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)

Getting past the burnout – 2nd place at Redtail Ridge

This is a race report about the Redtail Ridge 50k at Lake Chabot, put on by the illustrious Inside Trail Running.

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On Saturday, at 8:05 a.m., I was sitting in a car in the parking lot of a park. My race started at 8:30. I hadn’t put on my shoes, and I hadn’t picked up my bib. I was not motivated or excited to run this race. I was feeling burnt out.

Last week, I posted a depressing call for help on a running message board. Here it is:

Hi runners,

I’m training for my 3rd 100-miler. Race is in early April. I’m running 28-30-milers almost every Saturday, plus whatever the training plan says for the other days. Between work and training for this race, I feel really burnt out – if I’m not working, I’m running, and there’s no time for anything else. I’m starting to dread my workouts [even non long-run days], and that hasn’t really happened before.

I haven’t felt this way when training for my past races, which I did primarily by running some 50s and 50ks [fun!] and then just running the race. This time around, training seems like an inescapable slog. I’m wondering if a) I’ve hit my limit of interest for the sport b) I’ve been overtraining or c) training is hard and I wasn’t doing it right before.

Help me out, guys – another four weekends of 30-mile Saturdays just seems daunting, miserable, and not worth it, but not doing the training seems like a bad option too.

Suffice to say, the last few weeks have been rough. I was tired, overwhelmed, and not excited to run. And in the car on Saturday morning, I wasn’t excited at the prospect of another run. It just seemed like so much work.

I thought about my options. I could either get out of the car and run the race. Or I could let Will run and go do literally anything else for five hours. Anything. I could go read a book or visit with friends or just wander around and explore the area. I was really grasping at any reason to not run this race.

But, ultimately, I was basically at the start line already, and I’d already paid. Two really uninspired reasons to run. So I got out of the car, picked up my bib, and started the race.

I’d run a couple of races in this park before, so the trails were familiar. The first few miles were along a lake – flat and forested, before we started a steep climb to the first aid station.

I wasn’t pushing it too hard at this point in the race. I’d gotten food poisoning on Thursday, so wasn’t sure how much energy I had in the tank. This race was also supposed to be a training run, so it was more about the miles and less about the speed. As such, I hadn’t tapered at all, and had run back-to-back ten-milers on Tuesday and Wednesday. I was moving slow, and I was okay with that, because I wasn’t motivated to run anyway.

That said, I was watching the color of the bibs around me. The 30k race had started at the same time as we had. They had green bibs instead of our yellow ones. Even though I wasn’t going for speed, I definitely looked at a racer’s bib color any time one passed me, which happened frequently, and hoped their bib was green. Runners going shorter distances should be running faster, so it doesn’t feel completely devastating when someone running a shorter distance scoots ahead. For a while, I didn’t see many yellow bibs at all, which was motivating.

After the second aid station, we ran along a rolling, wide dirt road in verdant green pastures. The trail was sloppy with mud from recent rain, made worse by the … generous … presents that grazing cows had left us along the way.

I took a quick pit-stop in the bushes and retied my shoes before the trail plunged back into the forest.

I hadn’t brought my watch on this race. Sometimes, looking at your distance during a race can be more depressing than helpful. At the beginning of the race, I felt like I had so much going against me mentally already. It didn’t seem worth it to add to the misery by knowing how many millions of miles I had left to go.

So, I’m guessing when I say it was somewhere around mile 10 when I picked up the pace a bit, for no reason other than it seemed like a good idea. At some point, I caught up to another runner, and fully intended to pass her, but she opened a conversation as we rounded a corner and stuck with me.

I’m really glad she did. We spent the next six or eight miles together. I learned about her running past [she used to live in Hopkinton, where the Boston Marathon starts!] and we chatted away a few hours of running.

I felt like I could have gone a little faster at this point, but I was more excited to have company and someone to talk to. Finding kindred spirits is one of my favorite parts of long races.

