got dark and we descended together down a steep, rocky grade.

At the bottom of the hill, an aid station volunteer gave me a note – from Dad! I was excited to have a special delivery – a message of encouragement – and kept it in my backpack for the rest of the run.

The climb back up to Grafton was challenging, although I was energized again by this point. I put another song on loop and charged up the hill. I passed a bunch of runners, most of whom would pass me back later. I didn’t want to let this burst of energy go un-utilized.

Another runner tucked in behind me, and together we did some extraordinary trail finding on this section. This section was longer than anticipated and not well-marked. We didn’t speak much – a true runner camaraderie, I thought at the time. I found out later he as from Slovakia and didn’t speak English. Once we reached out second pass through Grafton, we gave each other a high-five and parted ways for the time being.

I didn’t spend long at Grafton – I was excited that the last big climb of the course was over. I headed out into the darkness – along the flat service road – again, back to Goosebump.

The darkest hour

It had started raining again. The next few miles were the hardest of the race for me. In these darkest hours, I learned a lot about myself.

I found myself becoming increasingly delirious, and recognized the symptoms of exhaustion that I’d experienced at Pine Creek 100 two years ago. On the trail, I saw a fluffy white and orange cat (a.k.a. a rock – I was hallucinating) and a purple bedazzled skull and crossbones (a.k.a. a bush). I also saw two people creepily standing off-trail (a.k.a. two trees).

All I wanted to do was lie down and take a nap, so I started investigating nearby trees that looked sheltered from the drizzle. I sat down under two or three of them for a minute or so at a time, wishing I didn’t have to and knowing it was a bad choice to do so. But I was really exhausted.

I literally had no idea how I was going to make it back to Goosebump aid station for our third pass through. While I wasn’t as exhausted as I had been at Pine Creek, I was still really, really tired, and the next several miles seemed insurmountable.

I’d read an article a while ago that extreme distance runners often experience brain shrinkage after lots of distance running. One possible explanation proposed for this is that the scenery is so dull and visually not stimulating that the brain has nothing to process. I found this to be particularly true on this flat, featureless stretch of service road, especially now that it was dark. All I could see was flat gravel, just in my circle of light. It was mind-numbing.

To solve this problem of severe lack of stimulation, I’d point my headlamp at the side of the road to look at bushes, and that helped a bit. I also switched from music back to podcasts, hypothesizing that the intellectual storylines would give my mind something to focus on and rally around. This helped a bit as well.

Ultimately, I was still weaving on the road and had a ways to go.

I was saved by Mindy and Rick, my buddies from the Cemetery descent. They caught up to me (I’d passed them on my charging climb) and let me jump in with them. I have no idea how I would have gotten through this stretch otherwise.

The three of us made it to Goosebump – our third pass through. Mindy loaned me a long-sleeved thermal – again, saving the day, as I was freezing (I later repaid the favor in ibuprofen and a flashlight. Runners have a weird exchange rates).

Virgin

The next eight miles would feature a steep descent in the dark and in the rain. This was the reverse of the climb we’d done around mile 35, with the ropes and the pretty white and pink rock feature. Except now it was dark, and we were going downhill, and it was wet.

One of the podcasts I’d listened to earlier that day provided a statistic that, on Mount Everest, eight times more climbers die on the descent than on the ascent. With that in mind, we took our time down this very steep hill, and I made sure to stay with Mindy and Rick.

Two notable wildlife encounters occurred during this section. The first was a very large black cow standing just off the trail. We didn’t notice it until it was directly to our left. Mindy saw it first, and thought she was hallucinating until Rick and I confirmed that it was there.

The second wildlife encounter was a huge black snake, which turned out to be a 20-foot long hose and not a real snake.

Physically, I was still feeling fine. I had some sand in my shoes and one of my toes hurt, but otherwise, everything was still moving and I was in good shape.

Psychologically, I was anchoring my entire mental state on the fact that my mom would be at the next aid station, which was just a few miles away. She’d stick with me for about 18 miles, the sun would come up, and I’d be on my way to the finish line after that. If I could just get to Virgin, mentally, I’d be as good as done, even though I would have nearly a marathon left to run at that point. If I could get there, I knew I would finish.

This stretch of trail was demotivating for many. It was the longest stretch without aid, at eight miles. Rick’s GPS ended up saying it was at least a mile longer than the eight miles advertised. Also, it was dark and the path was winding, so there was no way of knowing how far away from the aid station we really were. Later, Will also told me he really struggled with this stretch, and considered dropping out because of it (he didn’t).

During this part, Mindy, Rick, and I lay down at one point and looked at the stars, trying to regather some energy and enthusiasm. At one point, later on Mindy was angling for another mini nap; I remembered that when I was tired, I liked to talk, so I started asking her questions to get her to talk. That seemed to get us both over the hump, and the three of us made it to the last aid station at Virgin.

End of the line

When I arrived, I asked the volunteer checking bibs if he’d seen my mom. This sounds like a dumb question, and he clearly thought so, because he responded “No, I haven’t seen your mom,” somewhat bemused. I thought maybe my mom had been talking to people at the aid station and they’d know there was a mother-daughter pacer-racer pair, and where to direct me to find her.

