Zion 100 – Race Report

1334x1000.jpeg.dbbb0309d941407eba1db91089b2c66f

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:

static1.squarespace

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.

unnamed (1)

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.

unnamed (2).jpg

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:

unspecified.jpg

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.

unnamed (3).jpg

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.

unnamed (8).jpg

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.

11959993_10104545850994997_8625791789457333987_n.jpg

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.

1334x1000.jpeg.dbbb0309d941407eba1db91089b2c66f.jpg

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.

unnamed (6).jpg

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

Advertisements

Moosalamoo 36-miler: Redefining “runnable” since 2012

This weekend, I visited my friend Patti, in Vermont, who I met on the trip to Antarctica in March. I came up to visit her, provide moral support for her first ultramarathon, and run this race as well. She’s a super enthusiastic, smart, strong woman, so it was a no-brainer to come up here and visit her – especially on such a momentous occasion as her first ultra.

When running a race in an unfamiliar location, there are a couple of key indicators to look for to help judge how difficult the course is. In the weeks leading up to the race, here are the things I looked at:

  • Fastest times. Faster times mean easier courses, and slower times mean harder courses – or not a lot of fast runners have run the race. Before yesterday, the fastest female finish time on this course was 6:52, which is pretty slow for a 36-mile race. So, either the course is ridiculously challenging, or the race is local enough that it doesn’t attract a lot of fast runners.
  • Elevation change. Lots of hills mean harder courses. I looked up the elevation profile for the course, and a race report from 2012 shared the below chart. It may look hilly, but it really isn’t that much relative to some of the more extreme ultras – the highest climb is just about 1,000 feet. I’d estimate that the total elevation change is somewhere in the 3,000-4,000 foot range, and 50k race on the West Coast regularly clock in around 5,000 – with five fewer miles. The elevation profile didn’t seem to justify the slow course record.

  • Weather. Hot, humid climates lead to slower times. Vermont is pretty wet, but it’s not as bad, as, say, Washington D.C. I didn’t think that weather would be the cause of the slower course records.

I assumed that the slow course record was just because it was a smaller race. Only 60 runners would compete in this year’s event, so probably it was just not a race that attracted lots of out-of-town runners looking to set personal records. Boy, was I wrong.

When I finished the race, I texted Will: “The course was easily the most frustrating, technically challenging, confusingly marked” that I’ve ever run.

5:45am selfie, just before our carpool to the start

Pre-race. Patti had been training for this race for a while, and she was very excited about it. Her house was full of race-oriented, motivational reminders. She’d written inspirational quotes on her bathroom mirror. A chalkboard in her kitchen proclaimed “Discipline. Consistency. Ultramarathon!” Her enthusiasm was contagious. The morning of the race, we left her house in high spirits to carpool with a friend of hers to the course.

IMG_20150801_221545071

Patti’s inspirational chalkboard

We parked in a grassy field. Several runners had camped there the night before. After our race director, John, gave us some instructions, we listened to the national anthem. We faced a flagpole outside of a rustic inn. Our eclectic collection of athletes had attracted the attention of several guests, who stood on the front stoop of the inn, right behind the flagpole, giving us strange looks throughout our salute of the flag.

Pre-race briefing. I missed most of it due to liberal application of bug spray.

Immediately after the anthem ended, John said “Okay, start running!” With little further ceremony, the race began.

Climbing Moosalamoo. The first few miles were glorious. Blasting down a wide, pebbly road felt amazing. I’d tapered perfectly, my legs felt fresh, and the weather was great. I was leading the pack for a while, even keeping up with many of the 14-mile runners.

This aggressive pace (7:45) was part of a critical early race strategy. The race is named after Mount Moosalamoo, and after these wide roads, we’d be climbing to its summit. Patti’s friend, Erika, who we had carpooled with, had run the course before, and she let us in on a secret: the Moosalamoo climb was very narrow single-track. If you got stuck behind someone, you were there for a while – it wasn’t easy to pass.

The uphill grade wasn’t too bad, and the hill itself wasn’t very long. The main problem was the terrain – lots of rocks and roots. This was more than a sign of things to come; the course was extremely technically challenging, and this early section was no exception. I stumbled several times on this section, and on one rather nasty fall, I split open the palm of my left hand on a rock, knocked my knee, and bumped my hip pretty hard. Nothing show-stopping, although I wasted too much time at aid stations unsuccessfully trying to bandage my hand up. I ended up leaving it open and letting dirt act as a partial coagulant. Maybe not the best solution, but I figured the dirt was probably pretty clean and it was better than messing around with trying to cover it up artificially. I also recognize that this is ludicrous, ultrarunner-type justification for handling an injury and is zero percent of the time a best practice.