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My new friend and motivation for the middle stretch of the race

When we reached a downhill stretch, she and I parted ways; I’m a strong downhill runner and was feeling good.

The 50k course included all of the 30k course; we headed back to the start line with the 30k runners, then turned around and went out for another 12 miles after that.  As I headed back to the start line, I was feeling pretty good, energized by running with my new friend and excited by the prospect of running another 12 miles on the course. I would see her one more time on the course as I headed back out and she reached her finish line.

I like courses that have little stretches of out-and-back. Some runners don’t, because it can be demotivating to run in the opposite direction of where you’re ultimately headed, especially when part of that is at the start/finish line. However, I think  it’s fun to see the other runners on the course who are ahead or behind. It’s also an easy way to figure out how well you’re doing relative to other runners, because you can count who’s ahead of you. I hadn’t seen that many women with yellow bibs, and none that had passed me.

With just a few miles to the turn-around at the start, I started looking out for runners coming the other way. I saw one – she was moving pretty fast, and she was about 2-2.5 miles ahead of me. I saw one more, but she had made a wrong turn and wasn’t running the 50k anymore. And then … I reached the turnaround.  There weren’t any other women ahead of me.

I was in 2nd place.

And, even better, I was feeling good, both physically and mentally.

Neat. I turned around and took off, trying to widen the gap between myself and whoever was behind me. I quickly saw two women neck-in-neck, both 50k runners, about a mile behind me. So that meant I had to not lose a minute per mile to them, approximately, over the next 12 miles. It was 2nd place or 4th place.

I was glad I had left some gas in the tank, because the next few miles were back up that first hill again. I paced myself, running the hill where I could and taking walk breaks on the steep parts where I needed to, and made it to the first aid station in good shape.

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Cruising up a hill

There were three aid stations in this stretch, and I knew that if I made it to the 2nd one without getting passed, I could defend my position and sprint the last six miles to the finish. So the next few miles were somewhat anxiety-filled. Every walk-break, I was second-guessing whether or not I was wasting time by walking. This strategizing was kind of fun, too – not something I normally did in races, because normally I don’t compete for any meaningful prizes in races.

I made it to the 2nd aid station – another out-and-back – and hadn’t been passed yet. As I left the aid station, I saw one of the other women behind me. She was still about ten minutes back. I was pretty confident that she wouldn’t catch me, but I didn’t want to take any risks.

The last six miles were great. My legs had started to fatigue a little bit, but I knew I could go this last stretch without hitting the wall. These were the miles where I could feel my long runs paying off. I felt strong and prepared for the distance.

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Flying

After the last aid station, it was all downhill, and I flew all the way down to the lake. The last mile or so was little rolling hills along the lake, and I really pushed hard. At this point, it wasn’t because I was worried about getting passed, but because I was feeling good and I wanted to leave it all on the course. Will came back and ran with me for the last couple of minutes too, which was motivating and fun.

I crossed the finish line at 5:41, which was my 3rd fasted trail 50k time. And – I came in 2nd!

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Will pacing me to the finish

 

I had a really great time out on the course. I had been feeling really burnt out on running. A fun race – which turned into a competitive race – ended up being just the thing to get me back on track. Training for a 100-mile race is hard work, and it was nice to take a mental break and see some of that training pay dividends.

Sometimes we forget why we do the things we do, and it’s hard to get over the hump. This race helped to remind me about the reasons I run.

Running is a very multifaceted activity, and it draws people in for a variety of reasons. Some people love structured training, getting lost in the wilderness, racing competitively, or breaking PRs. As for me, I’ve always loved showing up to a race with no agenda, knowing that the time doesn’t matter, and also knowing that all I have to do is have a good time in nature. I don’t have to worry about the distance or about getting lost or about making sure I get home in time for something. All of that is taken care of, and all I have to do is relax into the trail, maybe make some friends, and appreciate being outdoors in a body I’ve worked hard to make strong.