Since my first attempt clearly didn’t work, I instead just shouted “Mom?” into the aid station. Hilariously, this worked, as she materialized from around the fire pit. I was really excited to see her and have a buddy for the next 18 miles.

I emptied out my shoes of sand again, got some food, and mom and I took off.

We’d pass Virgin four times, completing three loops in the area, before heading to the finish line. She’d stay with me for those three loops, then let me finish the last six alone and meet me at the finish.

The second loop ended where the first loop began, so we ran into Will finishing his second loop as we set out on our first loop. He didn’t recognize us at first, but after he realized who we were, we said hi quickly then continued on our way.

Mom and I were moving quickly at the beginning, and I passed a few people. I led to set the pace and find the trail. Finding the trail was really challenging, still, and that unfortunately distracted me from our conversation (or I was exhausted an unable to coherently have a conversation. Both are possible.) In my mind, because I had done so much trail finding already, I was well-equipped to recognize the ribbons. In reality, mom may have been better at finding the trail, because she was fresh, she still let me lead.

The end of the loop retraced the same last 1.5 miles from that eight mile stretch, which was disheartening. I was also hungry, and the sun was coming up, so I slowed down a bit here. I knew once I got food, I’d be ready for the second loop.

As we approached Virgin for the second time, I briefly noticed that there seemed to be far fewer people there than on our first pass. I didn’t think too hard about it, because it could have just been my perception, and it didn’t really affect my race plan.

When we checked in, I was ready to grab food and head out again quickly, but we were stopped before we got into the aid station. At first I thought I’d missed a cutoff, but I knew I was in very good shape in that regard.

What we found: they’d closed the last two loops of the course due to weather and mud. All runners were to proceed straight to the finish line. We wouldn’t be running 100 miles that day.

I was stunned for a moment, then I was frustrated.

I *knew* at this point that I was going to finish the race. It was in the bag (proverbially – it would still be hard). I was being robbed of a 100-mile finish, instead running something like 88 or 90 miles. Which was not the goal.

Also, I’d only gotten a measly 4.7 miles with my mom. I was really looking forward to more than that.

At the aid station, Mindy and Rick were just about to leave to head to the finish. With no other choice than to run to the finish line, I followed them out, saying goodbye to my mom.

The last six miles (which, again, ended up being closer to eight) were just terrible. The trail was rolling, muddy, and gross, which is a demoralizing way to finish a race.

While we understood the rationale for the shortened course, we complained that the race committee hadn’t found a workaround to let us get our miles in. For example, they could have measured out a few out-and-back miles on a less-muddy road for us to finish on.

To make matters worse, a few other races were starting that morning, and those runners were about two miles into their runs. They looked fresh, fast, and excited. We looked like wet dogs. They kept telling us how amazing and incredible our accomplishment was. We kept staring ahead like zombies. They galloped up the rolling hills. We slide down them, sometimes falling in the mud.

Mostly, I felt like a failure for not finishing my hundred. 90 miles was not 100. All of their congratulations – of which there were many – seemed like salt in the wound.

Even though we wouldn’t get all the miles in, officially, we’d still receive all the trappings of finishing a race. We’d get the buckle, we’d avoid a DNF, and the race was still a qualifier race for other, harder races, even though it ended up being shorter than advertised. Still, that didn’t make any of it better.

We got to the finish line, and I was grumpy and mean to my parents, which I regretted. They gave us hugs and began their drive back to Orange County.

A few minutes later, after I was in the car, I called them and apologized and said thanks. It really was cool that they came out to support Will and I, and I wanted to make sure they knew that.

Zion National Park

Will didn’t get to finish all 100 miles either – he was cut off before the third loop, so just a few moments after we saw each other. He’d had a challenging race and was glad that it was cut short. A lot of other runners felt the same way.

After he and I took a nap and got food, I was still feeling frustrated about the whole situation. Including getting lost and some longer-than-advertised stretches, I’d run about 90 miles. I was ten miles short of a full century. And it seemed dumb to just let it go. I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life saying “Yeah, I *almost* ran 100 miles.”

So after we got back to the hotel, I laced up my shoes, put on my still-dirty race clothes, attached my bib to my Camelbak, and hit the road for ten more miles.

In high school, each student got to customize a small section of our senior yearbook. Most of my peers mushed in collages of pictures, of memories from school and times they wanted to remember.

I left my section Jobsian-white, and included only this quote: “You cannot control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.”

I could not control the course or the weather at this race, and I couldn’t control the final judgement to shorten the course. But I was still going to get this run done. They may have pulled me off the course, but I wasn’t finished yet.

Our hotel was close to Zion National Park, so I thought it was only appropriate to finish the run by going through the park.

The last ten miles of my personal 100-mile run were peaceful and calm. I ran as much as I could and walked the rest. I saw a beautiful rainbow, a turkey with its feathers all out, and a pair of deer. And it rained, and it grew dark, and I was happy, because I finished 100 miles.

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Rainbow on my last ten miles.

