Wednesday, December 7, 2011

100 Miles in the Mist at Chimera III

It was 9:30PM on Saturday, November 19th, and I was somewhere around mile 65 on the Chimera III 100 mile course.

We'd been at it since 6:15AM, and while we'd gotten lucky with the weather, it had been raining off and on since noon, and by 5PM the wind had really started to pick up. My forearms were numb but not too bad, and I had waterproof gloves that kept my fingers functioning. It was really nothing compared to reports I'd heard from two years prior, though I hoped it would not decline further.

As I ran down one hill and trudged my way up the next, I fixed my eyes on the lights of the aid station in the distance. It was the Maple Springs Station, mile 66.8. I could see it clearly up on the ridge, but was having some trouble getting to it in a timely manner. Up to that point I had been tracking well on my pacing if I wanted to finish under 24 hours, but in that one section, that ONE section, it was looking like I was going to go over on time.

I got out my pacing cheat sheet for the 10th time in 3 miles and peered at it with my flashlight. 9:45PM. I had to get to the station by 9:45 and get out by 9:50 to stay on 24-hour pace. I looked back up at the lights of the aid station as I headed down yet another series of hills and descents; I could not see very far in the dark, but in general it did not seem like I was headed in a direct line towards the aid station.

I looked at my watch again. 9:38. Reaching the aid station by 9:45 was very clearly not going to happen.

Still, I kept pushing forward and refused to dwell on it, reminding myself it might be possible to make up the time later on the course - but really, I knew this was unlikely. There was still much climbing to do to get over the top of Santiago Peak, and the wind was strong enough (and the day had been long enough) that moving uphill fast was increasingly difficult. I was perhaps maintaining 19-20 minute miles on the uphills, but no faster... and possibly, slower. I was not sure where I'd be able to make up the time.

At that moment however, I told myself to let go what I "should" be doing, or any feeling of regret over how the race was going. One of the goals for the race was to have fun, and also to try as hard as I could. I was doing both of those things. Another goal had been to stay focused on the section I was on, and not get wrapped up in all the miles that remained. "Run the mile you're in" was the advice I had been given.

I thought about the mile I was in. I was moving uphill as fast as I could. I was doing well - staying on top of my nutrition, pace, and hydration; and feeling good considering everything that had transpired that day. Really, it had been an excellent race so far. Tough, but excellent.

You are exactly where you are supposed to be, and you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing, I told myself. I relaxed. I felt better. I focused on moving steadily and with purpose up the hill.

Then, as the winds grew stronger, the last two lines of the famous Dylan Thomas poem drifted into my head:

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, Rage against the dying of the light.
With that, I fixed my eyes on the rocky, dark trail in front of me, and started to run.

Back to the start: Checking in at the Chimera III 100 mile race

The pre-race check-in was at Hell's Kitchen, a biker restaurant on the Ortega Highway in the mountains. Traffic was surprisingly bad so many runners missed this optional check-in, but for me it was a fun chance to meet race director Steve Harvey and talk with the runners that were there.

Hell's Kitchen - hard to miss. Excellent thick-cut french fries.

The mood was one of excitement and apprehension as we made last-minute decisions about what jackets to carry, what to put in our drop bags, and other considerations. As 100 mile participants, we would not see our drop bags until mile 50.5, and with an early sunset and 20-50% chance of rain it was important to have the right gear at the right times.

I decided to keep my waterproof jacket and gloves with me rather than trying to get to the drop bags before the rain came, but not everyone made that decision - this would become critical later in the evening of the race.

Race morning

The next morning was cool and overcast, but race headquarters itself was buzzing with lights, heat lamps, volunteers, and excited runners. It was nice to see familiar faces. SoCal Coyotes Pedro Martinez and Amy Chavez were also running the 100K, and I knew several of the 100 mile racers already, either through prior races or check-in the day before.

Runner check-in at Blue Jay Campground. Pic by Joe Bishop.

The race would begin when the sun came up at 6:15, so we'd have a better chance to negotiate around the rocks on the trail. The 100K and 100M runners would start together.

Assembling at the start with the 100K runners. Pic by Joe Bishop.

Our fearless leader addressing the runners. Pic by Joe Bishop.

At 6:20AM, Steve climbed on a ladder to address the crowd of runners, giving us a few last-minute directions and, just as important, a few jokes. Finally, he blew an airhorn that frankly sounded more like a dying pig than an airhorn, and just like that, we were off!

The first 20 miles: stumbling on the singletrack

The 100 mile race began from the Blue Jay campground with a 20 mile out-and-back to the south, with aid stations every 5 miles. The 100K runners would run the first 5 miles with us, then turn back to do 10 miles of that section.

In the beginning I was chatting with Amy and Pedro, but lost them as we thinned out on the single track. After that I ran with John Hockett for a while. I can't remember one thing that we talked about but I remember how much fun it was... that section was cool. It was a thin trail with sand and rocks so you had to constantly watch your footing, but it was slightly downhill so you could go at a good pace with minimal effort.

At some point John dropped back, and I caught up to a fellow named Steve - I had met Steve at the check-in at Hell's Kitchen, and this was his first 100 miler. We talked for a while as we ran. Steve has a really interesting job, so that was fun to hear about. He was also shooting video as we ran, which was funny - I would be talking away for several minutes in front of him, only to realize he was recording the whole thing. I even tripped at one point trying to jump over a rock... not to worry, that was captured on film too, as was my none-too-elegant recovery, only to trip again 2 minutes later.

At that point, I was the second woman - Rebecca Ocain was out in front. A part of me wanted to catch up to her, but I stuck to my plan of keeping an even pace, and reminded myself to focus on what I was doing, and not what other people were doing. I was hoping that if all went well, I would have plenty of time to catch Rebecca in the later stages of the race, without burning myself out early.