Out-and-back. After the first aid station, we had a small out-and-back – just under three miles. Out-and-back stretches are useful because you can see who’s ahead of you. It seemed like there were five or six women ahead of me, and they were anywhere from five to fifteen minutes ahead, so at that point, I was fairly sure I didn’t have a chance of catching them.

This section also included our first introduction to the mud. These were wide pools of quicksand-like slop. There was no way around them, and you were going to get dirty.

I ran through one particularly nasty swamp and felt a sucking at my right foot. Before I knew it, my foot had pulled free from the mud – without my shoe! I looked back into the mud, and there was no sign that a shoe was in there somewhere. It was just a vast puddle of uneven, wet dirt.

This had never happened to me before – the loss of a shoe in the mud – and it felt like a moment from a cartoon. I did the surprised-blink thing that cartoon animals do, then quickly evaluated my options. The only choice was to go in after it.

I stepped back to where I thought the shoe was and thrust my hand into the mud, up almost to my elbow. The shoe wasn’t immediately easy to find, so I dug around in there for a minute before catching a shoelace with my fingers. I tried unsuccessfully to yank it out, then moved my hand around to various parts of the shoe to try for a better angle. After a minute, it emerged with a sucking sound.

I scraped the goo out of the inside of the shoe, re-laced it, and kept going. That diversion probably cost me three of four minutes. “At least that was the last of the mud,” I thought to myself. I was so extraordinarily wrong.

This is definitely not a trail. The next few miles were uneventful, until we passed the half-way aid station. After running across a scenic dam, we descended onto a wide, pebbly trail, which abruptly came to a terminus at a mechanical box.

I looked around, confused – there was no obvious path to take from here, but there were definitely course markings on this mechanical box. I took a few steps towards the curtain of forest ahead of us, but that wasn’t a path.

To my right, seven-foot-tall swamp grass waved gently in the air. It would have been scenic – an unbroken, undulating plain of nature, except that hanging just over it, fluttering in the wind, was an orange course ribbon.

The only thing to do was head towards it.

The next mile or so was battling through this swamp grass on a slanted bank. On the high side was impenetrable forest, and on the low side was an even steeper bank with a river at the bottom. Seriously, though, there was no path here. We were legitimately bushwhacking through the underbrush, creating our own trail. There was no running through it.

At one point, I was so frustrated, and so sure this couldn’t be the right way, that I asked the woman behind me, “Have you run this race before?” She must have sensed my frustration, because she replied in kind, “No, and I don’t think I want to again.”

The loop. The next aid station was one we would see twice: once at mile 22, and once again at mile 31. Leaving the aid station, we made our way along a beautiful, soft, clear trail by a lake. My earlier anger evaporated, because this was gorgeous, and we could run it.

This period of bliss ended all too quickly; the trail turned right up Chandler Ridge. I wasn’t worried about it, because the elevation profile wasn’t offputting. However, these next four miles were really rough; the trail wasn’t even a little bit runnable.

From the facebook group: the race director claims the course is runnable. A race veteran replies with a tongue-in-cheek analysis. This maybe should have been a warning sign.

Roots crisscrossed the path like snakes. Every time I’d break into a trot, I’d inevitably trip after about three steps, no matter if we were going uphill or downhill. This was a really rough, disheartening section. I felt strong, but there was no way to break out and stretch my legs.

Direct excerpt from the course guide. There’s just so much danger going on here.

After we left the Chandler Ridge trail, there was an unmanned aid station, then a couple of miles of flag, clear single-track. I was still frustrated, but decided I was going to run the next few miles, no matter what. After a few minutes, I found that the trail was really good, and I still had a ton of energy, so I picked up the pace pretty substantially here.

I came into the 31-mile aid station excited to keep moving. I’d been on the course for about 7 hours. With five miles to go, I felt pretty confident that I could finish in under 8 hours if the trail was good.

Patti was at the same aid station, about to take off on the loop. I gave her a hug and headed out, feeling strong.

The last five miles. The first mile or so was on wide, dirt service road. It was amazing. I felt so strong here, flying up hills and letting my legs stretch out. It this was what the trail was like, it would be easy to finish in 8 hours.

My hopes were quickly dashed when the dreaded orange course markers appeared. Just before a hill, the course abruptly turned off of the delicious single-track service road and plunged back into the dense, wet forest, divided by a tiny little winding trail. So much for 8 hours.