Epilogue

Immediately after we finished the official race, Will was furious and forcefully declared that he never wanted to run a 100 mile race again. I agreed immediately, relieved. Training for something like this takes over your life. Mentally, it’s anxiety-inducing for weeks leading up to it. The race itself is really bad for your body and it can take weeks to recover. Parts of the race are miserable and challenging. Afterwards, you don’t feel energized – you feel emaciated and exhausted. I’ve never felt proud or accomplished immediately after finishing a 100-mile race. Just glad that it was over.

A few days later, we’re feeling less forceful about our decision. Maybe we’ll run another. But this was a really hard race, and we’re not going to run headlong into another one without some serious consideration.

Physically, though, I feel phenomenal. I don’t have any muscle or joint pains other than one toe hurting. I attribute this to the variety of terrain –Rocky and Pine Creek were fairly flat, and it took quite a while to recover from those because the same muscles were used. But I feel great after this race, probably because of the climbing we did.

Overall, I’m really glad I ran this race. A long race like this is mostly about troubleshooting, and I felt like I did that well. I was able to manage myself mentally, and I gave myself permission to go slow and walk without beating myself up about it. I encountered difficult situations and knew how to handle them.

And the course was just amazing. Being out in nature like that is a very rare opportunity.

To summarize:

  • It’s okay to walk.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
  • Stay until you’re fired.
  • You cannot control the wind, but you can adjust your sails.

Until next time.

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Will and I at the finish line (after a shower and a nap)

Race Report: The Hardest Race I’ve Ever Run (Pine Creek 100-miler)

I ran my 2nd 100-mile race this weekend. It was the hardest race I’ve yet run, and in some ways, gave me a new appreciation for ultrarunning. I’d read a lot about some of the most difficult, trying parts of long races, but hadn’t really experienced the full extent of real challenges ultrarunners face until this race.

Background

Last year, Will and I ran something like seven road marathons. Road marathons aren’t my favorite; they’re usually painful due to the speed at which you have to run them and the pounding of the pavement, and they aren’t very scenic, especially in comparison to trail runs. I was getting burnt out on road marathons.

I convinced Will to sign up for a trail 100 with me.  He suggested the Pine Creek Challenge, which he’d run as his first 100. This race was a good fit for several reasons. It’s located in Pennsylvania, so it would be a good way to see a part of the state I hadn’t seen before and probably wouldn’t have the chance to see again for a while. It was also after summer (yet before classes really got going), so we’d have ample opportunity to train.

Leading up to the race, I ran lots of solo 30-mile unsupported training runs, as well as a 12-hour race and a 50-miler trail race. These were all great experiences, especially because they represented the best part of running to me – the adventure of trying something new. Also, none of them were road marathons.

After our internships ended, Will and I visited several national parks. We took on a lot of the more challenging, iconic hikes and runs, including Angel’s Landing in Zion, hiking from the Grand Canyon Rim to the Colorado River and back in a single day, and Half Dome, all in the name of training. We may have overdone it here – we probably should have left more time for lazy tapering in preparation for the 100 – but these opportunities and the scenery were too good to miss.

Leading up to the race, I felt I’d trained well, especially given the long work hours at my summer internship and the erratic travel schedule afterwards. I’d logged more than 1,200 miles in the six months leading up to the race, including ten marathon-or-longer distances. While I wasn’t “pumped up” for this 100, I felt ready.

The Race

Pine Creek Challenge is a 100 mile race on relatively flat, wide gravel trail in upstate Pennsylvania. The first 20 miles consisted of a five-mile stretch, which we ran out and back twice, finishing that portion at the start line. The next 80 miles were one long, 40-mile out-and-back – again, ending at the same place we started.

The weather forecast was questionable for the week leading up to the race, alternating between ridiculously humid and largely rainy with possible thunderstorms. I wasn’t concerned about the rain, as my last 100 took place almost exclusively during a deluge. I wasn’t concerned about the humidity either, as New York City had been pretty brutal to train in over the summer.

Part One – The Beginning

The start line (photo credit: Will)

We arrived at the start line around 5:15 in the morning. It was humid enough outside that I put on a bit of bug spray, and warm enough that I didn’t need a jacket. That should have been my first warning sign; the best weather conditions for races are ones where the temperature is just a bit below comfortable.

Will and I arranged our drop bags, which contained our gear that we could pick up at different aid stations, and headed to the start line. The race itself had 62 registered runners, which is pretty small, even for a 100.

As a result, the start line felt very informal and not at all crowded. A few people were sitting on the ground adjusting their shoes. When they played the national anthem, we all turned towards the flag; someone had inconveniently placed the port-o-potties between the start line and the flagpole, so runners would come out of the restroom, see everyone staring in their direction, get confused, then turn around and face the flag once they realized what was going on. Nobody was toeing the line; thirty seconds here was not going to make or break anyone’s race, and it’s very foolish to start out too strong on an ultra; you’ll burn out quick.

At about 6am, we started off. Will and I together for the first five miles; he was planning to hold back a bit so he didn’t burn out too early.  I was aiming for a sub-24 finish, but didn’t really have any strategy other than run at my usual pace for as much as I could.

