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.

 

 

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Why You Should Run Like a Super-Villain

Super-villains have capes, and so did our Lake Tahoe Relay team.

Who’s your favorite super-villain? Is there one bad guy who you’ve always been fascinated with?

Runners and super-villains have a lot in common. In fact, I’d say that the best runners would make the best super-villains. I’d go even further to say that we runners could have a lot to learn from the best super-villains.

Check it out:

Super-villains set lofty goals.  Magneto, of the X-men universe, wants to protect the world’s super-powered mutant race from being regarded as sub-human. He pretty much wants to change the way the entire world thinks – I’d say that’s a lofty goal.

Good runners set impressive goals, too. Our goals could be finishing a race, finishing a race quickly, hitting a weekly mileage goal, or something else. Good runners set tough, but realistic, goals.

Super-villains believe that, through hard work, they can get anything they want in life. Syndrome, from the 2004 animated film The Incredibles, was slighted by the main character as a child. Syndrome spent the next several years of his life plotting revenge and building an enormous robot, Omnidroid, to defeat his new nemesis.

Runners set goals, and then, through hard work and dedication, train to achieve them. We run, then run, then run more. We run sprints. We run hills. We run short distances. We run long distances. Some of us occasionally cross-train. Runners and super-villains both know that hard work pays off, and the only way to get the results we want is to work at it. Strong runners and strong super-villains have strong work ethics.

Super-villains will prepare for years to execute a cleverly-crafted plan. In the first Harry Potter book, Voldemort, whose end-goal is to kill the titular character, tries to do so by concocting an elaborate plan: borrow someone else’s body to steal a magical device, which he will then use to create his own, new bod, which he will then use to kill Harry.  Complex.

Runners’ plans are sometimes just as elaborate. We prepare for months, and sometimes years, for our races. Some of us have carefully regimented training schedules. In addition to training almost every day of the week, runners pay attention to the details: we read course descriptions and race reports. We pour over weather forecasts and course maps. We prepare mental strategies to help us through difficult parts of the race.

Super-villains have backup plans. Wile E. Coyote’s backup plans are numerous, and, despite their regular failure, he doesn’t hesitate to try again.

When I crewed for Badwater, my runner had two full minivans of contingency plans. These plans included extra socks,  several pairs of shoes of different sizes, boxes of medical supplies, crates of different snacks, gels, and bars, extra shirts, batteries, headlamps, iPods, chargers, GPS devices, radios – you name it. He was prepared for anything.

Super-villains ask for help. Darth Vader, of Starwars fame, was very willing to delegate tasks to his loyal, highly-motivated Stormtroopers. He somehow managed to recruit, and train an entire Imperial Starfleet of Stormtroopers, who would follow along with his plan.

For runners, these people could be the ones who cheer you on, train with you, give you advice, motivate you on rainy days, or meet you at the finish line with Dunkin Donuts (hint to my Boston Marathon supporters next week! 😉

On the other hand, heroes make pretty bad role models for runners. Heroes:

  • Are solitary .  They prefer to work alone, instead of relying on teammates.
  • Use their talents rarely. They don’t keep their abilities in top condition, instead opting to save them for emergencies only.
  • Are reactive. They wait until bad things happen, then try to solve the problem, rather than anticipating potential pitfalls.

In summary: super-villains would make awesome runners. And runners: we could do worse than looking up to some of the bad guys.

Who’s your favorite super-villain? Is it Jafar because of his awesome hat? Or Goldfinger because of his strategic shenanigans? Which bad guy inspires you?

Why do you run?

Santa Cruz, CA, where I ran my first half marathon.

Motivation is a complex concept.  In theater, the most compelling actors are those who understand the motivations of their characters. What does this character want? What does this character want to accomplish? What is motivating this character?

When I first entered the world of ultrarunning, I asked several elite ultrarunners why they ran.  Their answers, superficially, seemed compelling. One runner said he did it to see how far he could go. One runner said she ran in honor of a dead relative.  On the surface, these seem like acceptable, persuasive motivations.

However, the deeper I get into this sport, the more I realize that motivation is never just one thing. Rarely can motivation be summarized in a pithy elevator pitch. Motivation is many-layered, difficult to describe, and, most importantly, changes over time.

I run for many reasons, and have run for many more reasons. My motivations for running will inevitably change in the future, too.

However, the reason I started running was humility.

The Badwater Ultramarathon is a 135-mile footrace in Death Valley. The race is run in July, when temperatures regularly reach 120 degrees.  It starts at Badwater, the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. It finishes about halfway up Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the contiguous United States. Cumulatively the course boasts 19,000 feet of elevation gain. The course snakes through some of the most treacherous desert in the world. Runners have to run on the white line on the side of the road to prevent the soles of their shoes from melting.

I had the opportunity to crew for a runner who participated in this outrageous excuse for a weekend activity. Just watching him run this race was transformational.

Afterwards, a half marathon didn’t seem like something worthy of being called a challenge. A runner would have to run ten back-to-back half marathons to approach the distance Badwater covered.

I ran my first half marathon around a 0.5-mile track at UC Santa Cruz. I ran it by myself. It took a very long time. The varsity cross-country team started training after I started running, and left before I finished.

My first motivation to start running was the realization that no matter how far I ran, someone would always have fun farther.

Today, when asked why I run, I give a crisp elevator-pitch of a response. Motivation is too multifaceted to sum up in a single conversation, and, most of the time, casual conversationalists don’t want to hear more.

Whatever their motivation, runners keep heading out to the trails. Every day, runners are compelled to get out of bed and tie on a pair of running shoes. Something’s got to keep them moving. Something’s motivating each and every runner.

No two runners run for the same reasons. I’d also wager that there are very few runners who run just for one reason.

And there are many of us who may never be able to fully articulate why we run. But, until we can’t run anymore, we’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

And delivering pithy one-liners that don’t adequately describe our real motivation.

Question: What do you say when people ask you “Why do you run?”