 

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Swag. Bottom middle is the 1st-place age group medal, which is what they were giving out instead of 1st-2nd-3rd prizes. Also, what a great bib number.

 

Quick reminder: I’m still fundraising for the SF double marathon. Check it out: https://www.crowdrise.com/sanfranciscodoublema/fundraiser/brbrunning 

A marathon on the coldest, iciest continent – Antarctica

Late afternoon sunlight in Antarctica

I just got back from what can only be described as one of the most epic escapades I’ve been privileged to undertake – a two-week expedition to the loneliest place on earth, where myself and about 150 others explored, adventured, and, of course, ran a marathon.

If the title didn’t give it away, we went to Antarctica.

[Warning – probably a long and rambling post. It was an awesome trip, and the marathon was just a small part of it. It will be hard to do it justice.]

Backstory. I first heard about the Seven Continents Club when I ran the Inca Trail Marathon in 2012. The club is for those who are in the process of running, or have completed, a marathon on every continent. Obviously, the most logistically challenging continent to run a race on is Antarctica. In 2012, I also learned that there’s a 3-5 year wait list to get on a voyage down there, so I put down a small deposit – I figured I’d decide to take that journey if, and when, the time came. Putting down the Antartica Marathon deposit was choosing more of an option to participate rather than a firm commitment to this outrageous expedition.

Since then, I’ve run races on two other continents: Australia and and Africa. Antarctica makes six (although my Europe marathon was a solo, unsupported run, so I’ll probably have to go back and do that one again).

When I finally got off the wait list for Antarctica, the timing couldn’t have been better: it overlapped with my school’s spring break, and I’d get to train through Philly’s miserable winter (that last part turned out to be especially helpful during the race).

Before the race. Two weeks ago, four hundred of us met up in Buenos Aires with our Marathon Tours organizers. We divided into two ships: The Akademik Ioffe, which left one day early and whose runners would race on March 9th, and my ship, the Akademik Sergey Vavilov, sister ship to the Ioffe, whose runners would race on March 10th. The results from the two days would be aggregated (important for later).

We had a few days in Buenos Aires – padding for those whose flights had been delayed – and a small group of us visited Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay for a day. That trip led to some shenanigans, such as a 20k training run in Uruguay which was actually only 1.5k. This silliness quickly solidified the friendship of this group of 9, and we affectionally named ourselves “The Colonials.”

The Colonial 9, atop the Uruguayan lighthouse

That day in Uruguay foreshadowed the depth of some of the friendships that would form over the course of the trip. Runners are a strange bunch, but there are some deep commonalities we have which makes it easy, and rewarding, to become fast friends with fellow running travelers.

The first two days were spent crossing the infamous Drake Passage. Many of us, myself included, spent significant time in our bunks attempting to avoid seasickness, with mixed success. We spent the time in-between getting to know each other, taking photos of the open ocean, and attending lectures on everything Antarctic, from penguins, to whales, to ice.

There was more than a little nervous energy onboard. Everyone was thinking about the race, and that manifested itself in a variety of ways. Most notably, we discussed every single aspect of the day-of race logistics ad nauseam. A couple of components were just unique enough that they made for interesting talking points. For example, we had to provide all of our own food and water during the race, and nothing could have a wrapper. Traditional food items, like Clif bars and Gus, were ruled out. Everyone had their own workaround, and we heard about all of them. I planned to use unwrapped Snickers bars shoved into a front pocket, operating under the assumption that they wouldn’t melt due to the frigid temperatures.

I was also not 100% convinced we’d even be running the race at all, so I was trying to avoid getting my hopes up too much. The entire lead up to the race was filled with weather warnings – inclement weather could cancel the race completely, and, in Antarctica, weather is not something you gamble with. I’d been reading the Ernest Shackleton story in my spare time, and, based on his harrowing 17-month survival experience stranded on the continent, I was more than convinced that the race should be called off in the case of poor weather. Nobody wants to get stuck ashore in Antarctica and forced to eat dog pemmican.