The first five miles were mostly in the pre-dawn light. Some runners had headlamps. I opted not to wear mine, instead enjoying the tranquility of the morning.

As the sun came up, we were able to appreciate the beauty of the scenery. A light mist covered lush, green farms on either side; we’d occasionally run past cows or a mossy pond. When the mist lifted, the early morning sunlight pierced through the clouds, turning the whole landscape a dewey golden yellow color.

Part of the fun of out-and-back sections is seeing where other runners are along the course and how they’re doing. I was excited to see that three of the top five runners were female. It was fun seeing Will after he took off, too.

By mile 17 or so, I’d seen the same scenery three times and was ready for a change. I made it through the start-line aid station around mile 21, and at this point, I felt like the real race was beginning.

Part Two – Things I don’t Really Remember and Early Challenges

Somewhere on the course – it was pretty! (Photo credit: Will)

I’d be lying if I said I could accurately describe the next 8-10 miles and my state of mind. I know the scenery was pretty, because the trail had lots of trees making pretty tree arches and because I ran it on the way back. I know there was an aid station around mile 24, but I don’t remember it. I know the next aid station after that was 7.7 miles away, which was pretty far. I saw two horse-drawn covered wagons along the way, as well as several very happy Amish women on bicycles. This bridge fits in somehow, and it was very pretty.

A bridge we ran across. It looked a lot creepier at night. (Photo credit: Will)

 

I do remember being pretty happy to be in such a gorgeous area. The trees and the river nearby were really just beautiful.

After those 7.7 miles, we had another long stretch – 8.3 until the next aid station. I fell in with another runner from Philadelphia – he’d completed an Ironman (!) and was an all-around excellent athlete. We paced each other through that long stretch to mile 40.7 before splitting up. He looked like he was doing well, but said he was struggling; I think he dropped out at some point.

We were reaching the early afternoon, and the hottest part of the day. This is the first time I really started struggling, for two reasons: my GPS watch and, as mentioned, the heat.

One: I’d been relying on my GPS watch to determine my walk breaks. I soon realized I was getting grumpy, because the watch was demoralizing; seeing the distance kept reminding me how far I still had to go. I decided to change my strategy and take my walk breaks based on a technique I’d learned from one of my ultrarunning friends: counting your breaths. I would run for 100 breaths (about 400 steps) then walk for 20 breaths (about 80 steps), repeating as necessary and adding either to the run or walk portion if I wanted to. This allowed me to disconnect myself from the watch and be more in-tune with my body and with nature. Studies show that the fastest runners are not the ones who focus on their distance or their own bodies, but the scenery around them. Additionally, part of the reason I like trail running is the experience of immersing myself in my surroundings; it’s hard to do that when you’re constantly staring at a digital screen.

Two: the heat came in fast. I recognized what was happening before it fully hit; I’d experienced the same thing at the 12-hour race I ran in New York. That didn’t make it easier to handle. By mile 43, I was getting dizzy during my walk breaks; I didn’t get dizzy during the running parts, but I couldn’t just run through the heat – that would be disastrous.

At one point, I think around mile 44, I reached a man on a chair; I think he was taking race bib numbers, but it wasn’t really clear what his role was.  He said something horrible: “You’re almost at half way!”  I muttered “Thanks” and kept going. There’s really nothing worse than being reminded how much further you have to go.

About a minute later, I couldn’t take the heat anymore. I remembered reading the article about Tim Olsen, an elite ultrarunner who struggled at the Hardrock 100; at one point, he decided that laying down on a mattress in a pile of trash was a really excellent choice for taking a break. I took a page of out his book and just collapsed on the side of the trail, back to the gravel. It felt great.

Another runner passed me asking if I was okay – I was, and she seemed to believe me, so she continued on. I was up just a few moments later.

Around mile 45, it started pouring – torrential downpour. My kind of challenge. I was ecstatic. I felt revived, revitalized, and excited to be alive. I was happy to be running again. I felt strong.

Mile 46 brought an aid station, along with a lot of runners huddling under it. I grabbed a trash bag for rain protection (I ended up not using it, because it was till warm) and took off again.

The rain subsided pretty quickly, but the happiness I’d felt during it lasted for a few more miles.

I also knew that my pacers would be meeting me at mile 53; that thought buoyed me through the next stretch.

Part 3 – Running with Friends

When I saw my two pacers at the next crew station, I was so happy I almost started crying. I couldn’t believe I had friends who loved me so much that they’d drive four hours on their weekend to run in the middle of a forest – probably in the dark, and slowly – while I was most likely (read: definitely) a terrible conversationalist. I felt so honored and humbled – and I was really, really looking forward to running with them.

Christina joined me first. She initially was concerned that she wouldn’t be able to keep up with me for the 16 miles we’d talked about, but was quickly dissuaded of that notion when she saw how slowly I was going (I was probably running 13-14 minute miles at this point, which actually isn’t that bad for a 100 … but is very slow for any other time). She took me to the turnaround and back to mile 68. We had some pretty deep conversations – the kind you have when you’re out in the forest at stupid-o-clock in the dark and nobody is around.