Approaching the mile 20 aid station with John Hockett. Pic by Joe Bishop.

Miles 20-50: Here comes the rain

From Blue Jay we climbed to the Trabuco trailhead, then headed down that trail to Holy Jim. That was one of the prettiest sections of the whole race, but slightly treacherous. The loose rocks on the bed of the trail rolled and skipped beneath my feet, and I focused intently on my footing for fear that I would twist an ankle.

At Holy Jim I saw Jessica DeLine, the RD from Twin Peaks. The crew there was great - helpful, efficient, relaxed. They also let me know that Rebecca was 15 minutes ahead of me.

From mile 27.5 the course went west on an out-and-back to Live Oaks - I had heard this was a moderately flat dirt road, but it was actually quite rocky to start, then became paved gravel. There were several water crossings, about 3 or 4. Most were narrow enough to leap over, except for one, which I eyed suspiciously. It seems silly but I have had trouble with blisters in prior races so I was trying like hell to keep my feet relatively dry and clean for as long as possible.

Speaking of staying dry, it had also started to rain - a light drizzle that would persist for the next few hours. At first I ignored it, but then put on my rain jacket after realizing that my clothes were getting wet, and I had nothing dry to change into until mile 50.5 some hours later.

Running into Live Oaks Aid Station - picture by Robert Mandelbaum

At the Live Oaks station, the crew were fast and helpful, filling up the bladder on my Nathan pack even though Steve had specifically told us the volunteers were obliged to fill our bottles, but not bladders - this would be the same for every other aid station too. They just couldn't stop themselves from being helpful. The crew was funny, too - after I thanked them for their great service, they told me the invoice would be in the mail. I laughed, then told them I wouldn't be paying it.

I ran as much as I could back to the Holy Jim Station, trying to keep up the pace, with a few brief walking breaks. I knew Rebecca was slowing down; she had said as much when I saw her walking back on her way from the Live Oaks aid station as I was still headed towards it. She mentioned her foot was hurting - this was too bad. I wanted to catch her, but felt bad if she was feeling some pain in her foot - at this stage in the race, that did not bode well.

After hitting the Holy Jim aid station once again, it was time to climb to Santiago Peak. I generally like this climb very much - it is not too steep, and the trail is winding and varied, with several stream crossings. It would be 7 miles to the Bear Springs aid station, then another 2.5 miles to Santigo Peak. On that day, it was a long climb.

Beautiful flora, mountains, and misty skies. Heaven. Pic by Joe Bishop.

I ran when I could and hiked the rest, but mostly, it was hiking. At one point, I got a good little run going, only to come over a ridge and look down to see a creek crossing clogged with about 10-15 teenagers. According to their shirts they were members of a high school wrestling team, who had apparently made it their goal to cheer each other on as they crossed the creek one by one. I exhaled hard in frustration, but almost immediately afterwards heard one call, "Hey! Let the runner through, she's in a race!"

I darted through the crowd of kids and stepped carefully over the rocks and logs to the other side. "Go, go!" they cheered. "Win it!" one guy added.

I gave them a wave and called over my shoulder. "Thanks so much! I will! I'll win it for you guys!"

With that, the cheers behind me as I ran up the trail were deafening.

After hiking through the forest, we hit a series of switchbacks up the side of the mountain, and at times, I could see Rebecca on the trail in front of me. This made me hike harder, though I reminded myself for the umpteenth time to stay relaxed and not push too hard, as most of the race was still in front of us.

About 1/4 mile before Bear Springs I finally passed her. Rebecca's foot was indeed bothering her, but at that point it did not sound as though it was too serious. She did seem quite down however, which any of us can understand after looking forward to the race for so long only to be nagged by an injury on the day.

The Bear Springs aid station was not where we expected it to be (probably due to where they could get the best radio signal), but it was great to see them. After that, it was on to Santigo Peak (2.5 miles up) and down the fire road to the Maple Springs aid station, which marked mile 50.5 in the race.

Heavy mist on the mountain, yet the sun shines through...

At Maple Springs, we would have access to our drop bags. My forearms and hands had started to go numb, so I thought this was fantastic, and looked forward to grabbing my thick waterproof gloves and a long-sleeve shirt to go under my jacket. I also reminded myself that I would need a back-up light and more gels before heading back into the night.

The wind on the mountain was picking up and it was getting harder to see the trail through the mist and rain. After persistent hiking I topped out at Santiago Peak, then headed down the fire road towards the next station. The road was very rocky, with jagged loose rocks underfoot. I got out my flashlight as it got dark. 

A glimmer of light in the night, and arriving at Maple Springs

By that time, some 100K runners were passing me on their way back towards Blue Jay - they all looked exhausted (which was not hard as they were headed uphill as I went down it) but I did get some smiles out of some of them. For the first time that day, I felt worry creep in as I anticipated the long and cold night ahead.

It was at that time that I looked out to the west, at the stormy clouds and mist, and saw one small golden cloud emerging from the darkness... it was like a glimmer of hope in the darkening sky and a reminder that there was beauty and majesty in the storm. I did not know if it was the sun or the moon that was creating the light, but watched for a minute until it was gone. Still, my spirits were raised and I reminded myself to let go of my fear of what the night would hold, and focus only on the here and now. I was where I was supposed to be, and doing what I was supposed to be doing. I just needed to keep doing it.

I ran on, and several miles later I got to Maple Springs. 50.5 miles in about 11 hours 15 minutes; a little fast but I knew I would need some extra time for the 3 big climbs I still had ahead.