However, our first day ashore in Antartica – the day before the race – was amazing. We visited Half Moon Island, known for  its fur seals and chinstrap penguins. There’s also one, lone macaroni penguin – named Kenneth – who thinks he’s part of the chinstrap colony. The island itself was stunning – a little, white crescent surrounded by pounding, grey waves. It was our first taste of what Antarctic isolation is really about.

First shore day. The Vavilov is behind me

That day, the runners on the Ioffe were running their race. We learned that part of the course was drowned under about a foot of water due to melted snow, so they’d had to re-route, but they’d all made it safely back to the boat after running. That night, after our pre-race briefing, I removed myself from the rabble and anxiety – I didn’t want to discuss race-day nutrition for the 800th time – and went to bed early.

The race.

The official race map.

I woke up multiple times during the night. Just outside the porthole, massive snow flurries blinked in the dim deck lights. I kept trying to convince myself that it definitely wasn’t snow, but every time I woke up, it was definitely still snow, and it was piling up on the deck railings.

By the time we made our way to breakfast, it had stopped snowing, although the winds were holding steady at about 30 knots, with gusts to 35 knots. Even as we packed our dry-bags with warm clothes, filled up our water bottles, and donned our foul-weather gear for the boat ride over, I still wasn’t convinced they weren’t going to call it off due to weather.

We were aiming for a 9am start, which meant we had to start offloading 100 runners around 8am. Many of the Colonials were in a later boat – second or third-to-last. It seemed prudent not to wait in the cold for an hour.

The boats – called Zodiacs – were little rubber contraptions. During any expedition away from our ship, even if it was a very short trip to shore, each Zodiac carried ample extra fuel, enough food for all ~12 passengers for three days, and basic shelter supplies. We all wore lifejackets and waterproof foul-weather-gear at all times when on the Zodiacs. Again, no messing around down here.

On the boat ahead of us, a group of runners, including a family, were navigating the gangway down to a Zodiac. One woman was extremely terrified to step off of the ship and onto the gangway, which was shaking rather violently. She let her son and daughter escort her slowly down to the Zodiac, but the Zodiac was pitching and rolling on the choppy swells. I saw her reach a shaking hand out to cross from the gangway to the Zodiac, but she couldn’t take that step across onto the boat. She turned around and came back onboard the Vavilov. The Zodiac finished loading – without her – and took off for shore. (I found out later that she gave it another go, made it to shore, and finished the half marathon. The whole trip was full of inspirational stories like this).

Our trip over on the Zodiac took about 15 minutes, and the winds were fierce. We huddled together on the rubber seats, and I rubbed strategically-placed hand warmers to keep my fingers mobile. We all hoped that when we started moving, we’d warm up.

When we got to shore, we jumped out of the boat and into the freezing water, feet protected by rubber boots. We waded to shore and then up to the start line.

A couple of us at the start line

Even then, divesting of our foul-weather gear, we were still debating how many layers we should wear. I opted to trust my Philly training, and stripped down to just three layers: a long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve shirt, and a light jacket. I also had on running tights, a neck buff, a baseball-like hat to protect from any possible precipitation, a headband for ear warmth, and a warmer hat on top of that. I wore heavy ski gloves on my hands and tucked hand warmers into each one, and my normal trail shoes on my feet.

The start was anticlimactic (and I have never seen so many GoPros – mine included – recording it). Thom, our intrepid race director, counted us down from five, and we started trotting down the  muddy course.

The course would be a six-loop out-and-back course. Basically, we’d run 2.18 miles to a turn-around, then run back to the start, and do that six times. I tend to like loop courses, and I think this is because my powers of observation are pretty weak during a race – I’m discovering something new on every lap.