Jess would pace me for the next 12 miles, up through about 80.5. These were really hard miles for me, and Jess was so supportive, even though it definitely could not have been fun for her. I was still awake and moving, but I was moving very slowly. I was starting to feel the effects of the earlier humidity, and I repeated my earlier trick of starfishing out on the gravel.

At my last 100, I’d almost run out of batteries for my headlamp a few times, which would have left me completely in the dark. After that experience, I developed a weird pathology about light, and Jess had to put up with my constant worrying about whether or not the flashlight we had would run out of batteries. I probably mentioned it something like 20 times. We found more batteries for the flashlight at an aid station, and at mile 80 I’d also have my headlamp – but on reflection, I realize this fixation was definitely symptomatic of having run 70+ miles.

I was terrified of what would happen at mile 80. Mile 80 was the start of some long, solo stretches (remember the 8.3 + 7.7?). It was going to be dark, and I was tired, and I’d be alone. I was really nervous about it.

Part 4 – The Darkest Part of the Race

Jess and Christina left at mile 80.5. I was so happy to have had friends on the trail with me for so long – it was so motivating. The rest was up to me.

I downed about 12 ounces of Diet Coke to wake me up and grabbed my jacket, extra headlamp batteries, and my iPod, and charged into the darkness. It was me, the forest, the trail, and the night.

The next three miles were amazing. I felt like I was running downhill, and I ran most of them with very few walk breaks. I was listening to really upbeat Australian folk music about dingos and emus, so I was pretty happy. Then I had to pee three times in thirty minutes, the caffeine wore off, and I was exhausted again. This is when it got bad.

At this point, I couldn’t even walk straight. I was zigzagging back and forth on my little rut of the trail, and I was I was resting on the gravel every two miles or so. Literally, that gravel was the most comfortable bed I could imagine. A woman on a bike pacing another runner passed me while I was on the ground – she somehow looked like an underwater octopus.

I got up after one rest, and behind me I saw a shadow. At first I thought I was hallucinating, but it was, in fact, another runner – he just wasn’t wearing his headlamp. He and I somehow fell into step together and made it to the next aid station.

From there, we only had 11 miles to go. We shambled back onto the trail.

I can’t begin to describe how hard the next 4 miles were. I was exhausted. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. I’m sure I was sleep walking at some point. I had my first real hallucinatory experience; I saw 10-foot long shoes (they were trees), a two-story apartment complex (also trees), a huge covered bridge (still trees), a bunch of miniature footballs on the trail (leaves), a pile of white index cards that someone had drawn smiley faces on with red pen (leaves), and even the new iPhone 6, which wasn’t announced yet (leaves). The strangest part was seeing these things and knowing they weren’t real, but my body thinking they were. I gingerly stepped over the iPhone 6 so as not to crush it, even as I told my subconscious mind to make the vision go away.

I was also borderline hypothermic. I was wearing a long-sleeve jacket, but not a very heavy one. If we stopped for more than a few moments, I’d start shivering uncontrollably.

The last half-hour before the sun came up was the most miserable half-hour of running I have ever experienced. I am so, so thankful to have found this other runner; I know he was in just as bad of shape as I was, and I think we both felt better that we could look out for each other.

Physically, I wasn’t in any particular pain. My feet were fine, and my muscles and joints felt fine. I was just generally fatigued, and my body was confused that it still had to be awake.

When the sky finally lightened, my new running friend and I could not have been more thrilled.

I woke up immediately. My body felt like a new day had begun, and mentally, I felt awake and alert. Basic math skills returned somewhat (they’d literally been nonexistent earlier – we couldn’t do things like add 0.9 to 8.3. That was challenging).

We reached the final aid station at mile 96.5, and I was ready to take on those next 3.5 miles. My runner friend and I parted ways, and I took off.

I was thinking about just a few things over those last few miles:

  • How outrageously hard this race had been, and how I didn’t yet feel any sense of pride for having finished it, even though I knew at that point I would finish it. It had just been hard and miserable.
  • That Will was waiting for me at the finish line, and the faster I got there, the faster I could see him.
  • How fortunate I was to get to be immersed in nature on this adventure (and survive).
  • Bed and sleeping.

The same yellow glow from more than 24 hours ago was filling the farm valley. As I saw people beginning their Sunday morning, I thought about the fact that they’d had a whole cycle of life since the last time I’d passed through there – eating, drinking, seeing friends, sleeping, and waking up again – and I’d just been running the whole time.

The final turn back into the parking lot was surreal. It was simultaneously overwhelmingly emotional and also starkly apocalyptic. The 0.1 mile driveway to the finish line seemed long and empty. There was a car sharing the driveway with me, which was weird and anticlimactic after being on a trail for so long. Will was in our rental relaxing (he’d finished a few hours before me) – he waved out the window as I passed, then got out of the car to follow me to the finish line.