Quesadillas and familiar faces: Maple Springs aid station

I went directly to the tent where the drop bags sat and requested my bag - I wanted to get what I needed from it first, then worry about what was desired in the way of food and water from the aid station table. At that station I recognized Paul Hassett, one of the volunteers from Twin Peaks, and I re-introduced myself. It was great to see a familiar face, though everyone else was just as kind and helpful as he was. I got the clothing and supplies I needed from my drop bag, then turned my attention to the table. They had freshly-made cheese quesadillas - freaking AWESOME.

At that point, I heard one of the aid station volunteers call out, "RUNNER!" We all looked up the path to the north, the direction the light was coming from. Pedro! It was Pedro Martinez, coming back through the station after completing the Silverado loop I was about to embark on. He was running the 100K course, so it made sense that he would be coming back at about this time.

Pedro @ finish later that night. Pic: Joe Bishop

"Pedro! Hey hey! How are you doing?" I yelled out at him.

"UGGGHH! Ok...." he responded with a broad smile, but his voice was about an octave higher than usual so I could tell he was feeling a little stressed.

"What mile are you at?" I asked.

"Mile 500! I don't know!" he responded.

Yeah, he was definitely a little stressed. But, we laughed together and it was clear we were both glad to see each other, and to be at the aid station. It was pretty dark and windy out there, so any port in the storm was a happy one. Pedro ordered up some quesadillas himself, and sat down to take a quick break and refuel, while I headed out of the station.

"46, OUT! Thank you so much!" I yelled out my bib number as I left the station, running hard to get warm. On to Silverado Canyon - it was 7 miles, and mostly downhill or flat. I thought of the long climb that would follow that, and picked up the pace as I ran down the mountain.

Flashlights in the night: racing to Silverado Canyon

Behind me, I could see the flashlight of one runner getting closer. I didn't think that anyone should be gaining on me, so I picked up the pace. After about half of mile, the light appeared to be slightly closer, and two new lights had appeared, moving side-by-side. I was sure this was Rebecca and whomever she had started running with a few aid stations back. These folks must be turning up the heat a little as we headed down the hill. Feeling unwilling to concede a position at that point, I ran faster.

After two miles, I turned off my light and looked back - there was no-one behind me. I was glad, though I also felt silly for being so competitive at that point. We still had half the race to go, and anything could happen, yet I was glad to pull ahead of the three runners, and vowed to get in and out of the next aid station before they could see me and try to catch up.

The aid station at Silverado Canyon was jammin'. I mean, it was really jammin'. They had music blaring, and crazy costumes on, yet I was tired enough that it was almost too much for me to deal with, so I just wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. For all their party-atmosphere, the crew at SC was also extremely efficient. One woman helped me, and she got me everything I needed in 2 minutes, tops, and she even corralled her overly ambitious husband when he also tried to help by telling him "I already got her covered - it's a woman thing."

Heading out of Silverado, I got confused about which way to go, and lost about 5 minutes retracing my steps, only to have to climb the same section once more when I realized it was the right way. Oh well. It was worth it to make sure I was on the right path.

By that time I had been joined by another runner - he was probably the single light that had been the closest behind. I was happy for the company by then, and peppered him with questions about where he has run before and what his favorite races were... standard running conversation, especially when you are desperate for distraction and not wanting to talk about anything negative like how cold you were, or how tired, or how much further you had to go. None of that stuff was up for conversation, or even warranted thinking about - I knew I had a way to go still, and that was the only thing that mattered - that, and climbing the hill I was currently on. At one point, my companion dropped back, and after calling back several times to see if he was ok, I continued forward. I had been happy for the company, but needed to focus on the task at hand.

Bedford Peak, and news from the front

After 3 miles of steep and rolling hills, I reached the Bedford Peak aid station. I was really happy to see these folks, as it meant one more big climb was out of the way. I restocked quickly, and for the first time had the wherewithal to ask what the race was like at the front.

"Oh, it's intense. There's Dan and Fabrice battling it out. When they passed through here, they were maybe 30 seconds apart." one of the volunteers said.

"Seriously? Wow! that's incredible!" I crowed.

"Yeah, and you're the first woman!"

"I know - but Rebecca's right behind me, so I gotta get out of here!"

I headed out in high spirits... now I just had to get back to Maple Springs, six miles away. I knew I faced more rolling hills, but did not think it would be too bad. 

Instead, as I described in the opening of this report, it took much longer than expected. After buckling down and embracing the journey, however, I crested one final hill and saw the lights of the aid station much closer than before... I had finally arrived.

Go sing it on the mountain: singing my way to mile 81.8

From that point (mile 66.8) until the Corona aid station (mile 81.8), the race was something of a blur. I remember arriving at each station, and the stretches in between, but they were rather unremarkable. They did seem long, but I knew where I was and tried to maintain focus on where I was in that moment, and what I was doing, and not let my mind drift too far.

I also remember singing... I sang songs from musicals. I remember doing "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat", mainly because I knew all the words to most of those songs and could sing them with silly, exaggerated voices. And when I couldn't sing out loud, I sang in my head, and that was good enough.

Running down to the bottom of Indian Truck Trail at mile 81.8 was ok - I was feeling tired and was having trouble moving as quickly as I had planned in my head (funny how that goes). It was good to see a few runners ahead of me, on their way back up from the bottom - we congratulated each other and told each other to keep it up.

Then, with a few miles to go to the bottom, I saw two headlights headed up the trail towards me. "Hey there, how's it going!" I called out, and got the best surprise in response... my pacer, Christi, was one of the voices that responded! She had arrived at the aid station on time (1AM) and had started making her way up to find me, when she saw I wasn't there. It was probably 1:30AM by that time, so I was glad I had not kept her waiting long, and was even more glad she had taken it upon herself to run up.

We said goodbye to the runner she had been hiking with, and she turned to go back down the hill with me. It was excellent to see her, and I got her up to speed on how I was doing and how it had been so far.