Just after the start

The first lap or two felt easy. The scenery was gorgeous at parts – the first mile or so was through the Russian and Chilean research bases, and after that we passed a glacial lake and ran right near the shore of the island, until we turned around at a Chinese research base. Despite how windy and overcast it was, it was very cool to be running past these towering mountains – in Antarctica!

I was powering up the hills and keeping pace with some runners that looked pretty fast to me. I didn’t think I had a chance of placing, but I do like to count how far back I am from the lead women … and after the first lap, there were only four women in front of me. My roommate, Erin, was in 3rd, and in 4th was another girl from Philly, named Taylor.

I was pretty sure I’d hit a wall at some point and fall back, so I didn’t think too much about it. However, at the end of lap 2, I was feeling pretty good – I’d been pacing off of another runner, and at the turn-around, he took a bit longer at the aid station than I did, so I kept going. The runner in 2nd had fallen back, which meant Erin was in 2nd now. Taylor, in 3rd, was just ahead of me … so I kept trotting along.

Even though I was keeping an eye on the competition, I, like most runners, was really just in it to finish. Because all of the runners knew each other by this point, the cheering throughout our short course was so enthusiastic and genuine. The course was only a few miles, so we saw our new friends frequently, and we all took the opportunity to encourage each other loudly, to the amusement of on-base researchers. They looked at us with what I like to imagine was admiration, but more likely confusion and worry for these crazy people who’d be out in these conditions.

Every so often, I would just appreciate how ludicrous the whole construct was – running a marathon on Antarctica is pretty crazy, when considered in the absolute. In my running career, it was also the race that I’d been thinking about for the longest – three years is a serious chunk of time, and this race was the culmination of that preparation.

Getting after it on the muddy trails.

Around lap 4, I was feeling a little fatigued, but Taylor was still just ahead, so I kept pushing. I passed her at one point, but then she passed me back, and I was pretty sure that was the end of things. It didn’t matter anyway – there was no way that, after combining our times with the other boat’s, the third-place person on our boat would also place overall.

However, I then passed her again, and with only 10k to go, I felt like I could maybe push it to the end and finish 3rd on my boat.

The next six miles were a slog. The hills were starting to feel steeper than before, and there were two short ones that I would walk for a quick recovery. The weather had also taken a turn for the worse, and it seemed like, no matter which direction we were heading, we were facing a stiff headwind. It had also started sleeting, and little particles of ice were now driving into any unexposed skin. I moved my buff up to cover my nose and mouth, but all that did was restrict my breathing, so I left it around my neck and faced the storm.

The last lap was rough. At the turnaround, with only 2 miles to go, I had my GoPro running. I crouched down to show off my favorite race sign – it said “Penguin Crossing” – and saw my Philly compatriot right behind me. I kicked it into gear and didn’t look back.

I felt like I was flying through the last two miles, although I’m sure it looked more like a limping slog than an Olympic sprint.

 

Running through the research bases.

The last 0.2 miles were up a shallow hill. I saw the 26-mile marker, and for some reason, turned around – I think I didn’t want to get passed at the last second. Taylor was right behind me! I turned back and sprinted to the finish line. She came in just a few seconds after me.

We high-fived and hugged it out, taking a finish-line photo (with Erin, who had finished 2nd and about 20 minutes ahead of Taylor and I. The first-place woman had already gotten back on a Zodiac and was headed for a hot shower). Taylor and I agreed that there was no way we’d be in contention for an overall podium spot, but we appreciated the competition.

After the finish

Volunteers bundled us into our foul-weather gear and back onto a Zodiac before we knew what was happening. My fingers, warm throughout the race, immediately became numb when I started handling zippers and velcro, and the Zodiac ride was pretty rough as a result.

After the race. That night, we learned that our boat had dominated the rankings. The men on Vavilov swept the top three spots, and the woman had grabbed the top two … and maybe the third! For the next twelve hours, I was constantly checking to see if they’d posted the results … and found out that a girl on the other boat beat me by two minutes. Very disappointing. I like to think that they had easier weather – it was very sunny! – but I know she also ran a great race.