There were only about eight people at the finish line – all race coordinators who I didn’t know – and they seemed wholly separate from the experience I was going through as I crossed under the finishing arch. I was just happy to be done. They clapped and waved cowbells, but I didn’t really know them and they didn’t really know me, and it seemed sort of hollow.

I thanked them and smiled and turned around, limping back to Will, who hugged me. The race was over. I began shivering again as we walked back to the car.

Will and I at the finish line, just after I crossed it

Afterwards

It took me a couple of hours to write this, but it took a few days to really think and digest my thoughts about the race. I obviously struggled a lot during this race, and I’ll probably go back later and add more color about just how hard it was. I thought about dropping out basically nonstop, and, the weird part was, I didn’t think I’d even care that I hadn’t finished the race; I’d just be happy that the pain was over. I’d never felt that apathetic before.

But, you can only make the decision to drop out at aid stations, and somehow, whenever I was there, the thought didn’t even cross my mind.

62 people registered to run the 100-mile distance. 54 showed up at the start line. Only 37 finished (possibly less – that was the count when I arrived, and there were many people still on the course behind me).

I know I want to do another 100-mile race, and I know it may be as mentally challenging as this one. That scares me a little bit.

For now, I’m just enjoying relaxing and thinking about the shorter races I have coming up.

 

Pain is Temporary

Lisa running along California’s coastline. Photo credit: Chris Chabot.

We push ourselves to the edge of our ability so we can learn. We learn how strong our persistence is, and how far we’ll go before we’ll let adversity beat us.

It was midnight in the middle of a forest in Texas, hours from appreciable civilization. I had just run 80 miles and had another 20 to go. I hadn’t slept for over 20 hours, and was still far from finishing my first 100-mile race.

I could head back to my hotel, or I could finish this race, this ultramarathon, this exercise in endurance that was roughly the equivalent of four back-to-back marathons.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to quit.

Just weeks afterwards, I met my manager and his manager in a conference room. We were preparing a quarterly business review. In that meeting, the entire vision of the presentation was changing again.

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted to quit.

These are frustrating experiences, and they share a commonality: difficulty on the home stretch. When the end is in sight and so much has already been accomplished, yet the goal posts seem so far away, it’s natural to think about giving up.

Will I let another 20 miles beat me? Will I let spreadsheet Cell B24 beat me? What about knowing that, tomorrow, I’m going to have to rework this presentation again?

At mile 80, in the dark Texan forest, as the clock ticked past midnight, I considered my options. Just as the presentation wouldn’t write itself, neither would this race finish itself.

The answer was clear. I’d already decided to keep moving several times during the day. This was just another decision point, and, really, that meant there was no decision.

I got up and summoned the courage to stumble back onto the course.

Those last 20 miles took a very long time. I had to walk most of them; unbeknownst to me, blisters were blossoming on every toe. My wet shoes squished into the mud, and my headlamp almost ran out of batteries several times, leaving me alone with the dark trees.

Finishing that 100-mile race is one of the moments I am most proud of. It taught me that giving up is not the answer. Even though a task – a race, a presentation, or a mathematical model – may seem insurmountable in the moment, it’s usually not as bad as we might think.

That presentation I worked on with my manager and his manager was one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had in my professional career. However, I also learned more from working on that presentation than on any other I’ve put together. From messaging to slide layout to the creative process, my presentation skills improved dramatically after that difficult week.

We push ourselves to find our limits, and, ultimately, to exceed them.

As runners say: pain is temporary. Pride is forever.

_Prompt: Show us an activity you enjoy doing. Tell us how you think it contributes to your personal and professional development_

Confessions of an Injured Runner

This is not a stress fracture! Also, check out my dense and well-defined muscles.

“Let’s go schedule a followup. You okay to walk?”

“Yep. Let’s go.”

I stood up and walked out of the room. Blood quickly started draining out of my head. My vision looked like a poorly-focused vignette.

“Nope.  I need to sit down again. Hang on a minute.”

My name is Lisa, and I’m an injured athlete.

That exchange was about five weeks ago, in a doctor’s office at Stanford. The doctor had just told me he was about 80% certain I had a stress fracture. It was on the growth plate of my right tibia. I most likely wouldn’t be running for about three months.

“What can I do?”

“Swim.”

The next few days were disastrous.

I was immediately terrified that, without a regular exercise routine, I would promptly gain 40 pounds and never be an athlete again. Despite the irrationality of this thought process, it seemed like a very real outcome. To try and combat this perceived impending obesity, the first thing I did was sign up for a membership at 24 Hour Fitness, the only gym nearby with a pool open at all hours of the day. Within a week, I was swimming 2 miles a day. Within three weeks, I was up to 3 miles.

In my mind, I was no longer a runner. I wasn’t actively running, and it wasn’t clear when I next would, so that meant I wasn’t a runner.  I felt like I was lying to the world, posing as a runner when I clearly wasn’t one. I didn’t tell anyone about my injury. I was too embarrassed, and it was too painful to think about it, much less talk about it.

I stopped eating for about a week and dropped several pounds. Because, in my mind, I wasn’t an athlete, I didn’t know how to eat anymore; food no longer was categorized as fuel. It was an undefined quantity with no clear use to me.