At the bottom, we were offered a smorgasbord of goodies from homemade brownies and chocolate chip cookies to coffee cake, but all I wanted was a peanut butter sandwich. The aid station crew seemed almost disappointed that no-one was taking the home-baked goodies, but by that time most of the runners just wanted bland foods, or more of what they had already eaten that day - at least, that's how I felt.

"No complaining" as we head up the hill

As we headed up the mountain, my mood turned a bit more bleak and became less responsive to Christi's chatter. Overall I was feeling good, but the 6.5 mile climb with 2600 ft of elevation that was Indian Truck Trail was a task I needed to focus every bit of my energy on. My mouth hung open to gulp in the maximum amount of air, and I inhaled and exhaled hard as I trudged steadily upward. In the dark, I had no concept of where we were or how far up the trail we had climbed - I only focused on the area I could see with my headlight and my steady climb towards the top.

"How do you feel?" asked Christi.

"Tired." I said.

I had given Christi very clear pre-race instructions that "no complaining" from either of us would be allowed, and that while it was necessary to exchange information about how I was doing physically, no whining about or dwelling on aches, pains, or tiredness would be permitted in our conversation as we made our way towards the finish.

I told Christi I was holding us both responsible for this - for that reason, it was no big surprise when she quickly chimed in with some encouragement, reminding me that we were putting the mountain behind us the further up we climbed, and telling me what a great job I was doing.

I knew what she was doing, but it didn't matter - I appreciated it, and appreciated her coming all that way to help my on my journey. I felt bad I could not converse back, but also knew it did not matter at that point, and that she understood.

So, we kept climbing, passing runners and other pacers on their way down to the aid station we had just left. In the darkness it was hard to see who was who (it's not polite to shine your light directly at someone, as it blinds them - this did not seem to prevent many other people from shining theirs at me, however), and I did not always have the energy or inclination to verbally ask who was approaching.

I was pleased to see John Hockett as he started down the trail - John was smiling about as much as I was, which is to say, he was hardly smiling at all. He mentioned that his knee was bothering him, but otherwise he looked pretty good (or, as good as you can look in the dark and cold after 75 miles).

Finally, we made it back to the Indian Truck Trail Aid Station. It was warm and cozy and the volunteers there offered me a chair, but I knew we had to push on. Christi refilled my Nathan water bladder, we stocked up on food, and then we hit the trail again.

Just 11 miles and one more climb to go.

Formulating a new plan

By that time, we had established that a sub-24 hr finish was out of reach (really, I had know this as I headed into the mile 81 aid station 30 minutes behind pace), but we had also determined that I had to break my previous 100-mile PR of 25 hours. 

The plan at that point was to power through (interpretation: survive) the short climb up Trabuco Peak, then run as much as possible to the finish, knowing there would be some walking breaks as we hit the renowned "rolling hills".

As we headed up Trabuco Peak for the race's final climb, I was prepared for it to suck, but it wasn't too bad. That section is incredibly rocky and steep, but if you can deal with that, it's fairly short and over quite quickly.

After that, we hit the Mid-Divide aid station, then pressed forward to Trabuco Trail, which was the final aid station of the race. We were reduced to a walk on the incline up to the aid station, and with a keen eye on the clock, we hatched the plan that we would would stop only briefly so I could drink a cup of Coke and chow down a gel, then we would head for the finish.

We were in and out of the aid station quickly, and headed for the finish at Blue Jay. Less than 3 miles to go.

Sunday morning sunrise and a sprint to the finish

By this time, the sun had come up, and the sky was filled with smokey grey, blue, and pink clouds. The mountains were dark green, and the trees and rocks glistened with the rain than had soaked them in the night. It was awesomely spectacular, and we were filled with glee and awe as we ran and surveyed the mountains around us. Those are the moments I live for in ultrarunning, and it made every step of the previous day and night worthwhile. I was so happy to have Christi there so the moment could be shared.

We ran together down the trail, being careful not to stumble as the loose rocks rolled under our feet, and cheered as we hit the metal gate where the trail meets the asphalt road. I ran as hard as I could. A part of me did not believe there were less than 3 miles from the last aid station to the finish; I thought it was more like 4 or 4.5, and I did not want to chance not breaking 25 hours because the distance on the course guide had been off.

We took a turn through the campground, following the asphalt road, then suddenly, came to stop. The road continued onward, and I was positive that was the direction to go to the finish, but there was a fresh white arrow on the road that said otherwise; the chalk arrow pointed straight and sure, telling us to take a 90 degree turn to the left.

"No, that's from earlier. We ran through this way earlier, and this arrow is from then. We go this way to the finish," I said, pointing straight ahead. But still, I dawdled. "But... this arrow looks so fresh."

I looked at Christi, torn. The clock was ticking, we had to keep moving.

"I'll check it out, you stay here," Christi said, and ran in the direction I had originally thought was the right way. I followed her for a while, then stopped as she came running back, saying it was the wrong way.

But I still didn't believe it, and after a few more runs back-and-forths and hemming and hawing, it finally became clear: we should have followed the white arrow all along.

We turned on our heels and ran like hell back to the white arrow, then took off on the single-track path headed back into the trees.

Finished! With Steve and Christi. Pic by Pedro Martinez
We ran through the trees and over a bridge, dodging branches and rocks. We ran hard, stopping only once to climb over a tree that blocked that path. Within a few minutes, we hit the asphalt road of the Blue Jay campground. I looked up and saw the finish line, at the top of a sloping road. I ran as hard as I could.

And finally, finished! We finished at 7AM on Sunday morning, having started at 6:15AM on Saturday. 24:45, my best 100 mile time to date. I got a hug from Steve Harvey and cheers from Pedro, who had been camping out in his car right next to the finish.