The next several days were a combination of calm appreciation of our success and evening parties of wild, reckless abandon. Days ashore were happier and more relaxed. A few highlights:

  • A double-rainbow over icebergs.

What does it mean?

 

  • Quiet kayaking on reflective water (after a messy capsize due to inclement weather the day before).

I’m in that kayak on the right.

  • Whale watching – literally 20 feet from our boat – in the calm waters of Wilhelmina Bay on the last day.

Whale tail – so close to our Zodiac!

Whale next to a Zodiac

So peaceful and serene.

Epilogue. The whole experience was amazing. I focused here on the race because this is a blog about running, although, as mentioned, the race just became one part of a much broader, more epic adventure, which really deserves its own blog. Just like summer camp, we made memories and forged friendships that we’ll remember for a lifetime.

Antarctica is a pristine, unspoiled place. It is stark and isolated, and unlike anywhere else on earth. I am grateful that humanity was only able to reach it after developing an appreciation for preserving natural beauty – the continent is governed by a multinational research treaty – although I fear for the day that the lucrativeness of mineral rights overshadows this agreement.

The staff concluded our voyage with this quote:

Out here is where the magic happens, here in the quiet hills.
Here is where you have cried out with moans as deep as the earth.
Here is where you have found your long lost self that the madness took away.
So when you get back to those who talk loud in small rooms,
Remember that you have been to a place too beautiful for words.

-Anonymous

Here’s to the adventurers.

My favorite photo I took on this trip. Hi penguin!


Flap flap flap.

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1/3rd of a 24 hour run: thoughts on failure

Pre-race gear

On Dec 31st, I started running the San Francisco One-Day race. It’s a 24-hour race at Chrissy Field, with a great view of the Golden Gate bridge. Runners make ~1-mile loops around a lagoon from 9am on Dec 31st to 9am on Jan 1st, trying to log as many miles as they can.

My goal was to run 100 miles. I ended up running 40 before dropping out. I’ve never dropped out of a race before. It felt miserable. I felt like a failure, and like a quitter, and in some ways, I still do. It will probably take longer than the three days it’s been since the race to come to terms with dropping out.

The race itself: the course was beautiful. The light on the Golden Gate bridge was amazing to see in the morning, and at midday, and at sunset.

As for the running – the first five or ten miles were great. I was trotting along at a pretty good pace, keeping up with some of the top runners in the field. Between miles 10 and 20, I ran by myself, and I had some expected existential mini-crises: “Why are you doing this?” “Wouldn’t you rather be at home, petting the cats?”, but I kept up my pace. I finished 30 miles in six hours, which was right on track with my goal pace. I was also in 2nd or 3rd place for female runners at that point, which felt pretty good.

Around mile 34, my knee started hurting. Yes, that knee, and that same part. It was the injury that took me out for six months in 2012. Last time, it was caused by overuse, and by hitting the hills too hard, to quickly.

This course in SF was a flat course, but I knew what the problem was. I’d gone from running flat in Philadelphia to, before this race, running hills for a few weeks near by parents’ house in California, with no ramp-up time. I’d made the same mistake twice.

In a race, when some part of your body starts hurting, you try to do something differently for a bit. Walk half a lap, change your stride, strike with a different part of the foot, anything that might make the pain go away or allow your body to use different muscles for a bit. I tried a bunch of things, but the knee pain wasn’t getting better. I honestly didn’t expect it to. This particular pain wasn’t one you just worked through – it would just get worse.

I stayed on the course for another hour, mostly walking and occasionally jogging, giving the knee time to change it’s mind. I was hoping it would tell me “Just kidding! I was just messing with you. You can keep running.”

It wasn’t going to happen. Part of me knew it wasn’t going to, even though I was giving it time to stop hurting. I made it to 40 miles at around 8 hours, and dropped out. Spending the next 16 hours on the course, in pain, potentially damaging my knee irreparably, just didn’t seem like a good idea.