In defense against mosquitoes, I had marinated my clothes in Deet the night before the race. I’d also lathered on more Deet – sunscreen-style, even though it was spray-on – just before the race started. However, by this point in the day, it had all sweated off. I was furious at the bugs as they tried to snack on me, but there was nothing to do but run faster.

Immediately on entering the forest again, we encountered more mud puddles. So many. As far as the eye could see, mud everywhere. There was no way to get through it quickly. Honestly, I also didn’t want to lose a shoe again, and picked my way around the mud puddles as best I could.

I was so disheartened at this point. I felt like I had so much gas left in my proverbial energy tank, but this ridiculous course had stymied my efforts over and over. There was no way to use it up. The course was just too technical.

A quarter of a mile before the last aid station, a large tree hung at about forehead height over the path. Some red plastic picnic plates were hanging on the tree – this was how John gave us directions. One of them said “It’s only ankle deep!”

What’s only ankle deep? Then I saw it.

More swamp grass. Towering above my head. And the grass was standing in ankle-deep water.

I didn’t even think twice at this point – the finish line was just a few miles away, and there was nothing that was going to get in my way. I plunged into it, made it to the other side, and blasted up the hill to the last aid station.

“Wow, women are doing good today,” the volunteer said, checking me off the list. “You need anything?”

“Send me home!”  I replied. “Which way?”

He pointed down a very wide, inviting service road. I grinned. Fast trail.

“Also,” he added, as I took off, “There’s definitely not another woman a minute ahead of you.”

Game on.

With just a few miles to go and forgiving trail, I pushed hard. I was running 9-10 minute miles at this point, which is really excellent this late in the game. I felt really strong.

I came around a corner, and saw my pursuit – a girl named Heather, who I’d chatted with earlier. She also knew Patti, and Heather had run the course several times before. I was tracking her down.

With 1.7 miles to the finish, I encountered another red plate with confusing directional instructions. I yelled into the brush to figure out where Heather was, then saw her behind me and to my right, up a hill. Tons of people got lost at this intersection. I was so glad to be trailing someone who lived in the area and knew the course well.

I caught up to her with about a mile and a half to go, and we picked up the pace. At one point, she said “This is all I’ve got – you go ahead if you want to!” I told her no way – we were going to blast into the finish together. She stuck with me.

We were hauling. It wasn’t competitive – we were supporting each other, urging each other to finish the race strong.

Finally – finally! We burst out of the forest and into a clearing. We could see the finish line, and raced down the hill and into the finishing chute together.

Hardware

Afterwards. Heather and I high-fived, and I found Erika, who had placed 3rd in the 14-mile race. Erika and I came in 4th and 5th respectively for women, and I came in first in my age group, with 8:14. Not bad.

I took a quick shower behind the building and reapplied more bug spray.

IMG_20150801_180820544

The view from the start/finish. Also the view from the open-air showers. Not bad, Vermont.

Erika and I camped out for Patti, who had gotten lost due to poor course marking. After sending us a message effectively via carrier pigeon – there was no reception – she finished strong, having conquered an extremely, outrageously difficult course. I couldn’t be more impressed with her.

Antarctica was a strangely life-changing experience. I never would have come up to gorgeous Vermont, to take on this extremely difficult race, if it weren’t for meeting Patti on that trip. What a fun adventure, and one that is still paying dividends.

Patti, finishing her first ultra with a smile.

It was such a fun opportunity to get to support Patti during her first ultra, both in the days leading up to it and in the debrief afterwards. It made me reflect on my first ultra – also a 36-mile race, and extremely disheartening, as I was extremely under-trained and finished second-to-last. I’ve come a long way since then; as a veteran, I wanted to share some of the things I learned with Patti and make sure she didn’t think this ludicrous race was representative of all ultras.

This race has also given me a fire to push myself harder. This was a very challenging, borderline frustrating race, mainly due to how technical the course was. Clearly, the difficult trail conditions explain why the course record was so slow (although, both male and female runners broke the course record this year – a really stacked field!).

I have never felt so fresh at the end of a race before, and it just spoke to how much of the course was about technical ability rather than speed and strength. I’m a decent technical runner, having started on trails in Santa Cruz, but these trails definitely weren’t something I trained for. At the end, I felt like I had more energy in the tank, but looking back I don’t know where I would have used it. This was definitely not a “runnable” course.

After this race, I’m hungry for another challenge. I feel strong, and I want to see how fast I can go. Bring it on.

IMG_20150801_162805759

At the start/finish, just after finishing. Check out that flat service road!

Morning-after breakfast with Patti. Matching penguin scarves, in honor of Antarctica!