After the race

All in all, I felt really great, in fact, I was shocked at how great I felt. I had been able to run well in the last few miles, and while my abilities to hike uphill had been hampered by exhaustion, I had been able to move effectively and with little pain on small slopes, flats, and downhills. This was not typical for me, when comparing it to previous 100 mile races.

After chatting for a few minutes with Steve and Pedro, we were ushered in towards the heater and offered hot food and drinks. I was so happy to be surrounded by familiar faces and not to have to run any more; I had enjoyed it while it lasted, but was happy at that point to take a break from the running and the mountain.

As for Christi, she had to get back to her car at the bottom of Indian Truck trail and was getting colder by the minute, so rather than wait around for a ride from me (once I had time to get a quick nap in) or someone else, she refilled her pack and headed back on foot the way we had come, 19 miles, all the way back to the bottom of Indian Truck Trail. I love it.

And then, we sat around, watched, and waited as the remaining racers came in one by one, or sometimes in twos or threes.

Ethan Brown with pacer Adam, all smiles after his finish. Pic by Joe Bishop.

Steve dancing in the rain as we wait for more finishers. Pic by Joe Bishop

In the end, it looked like we had been lucky to get through Saturday night with mostly light rain and some winds, with the strongest rain starting after 12PM on Sunday... just in time to give the folks that were still out on the course a really hard time.

Some of the runners still on the course were first-time 100 mile participants, yet they slogged it out through cold, rain, wind, and pain to cross the finish line at Blue Jay.

The final runner finished at close to 4PM after being on the course for over 33 hours. It was the first time Susy Gutierrez had attempted a 100 mile race, and about 25 of us gathered with her family at the finish to cheer as she crossed the line exhausted, soaked, and choked with tears.

Shane Caver's family meets him at the finish. Pic by Joe Bishop.

Susy gets a hug from her boys after completing her race. Pic by Joe Bishop.

That may have been the best part of the entire weekend, though I am admittedly glad my own race went well too.

In Conclusion: What I learned

The day after the race, I got an email from a friend and fellow ultrarunner that said "Congratulations! Biggest lessons learned are....(fill in the blank)"

I responded to her immediately with the following:

1) Balance is key - going at a more restrained pace in the first 50 miles will pay off big time later, allowing a faster pace through the last 50. Take walking breaks if you feel your heart rate getting too elevated.

2) Don't let the inner voices talk for too long - shut them down as soon as you realize they are at it again. Focus only on completing the section you are on, not that you still have X miles to go after that. Run the mile you're in.

3) Eat according to the clock - even if you don't feel like eating anything, if an hour has gone by you MUST eat something, even 1 bite at a time. You will feel better soon.

4) Smile, sing, whatever you need to do to keep your spirits up, even when you are all alone and you are only smiling at the trail.

5) Don't linger at the aid stations, no matter how nice everyone is! An extra 3 minutes per station can add up, so get back out there!

To this list, the only other thing I would add is to always, always have the right gear for the weather forecast - do not rely on your hopes that would will get lucky or beat the rain by getting to your drop bag before the bad weather starts - if rain is in the forecast, carry a rainproof jacket with you at all times (at least, if you are going to be out of contact with crew or your drop bag for an extended period of time).

And finally, a sincere thanks once more to Steve and Annie Harvey for their hard work putting the race together, and for all the volunteers who supported us on our quest. Another big thanks to Christi for pacing me through the night - it was a delight and privilege to run with her, it helped my spirits and kept me on track, and for that I am very grateful. Finally, thanks to Coyote Pedro and all the other runners who provided good company and conversation before, during, and after the event. It was my pleasure and privilege to  run with you all.

That's all - hope to see some of you there next year!

Friday, November 18, 2011


Well, this is it... the Chimera 100 Mile Race looms large.

22,000 ft of elevation over 100 miles, with renowned climbs and descents and dubious weather, at best... yep, all pretty normal stuff for these kinds of races, though this one is a little on the gnarly side.

Elevation profile for the Chimera 100

Checked into race, and now I'm at the hotel. The race starts tomorrow at 6AM. Feeling nervous, excited, worried, and a little scared... and also ready. The weather looks slightly ominous. I spent the last few hours with Steve Harvey and Bruce at the pre-race check-in at Hell's Kitchen, where it was cold and windy, though it could have been far worse. Bruce finally told me to get out of there and go rest at the hotel. At first I resisted, but then he reminded me that it takes a lot of energy to be cold, and I obeyed him to withdraw to the warmer rooms at the hotel.

I'm definitely feeling a bit more nervous than usual about this one, and I think the weather's to blame... it brings back memories of the C2M, where I froze in the wind and rain and became a delirious staggering mess on the mountain. But like any race, in moments of doubt I have to remind myself why I am doing it - to learn, and to have fun. I feel fully confident I will be doing both of these things. That's all that is required.

Let's see what tomorrow brings!

One final note: there will be a number of runners who will be doing the Chimera 100 miler as their very first 100, and to those runners, I wish the very best of luck. It will be fun to be there as they tackle the race head-on, and even more moving to watch them finish.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

It's not a race!

That's what I'm always telling Sevilla (5) and Caden (2) as they charge up the staircase in our home, tripping over themselves to beat the other one to the top, or storm out the car together to see who can get strapped into their carseat first.

So, when I tried to explain where I'd be going this weekend, it made it kind of difficult.

Me: So this Friday, I'll be driving out to the mountains because I'm going to get up early on Saturday and go to a race.
Caden: It's not a race!
Me: Well actually, buddy, it is a race.
Caden: No, it's not a race!
Me: Well, this time it actually is.
Caden: No, it's not!
Me: Well... ok, fine. It's not a race.
Sevilla (eyes wide): Mommy, are you going to win? 

Caden (howling): IT'S NOT A RACE!