I took a shower at a friend’s place and immediately started driving back to Orange County.

The next 9 hours, as the clock turned to 2015, were spent alone in the dark, on the open road, or sleeping in the back seat of my car. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone.

I felt like a complete failure. I’d been looking forward to this race for so long – it had been a race I’d wanted to run for years. The idea of honoring my sport by finishing 2014 and starting 2015 with running seemed very symbolic. Now, I had to get over those sentimental notions. The calendar’s an arbitrary creation anyway.

I’m taking the next two weeks off from running, to let my knee – and the rest of my body – heal. After a year with 17 marathons/ultras, an average of ~50 miles per week, and almost 2,500 miles run in total, and crossing the 10,000 lifetime-mile threshold, it’s probably time to let my body recover for a bit.

However, I’ve had some time to reflect. Ultimately, this is an expected value calculation, where two outcomes were possible. In the first, I would have stayed on the course and finished the race; I most likely would have injured myself even further, which would mean being off of my feet for at least six months, and maybe much longer. In the second, which I chose, I stopped the race, take two weeks off, give my body time to recover, and get back to running slowly after that. Sounds better to me. While I’m not happy with the outcome in the short term, I know this was the right choice for the long term.

Handling this failure isn’t easy, but it’s also a good learning experience.

Also … I’m also now pretty sure I can run 100 miles in 24 hours. Running 40 miles in 8 hours is a pretty damn good start. I think I can do it again … and, next time, keep on running.

First, rest.

Check out the bridge in the background! This was our view all day.

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.

 

Running around New York (literally)

Starting out in the morning. This GoPro is definitely a fashion statement.

Today is my Marathon Birthday – I’m turning 26.2 years old (the .2 is 20% of a year). To celebrate this holiday that I have made up, I decided to run around the island of Manhattan – about 32 miles. I also used a GoPro to make a video about it – check it out above!

I’d run many of the paths around New York before, but there were some parts I thought would be tricky from a navigational perspective. I conveniently found this grassroots ultramarathon organized last year – the Madhattan – where 50 people ran the the same self-supported ultra I was attempting. I used their map as a template to help me prepare for the tricker-to-navigate areas, especially the north east part of the island, where the trail on the east side of the island ends.

I’d read a trip report from someone who cycled it, as well. He put it reassuringly: “It’s an island. You won’t get lost.”

 

This is where I started. I took this with my Android phone!

With these encouraging words in mind, I started running from the West Village area about 5:15 in the morning. I’d decided early on to run counter-clockwise, because the Staten Island Ferry area – where people go to visit the Statue of Liberty – becomes impassible to pedestrians by about 8am on the weekends due to mass quantities of tourists. I also started early because this was my first time using a GoPro camera, and I wanted to capture pictures of the sunrise.

Heading north along the East River was gorgeous – the sun was just rising, and the first 7.5 miles were along a well-marked trail that I was familiar with. I had to jump off for a bit and onto 1st Ave due to construction, but was back on the trail within a mile or so. I also noticed a bit of a headwind, which I hoped would pick up on the way back down and give me a boost going the other direction. I saw almost no other runners or cyclists out.

Sunrise at the southern tip of Manhattan. Taken with GoPro and edited in Lightroom. This camera is legit.

After about 120th Street, the trail along the water ended and I moved onto the streets. It was still pretty early at that point, so there weren’t a lot of people or cars – I could basically jaywalk against red lights. I picked up the trail again and took it most of the way up to the northernmost tip of the island, where I ran an extra two blocks and almost crossed Broadway Bridge, leaving the island. Fortunately, someone gave me directions to Inwood Hill Park – northwest part of the island – which I immediately also failed to follow correctly. I somehow ended up on the wrong side of the fence protecting Columbia’s football stadium, and, instead of running around again, just climbed over to escape. Clearly, the well-meaning cyclist from above had never met someone with as bad a sense of direction as I have.