The first few weeks were worse than any breakup I’ve ever been through. After a breakup, I could pound out a hard 10 miles to work off the emotional turbulence. Running has always been a way to burn of pent-up emotional confusion. This injury was the first problem I had encountered where it couldn’t be solved, or at least temporarily alleviated, by running.

Every time I felt pain, I imagined my bone splitting apart. It was nauseating.

A few weeks later, I went back for an MRI to confirm the diagnosis. I made sure to eat breakfast beforehand; I had convinced myself that the dizziness from the last visit was due to low blood sugar, not shock.

There was good news, and bad news.  The good news: it wasn’t a stress fracture. The bad news: it was tendinitis. Recovery time for tendinitis can be as short as 4-6 weeks. I was relieved, but it also didn’t immediately change anything I was doing. I still had to spend every morning confined within the walls of a windowless gym.

Sidenote: There’s no doubt in my mind regarding what caused this injury. I didn’t give myself enough time to recover after my 100-mile race. Consider that lesson learned.

Today, about five weeks after the first diagnosis, I ran 1.25 miles without pain. Today is the first day I’ve felt real optimism that I’ll run again.

Over the past few weeks, things have settled down a bit. I’m cycling almost every morning, and I’ve started lifting some weights. An exercise routine has been successfully established.

I’ll probably do some additional writing on different facets of this recovery process, mainly so others can read about some of the things I’ve learned. Having never done any research on injuries prior to this event, I’ve definitely learned a lot about injury prevention, recovery, and some specific health issues, like the female athlete triad.

Because of this process, my motivations and psychology around running and my approach to life have been torn apart, laid bare, and pieced back together. It’s been an eye-opening experience, made even more shocking because of the relative lack of severity of the injury.

Importantly, I’ve come to terms with this injury. Just because I’m not running today doesn’t mean I’m not a runner. I’m still a runner. I’m just taking a vacation.

Have you had a sports-related injury? How did you recover?

Race Report: Rocky Raccoon 100-miler

[originally posted at gametheoryninja.com]

As some of you know, I ran 100 miles this weekend.  Here’s the race report.  Also, I know it’s not related to game theory at all.

The race I ran was Rocky Raccoon, a five-lap race in Huntsville, Texas. You can see the results here. I finished in 24:58:28.  Only 43% of the 415 runners finished. (Does anyone have updated stats on this?)

Lap 1: It was a dark and stormy night …

About an hour before the race started, Dad and I were sitting in the rental car.  Rain was coming down in sheets. Per the normal clichés about storms, lightening zig-zagged through the sky and thunder echoed through the forest.  We don’t get storms like this in Northern California, and I hadn’t prepared for it.

I hacked some holes into a black plastic trash bag, and used duct tape to get the extra plastic away from my legs.  In my mind, the end result looked like a superhero combination of a Catwoman costume and a steampunk bustle. In reality, it probably looked like a house getting tented for termites.

The race started at 6am. Much of the first lap was in the dark.  It took less than a mile for me to trip over a tree root, a hazard the course is notorious for.  I was already bleeding, and we hadn’t even been running for ten minutes. Somehow, this early wipe-out didn’t dampen my spirits any more than the storm did.

Every two or three miles featured an enormous, impossible-to-avoid mud puddle. I was regularly up to my ankles in mud and water. My shoes were at least damp, if not drenched, for the entire race. This would prove to cause problems later.

I don’t remember much of the first lap. There was so much running left to do, and I didn’t want to think too much about what was to come.  I do remember, around mile 8, having a bit of a panic attack.  I still had 92 miles to run.  92 miles seems a lot longer than 100 miles.

Lap 2: The Man with the Sea Dragon Compression Socks

Every so often, in a race, runners will fall into step and pace off of each other. The two runners acknowledge each other and run in silent camaraderie. No words required.

For lap 2, and some of lap 3, I found such companionship with a man whose name I still don’t know. All I know about him was that he had running spandex and compression socks that looked like sea dragon scales, so that’s how I mentally referred to him.

Somewhere during lap 2, I also met a man named Bruce. He was wearing a blue shirt with cat paw-prints on it, so, being a cat person, I had to ask about it. I learned that Bruce was from Toronto, and told him I’d be visiting in July for World Futures 2012. Bruce had heard of WFS; he’s a CIO for a large school district near Toronto with 7k faculty and 54k students, so he’d been thinking about attending.

Best part: Bruce is in the middle of deploying Google Apps for Edu for his school district. [For those who don’t know, Google Apps is the part of Google I work for].  Bruce and I talked about everything from Gmail to Chromebooks to centrally-managed Android tablets. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say I drilled him for about an hour on his opinions on our products.  He seemed happy to oblige my curiosity.

Lap 3: Lothlorien in Light and Shadow

About midway through this lap, I saw the sun for the first and last time during the race. It was a wan orb, low on the horizon, mostly obscured by emaciated tree trunks. Spindly shadows reached across the dirt path.

Seeing the sun made me unreasonably happy.