He may feel differently when I give him my finisher's medal to play with... or, he won't care at all. It will just be nice to see his smiling face when I get back on Sunday. 

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Silverado Canyon Loop: Training for Chimera

Last Saturday morning I had the pleasure of meeting with a small group of runners signed up for the Chimera 100K and 100M race. The purpose of the meet-up was to do some night running on the terrain we'd be covering on the Chimera course once the sun goes down.

We met at 1AM in the canyon. To get directions to our exact starting point, use these coordinates in Google Maps: 33.74767,-117.5831. Also, here's a map of the loop from, an extremely helpful website with all kinds of trails mapped out by my buddy LT... Lambert was the one who organized the run, and has done some serious running, in case you can't tell from his website.

There were 9 of us in total in our starting group, and we planned to meet another group at 6:30AM... we would do one 17 mile loop, then the rest of the group would join for a second 17 mile loop. It was a chance to get some good miles in 3 weeks before the race and meet some of the folks we'd be sharing the trails with.

Overall, it was a fantastic run. The climb starts right away on single track through brush, and gains close to 2000 ft of elevation in 2-3 miles. The trail winds and loops, keeping it interesting as you continue to ascend vertically. I was talking with a runner (Cris Francisco) who had done the same trail as part of the Chimera 100K the year prior, but in their case, they had to cover that section in the heat of the day. As Cris pointed out the points at which he had stopped to throw up, I felt glad we'd be covering it in the dark during the actual race.

After the first 2-3 miles we leveled out, then for the next 4 miles followed a fire road over rolling hills. We steadily climbed another 1000 ft vertically, reaching the highest point of the loop at 4800 ft, 10 miles in. From there, it was a 7 mile descent down a winding fire road that became an asphalt road once it hit the bottom of the canyon.

Following the road along the bottom of the canyon, we arrived back at our cars about 4 hours and 10 minutes after we left them, having covered 17 miles and 3900 ft of climbing in the dark.

Checking with the rest of the group, Cris and I decided to continue on with the second loop rather than wait an hour for the 6:30AM start group to arrive... I was feeling cold and slightly weary, and was (rather selfishly) thinking how hard it would be to restart after stopping for an hour. Along with Mike Epler, we decided to push on while the others rested and waited. After restocking our water and fuel, we headed out on loop two.

The second time around was tougher but more gorgeous. This time, our climb out of the canyon beat us up further, but upon reaching the top we were rewarded with deep reds and purples in the sky to the east as the sun came up.

Overall, it was great to run that section of the course, I feel like I am finally getting a good idea of what we will encounter out there. There are still big chunks of the course I have never seen, but that's part of the fun on the day! By night, however, I should be on familiar ground, and that will be nice.

So excited for the race, and looking forward to making new friends! It will be a blast out there.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Documentary on "Marathon Boy" Budhia Singh

On November 3rd, HBO will air a documentary entitled "Marathon Boy", about India's child marathon runner Budhia Singh.

Here's a trailer for the documentary, as viewed on HBO's official site.

I first heard about little Budhia via an article from the BBC News entitled "What happened to Budhia Singh, India's Marathon Boy?" and was reminded of his story today, upon seeing "A Child Running for His Life" in the Wall Street Journal Online.

I was not running ultras when I read the first article, but found the story disturbing. Essentially, "Marathon Boy" refers to Budhia Singh, a child from the slums of India who was sold by his mother to a peddler at a very young age. Budhia possesses a natural talent for running, which was spotted by judo coach Birachi Das, who subsequently adopted the boy. By the age of three, Budhai had run several marathons. By the age of four, he had run 48.

I remember having mixed feelings about the story when I first read it. My strongest and most immediate reaction was of concern for the young boy; even if he liked running and was driven to pursue it (which I think is the argument typically given by the parents of such phenomenal child athletes), it seemed like an extremely harsh schedule for one so young. Indeed, at the age of four and in 93 degree heat, Budhai ran a 42 mile race at 5.75 mph pace while being urged on by Das, only to collapse at the finish, unable to walk a single step further and ultimately requiring medical attention that according to the doctor, saved his life.

I don't care who you are, that's disturbing stuff.

On the other hand, I could not help but wonder at the boy's stamina - a four-year-old running 42 miles at 5.75 mph pace? That's astonishing. And yet, at the same time, unsettling.

It's unsettling because it does not fit with our ideas of what a child that age should be able to accomplish, and while it can be inspiring when adults push themselves past the limits of what we all thought was possible, in the case of a child being urged on by his or her parents, it makes for a far darker tale.

I don't get HBO so I don't plan on watching it. If I did get HBO, I still don't know that I'd watch it, though the trailer is certainly compelling. I find the story alone tough enough to contemplate,and I'm not sure anything would be gained by viewing the footage.

Still, it's an interesting story of human stamina... but also a complex tale of greed and even love. Birachi was not the first Indian youth that Das "saved" from the slums, but to what end? I don't know the answer to that. I even had mixed feelings about the boy being banned from running long distances; I understand the reasoning (and I'm no pediatrician), but the idea of being told you cannot run long distances because a higher governing body does not think it's right rubs me the wrong way.

If the boy wants to run, I think he should be able to run... and when he wants to stop, let him stop... and provide him with guidance and education on everything in between. Or, perhaps the fear is that if he runs again, he will again be caught up in the fervor surrounding his talent, and he will be compelled to push further... I don't know, it's all speculation at this point.

Regardless, there is an interesting story here for us as runners, parents, and human beings. I wish Budhia Singh the best in all that he does, and hope he finds peace in his running and in himself.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Return to Twin Peaks: 50 Mile Race, 2011

The week leading up to Twin Peaks was a tough one, but it had nothing to do with the race. Instead, I had spent most of the week preparing for job interviews, and by the time Friday came I was relieved to turn my focus towards a different matter entirely.