Inwood Park was beautiful. So lush and green – there was even a little part where I got to run on dirt trails for a bit!  This part of the run also threw into sharp relief the fact that New York City smells really bad in a lot of places. Inwood Park smelled fresh and foresty – such a nice change.

Trails at Inwood Park, next to Columbia University. I’d love to run more of these trails before the summer is over – so beautiful.

Shocking zero people, I got lost in the trails and asked a guy for directions to the Hudson River Greenway – the path that goes along the west side of the island. He pointed me in the right direction. I did this part a little differently than the Madhattan runners did – I ran about the same distance, but a slightly different route, due to my great navigational abilities.

The route I was attempting

The route I was attempting. Click to enlarge.

Immediately after leaving the park, just after mile 20, the battery on my GoPro died. Fortunately, I had been forewarned of the device’s short battery life, and had brought two backups. This also provided a good opportunity to eat my sandwich. Since I still wasn’t clear on where the Hudson River Greenway was, I looked around for someone I thought might give me some additional guidance. A woman on a bike was nearby, and, deciding she was a likely candidate for solid information about bike trails, I asked her. She gave very good directions. Once on the path, it was a straight shot back down to West Village.

The last ten miles weren’t overly challenging, although my feet were in a bit of pain from the sidewalk pounding. I was fortunately aided by a tailwind – the previously identified breeze had picked up quite a bit, and my speed picked up (a very small bit!) as well.

By this point, it was midmorning, and a lot of walkers, runners, and cyclists were enjoying the good weather. However, the trail was wide and I was familiar with it, so it wasn’t difficult to avoid other pedestrians.

Other pedestrians out in the wild.

About four and a half miles out, I passed the yacht club – I use that as a waypoint on a lot of my runs. There’s a family of Canadian Geese with two little baby goslings – they were swimming around in their normal spot.

The last two miles were probably the most difficult. This was territory I was familiar with, so, while I wouldn’t get lost, it wasn’t visually exciting. My ankles were also very sore by this point.

 

During these two miles, I really appreciated the loud city noise and the fact that it’s pretty par for the course for New Yorkers to talk to themselves; I made up some pretty terrible songs, which I sang to myself, during these last few minutes of running. My improvisational musical abilities spanned topics as diverse as the number of miles I had left, the neon yellow shoes of the guy who just passed me, the number of miles I had left, the kid on the bicycle who just passed me, and the number of miles I had left. I told myself that people were looking at my head-mounted camera, not my crazy talking-to-self tendencies.

I finished right back where I started, with a view of One World Trade Center and the Statue of Liberty.  After turning off my GoPro, I made a beeline to the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts.

Putting together the video was a lot of fun, too. Somehow adding music to pictures is weirdly inspirational.

Overall, this was a really fun run. For people interested in doing it, I’d advise you to spend some time with the maps of the area – that helped me avoid a lot of possible extra miles. As for me, I like getting back to leisurely long runs, where I don’t have to worry about time and can just enjoy the scenery and the feeling of taking on a new, and sort of crazy, challenge.

Check out the GoPro imprint on my forehead!

Podium Finish!

I just got an email from McAllen Marathon team – apparently I came in 3rd! The listed 3rd place finisher didn’t actually finish the race, even though her chip triggered at the finish line. Kinda cool! Here’s the email. Text below.

Screen Shot 2013-12-17 at 5.06.49 PM

Congratulations Lisa!

After reviewing the final results from Sunday’s McAllen Marathon, we discovered an error. It seems the overall third place female finisher in the marathon did not complete the marathon. Her chip was somehow read by the sensors. She notified us of the error and we have removed her from the results.

You are now the overall third place finisher and winner of $250.00. Please complete the attached form so we can mail you a check.

Thank you for running the McAllen Marathon.

Thank You,
City of McAllen

Leslie A. Howland
Marketing & Events Coordinator
Parks and Recreation Department
(956) 681-3333