Around mile 52, I realized that it was going to get dark before I got to the turnaround and could pick up a headlamp.  I ran the last 8 miles of this lap very quickly to avoid getting caught in the dark.

Lap 4: Trust

This was the lap I had been looking forward to for the last 60 miles. My thought had been that if I could just get to this lap, I’d make it the rest of the way.  This is the lap when my pacer, Georgia, joined me.

The first two-thirds of this lap were great.  It was fantastic to have someone to talk to, and Georgia was an excellent pacer. Real friendship is carrying extra caffeine Gus and a jacket for your runner.

One of the fun parts of this lap was being able to share my newly-acquired, yet very intimate, knowledge of the course. Having been around the course three times times already, I could tell her where all the turnoffs were, where the tricky roots were, and the easiest way around mud puddles.  The aid stations were at 3.1 miles, 6.2 miles, 12.2 miles, and 15.6 miles. The hardest bit was the loop between 6.2 and 12.2, because that’s a full six miles without aid.  The far timing mat was a little less than 10 miles into the loop.

There’s one stretch of the course – less than a 10th of a mile – that’s right along the lake. It’s the only part of the course with an unobstructed view of the sky. On lap four, we had front-row seats to the stars.

That short stretch is also difficult, because just a few hundred yards away, across the lake, is the finish line.  You can hear the shouts and cheers of spectators urging their runners across the timing mat. It throws into sharp relief the fact that you’re just about halfway through the lap.

If I learned anything this time around it’s that, in long distance races, mood swings happen unpredictably and with no discernible cause. Miles 72 to 78 were very tough, and I’m not sure why. I had to sit down for a minute on a mound of dirt, where I spent two minutes contemplating the meaning of life with Georgia before finishing the lap.

At the impromptu rest point, I was about three-quarters done with the race. Sounds impressive, but not when that means I still had another full marathon until the finish.

Lap 5: Silence

Georgia and I finished lap 4 around midnight. I had been running for about 18 hours at that point. A sub-24 hour finish was still possible, but I knew in my heart it wasn’t very likely. I haven’t done a lot of research into this, but my intuition tells me that negative splits don’t often happen on 100-mile races.

After inhaling a chocolate donut and my first-ever mocha [which was delicious – thanks Dad!], I grabbed my iPod and took off for the last lap.

It was dark. Profoundly dark. And very, very quiet.

At this point, runners were either by themselves or running with a pacer. Everyone was spread out along the course.  Runners were exhausted, focused, and not interested in talking to othe rpeople.

All I could think about was the next step I was about to take.

When I talk about running, I often get asked about my music. Usually, I don’t listen to music. It’s distracting. When you’re this tired, any additional outside inputs or stimuli – even music – seem complicated, confusing, and overwhelming.

On this lap, I think I listened to about 45 minutes of music before I had to turn off the iPod.

The most frustrating part of this lap was that my muscles and joints felt fine, but I was unable to run. The constantly wet shoes finally taken their toll. Mud puddles had nurtured blisters on every single toe and the entire front pad of both of my feet. Each step was excruciating.

This lap reminded me of the Ave Maria sequence from Fantasia. Individual runners – little pools of light – painstakingly making a pilgrimage to the finish line. Not quickly, but inexorably, as if pulled by some external force.  And the sky is slowly turning grey.

The finish line.

There was no big celebration at the finish line. I walked across the timing pad, we took a picture, and that was that.

Epilogue: You Have My Sword, and my Bow, and My Axe

I finished the run in 24 hours and 58 minutes. I think that’s the longest I’ve been awake. I consumed more caffeine during that period than in the previous six months combined. There were highs, lows, and a lot of learning.

The hardest part of this race was not the roots, although that’s what the course is known for.  The hardest part was running in the dark. One of the reasons I like running is that it provides the opportunity to be fully immersed in nature. No technology, no distractions.  In the darkness, all you get is a tiny pool of light: just enough to see the path in front of you. There’s an entire forest, and all you get to see is some dirt and roots.  And a few headlamps twinkling in the distance. It’s hard to describe how frantic I felt at times, not being able to see anything around me.  Physically, 100 miles didn’t feel substantially different than 50. Mentally, the challenge was the darkness.

When I crewed for Mike at Badwater, he mentioned that picking a good crew is one of the most important components of a successful race. I didn’t think about it much at the time, and I didn’t understand why that would be the case until the end of the 4th lap of this race.  Going into the 5th lap, I felt like I was suffering from information overload, even though the number of ideas I had to hold in my head was very small. Case in point: I had to choose which jacket to wear on the final lap. Despite being a binary decision, this seemed like an insurmountable task, so I deferred to Georgia to help me decide. Decisions like that, so late in the race, can make or break a finish.

To sum up: I had a great crew. Dad and Georgia were incredibly supportive, upbeat, and helped me make good decisions.  Thanks so much, you guys. I could not have done it without you.

After finishing, I promptly pronounced I would never run another 100-mile race again.  Just over 24 hours later, I’m taking less of a hard line towards that assertion. While I have no immediate plans to run another 100, I could see doing it again, sometime in the distant future. Just to see how it compares to this one.