Yes, a 53 mile race with close to 18,000 ft in elevation gain seemed exactly the thing to take my mind off my week, and the Cleveland National Forest couldn't be a better place to do it.

Sunrise on a training run, about 6 miles up the Indian Truck Trail

If you've never been to the Cleveland Nation Forest, it's gorgeous. I first discovered it during the 2010 Twin Peaks 50 miler, which I DNFed after losing the trail (and all subsequent hope) about 40 miles into the race. After my DNF, which I took pretty hard, I returned to the area numerous times to train, for not only does it offer the elevation gains I prefer in my trails, but it has some fantastic views, and forest dense enough that for half a day, you can forget that you actually live in a congested and smoggy city like Los Angeles.

But, I digress.

On the morning of the race, I drive towards the Start area feeling uninspired and sleepy, wondering vaguely if my Coyote friend Pedro and our new friend Steve would have trouble finding the right road. I also wondered, quite suddenly this time, if I should be more concerned about the race - I was treating it like it was just another run in the woods, with no drop bags and very little in my pack - would I pay for my lax attitude later by being caught off-guard and between aid stations without the right supplies?

After considering that for a second, I put the worry aside - I had respect for the course, and was not coming in unprepared. I was very familiar with the area, and knew the aid stations could be relied upon for certain supplies - the rest would be up to me. I could certainly be caught off-guard by something, but that's a given. It should all go fairly well, at the very least.

When I pulled up at the start and viewed the lines of cars and runners busily preparing themselves with the application of bib numbers, sunscreen, and the like, my doziness and vague uncertainty was replaced with dawning anticipation. We were getting ready to do it. We had the entire day to run on the trails. This was going to be awesome.

I got my bib, fussed with my water bottles, rechecked my pack, posted the obligatory Facebook status update, took several pictures with my cell phone despite feeling certain they would be of too poor a quality to use for anything (they were), and then left my car for the last time to wait at the start.

Pedro and Steve joined within a few minutes. After that, the group was addressed by Twin Peaks Race Director Jessica DeLine.

With Pedro at the start - photo by Steven Rose
Final address by Jessica (far right) - photo by Janine Swiatkowski

After going over the course route one last time and instructing us to have at least 40oz of water between stations, Jessica called us up the the line, and at 7AM, we were off (note runner 150 in the picture below; I'll get back to him later).

The Start - photo by Janine Swiatkowski

The first stretch was 6.5 miles up Indian Truck Trail, with about 2600 ft of climbing. We hiked and chatted, trying to move briskly up the trail while still wanting to conserve energy for the long day ahead. Some folks were running, but I knew that hiking was better for me on that section, with some running mixed in when the trail evened out on its way up and around the mountain.

Mountains off to the left at the bottom of ITT - photo by Steven Rose

On a training run: Looking back on ITT, about 3 miles up the trail

After starting any ultra, my typical routine after settling into a climbing or running rhythm is to conduct a quick mental review of my goals and race plan - it helps me focus, and kicks the race off right.

For Twin Peaks, my goals were simple, and were directly tied to my performance at AC100: (1) enjoy yourself, (2) no complaining, regardless of how bad things got, and (3) I had to run the last mile as hard as I could. 

Hey, I said they were simple.

At AS #1, mile 6.5. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski
In retrospect, running the last mile seems like a very easy goal in a 53 mile race, but I was used to being in significant pain by that stage and did not have much confidence in my will to endure.

In my effort to keep it simple I had no goal time for the race, but as I trekked up the hill I figured that over 52 miles, if I averaged 4 miles per hour I'd finish in 13 hours.... with all the elevation gain and adding in time for stopping at aid stations, finishing in under 13 hours seemed very reasonable. I decided to shoot for that, knowing that if I felt good in the second half of the race I could then aim higher.

I reached the first aid station at approximately 8:30am, which was right on track for that climb. The station was well-staffed, and after refueling quickly I moved on. At that point I was ahead of Pedro and Steve, a position I would try to maintain through the day not only for the fun of it, but to challenge myself to push further.

Following that, we gained a bit more elevation (1000 ft) running along the Main Divide to Trabuco Peak, then descended to the Horsethief AS. This 4.5 mile section has steep rolling hills, but overall it's a fast run, with more descent than ascent. I chatted with several other participants on the way, two of which had also completed the AC100 this year. None of recognized the others, something we chalked up to being almost completely destroyed by the time we reached the finish line in Altadena (yet, all of us were debating a return in 2012... go figure).

On the Main Divide, looking back on the sandy fire road

Runners headed up the Main Divide. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski
After the West Horsethief aid station, the course took a sharp right to go down into the canyon, descending nearly 2000 ft in 2 miles via switchbacks, making it both the best and the worst section of the entire Twin Peaks course.

It's the best when you're running down it. Descending this section is both thrilling and terrifying as the loose shale shifts and rolls under your feet and the shrubs' branches reach out to trip, and to trace long red scratches on your legs, arms, and face. At the same time, what thrills are the views and the speed that is possible if you allow yourself to let go, just a little... but that's often all that is allowed, as the switchbacks taunt you with hairpin turns that must be taken at a slower pace, or you risk slipping off the trail and into the brush, and possibly falling further down the mountain (unlikely, but it could happen).

As for when it's the worse? Well, when you have to climb back up it, of course. But that comes at mile 32; we've got 20 more miles between here and there and will discuss it in due time.

Regardless of its hazards, it's still my favorite section of the course. I made up some time on the descent, my familiarity with the trail coming in useful as those behind me took the hill more cautiously, and even with noisy complaints.

At the bottom of the canyon, the trees are dense and lovely, and there is a coolness in the air that is augmented by the sound of the river rushing past to the right as you make your way towards the rocky banks. I passed a series of small houses, then came to the parking lot at Holy Jim, and the third aid station. This marked 15 miles into the course.

Next, we'd be hiking to Santiago Peak, with a water stop on the way. I had been doing very well in monitoring my electrolytes and water; prior to each aid station I would check my supplies and make a mental note of what I needed to fill up on at each station, so I could be sure to leave properly stocked.

Holy Jim Trail - photo by Steven Rose

The climb to the Bear Springs water stop was 2300 ft, with trails through dense woods and several stream crossings. It was 4.5 miles to the water stop, then another 3 miles and 1700 ft up to Santiago Peak.

I was familiar with the peak and not intimidated by the climb - in fact, I was feeling surprisingly comfortable with everything so far. I felt really good. Tired, but good. My electrolytes were on track, my water was on track, and headed up to the peak I decided to push hard, knowing that the turnaround at the peak would provide us runners with our first opportunity to see where we stood in the field.

The Main Divide from Santiago Peak. Photo: Steve Rose
I did not know where I stood in the women's race and had no idea who was ahead, but wanted to get a lead on anyone just behind me so they didn't get any big ideas about trying to catch up. On another note, I was eager to see how Pedro and Steve were faring, and hoped they would be looking good.

Approaching the top, the peak's radio towers would come into view, then would disappear again, only to reappear fleetingly around the next corner in what seemed like a perpetual peep show. I took heart in noting that they did appear larger and closer with each sighting however - the peak was definitely approaching; the climb was finite (despite all rumors to the contrary).

In confirmation of this, more runners were now passing on the way back down the mountain. Included were some runners I had never seen, a confusing detail until I remembered that there had been an early start, at either 5:30 or 6am for those runners who requested it. I spotted about 5 or more women ahead of me, but felt certain that they had not been in my starting group.

In fact, I was pretty certain that at that point, I was the first woman (not that there were that many of us, because there weren't). Still, I began to move faster, in case the second-place woman was right behind me.

Santiago Peak. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski
Upon reaching the top, I was pleased to see faces I knew, and like every aid station, the volunteers were happy, smiling, and ready to help. Mieko was at this aid station, with John Hockett and photographer Janine Swiatkowski, who would later be kind enough to allow us to download her pictures from the event.

Hug from Mieko at Santiago Peak. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski
View from Santiago Peak. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski

Leaving Santiago Peak was a good feeling. We were 22 miles into the race, and in my mind, what remained could be split into two manageable chunks that I was unafraid to tackle. The weather was warming, but so far had been very pleasant with mild temperatures that were ideal for running and racing.

Making matters better was seeing Pedro shortly behind me coming into Santiago Peak. He looked strong and happy, and it was good to see him - I felt like we were putting forth a good (Coyote) team effort so far.

Coyote Pedro at the Peak. Photo: Janine Swiatkowski

Steve Rose was not far behind, looking a little more tired but still going strong and in great spirits. Steve was also stopping every so often to take pictures of the course, which he was also kind enough to share for the purpose of this report.

From Santiago, we descended via a sandy and somewhat impetuous single track. Now: typically, I like single track, and have never referred to one as impetuous, but in this case, the description was earned. The trail began enjoyably enough, but as it continued the walls of the trail became increasingly steep and you had to choose between walking directly along the winding thin ravine on the bottom of the trail or bouncing along the steep, sandy sides. Both options were slow-going and required concentration, though you still could not be guaranteed not to fall (of course). The one relief was that is was relatively short, and before long the trail dumped us out on the Main Divide fireroad.

By that time I had passed several more women, all of whom I suspected had taken the early start, though I could not be sure. It was at that point that I set my mind on winning the women's race and breaking the women's record, which at that time Jessica reported stood at 13:20.

*NOTE: We would later come to find that the actual women's record was set in 2008 by Gina Natera-Armenta in a time of 12:00:00, but this would not be set straight until the week following the event. As my eventual finish time was 12:18 (uh, spoiler alert?), Gina's record still stands.*

After hitting the water station at Bear Springs one more time, I headed back down to Holy Jim. I did my best to move quickly, feeling weariness setting in, and for the first time, the tiny sense of desperation and impatience that can sometimes creep in as the race wears on, especially if I'm not minding my electrolytes.

I felt like I was walking along a thin line, with focus and my current optimism on one side and a quick slide into hopelessness on the other... but it was far too early for hopelessness, and no reason for it. It was a beautiful day. I had the race in hand. The most challenging section lay ahead of me, but only just; and after that I could focus on completing the last section. I just needed to continue to monitor my electrolytes and water, and all should be well.

I went through Holy Jim, then on towards Horsethief. This was the section I looked forward to the least; the climb that had been so fun to descend was now a grueling series of switchbacks that must be conquered before moving forward. I grew impatient to begin as the trail wound further - where was the first turn, so I could get this thing over with? Then, I passed another woman, and we exchanged words of encouragement, though she was feeling poorly. Whatever words I said had a positive effect and she appeared to leave our exchange with better spirits, which in turn made me feel better.

We began the climb, with me glancing at my watch to gauge the carnage. In training, I could climb this hill in 20-30 minutes; tracking the time would help me determine to a certain degree where on the hill I was. The trick there, of course, would be to mimic the pace I held in training...

Yeah, there was no way in hell I could mimic the pace I held in training.

But, I did my best to keep moving forward. Within the first 1/3 of the climb, Pedro passed me easily - I saw him coming and yelled some smack-talk just for the hell of it, and also for the entertainment of myself and the woman I saw behind me, but it had no effect on Pedro - no, he was too busy passing me like I was a cactus rooted by the side of the highway. We exchanged encouragements, then he took off, and my feeble and hasty plan to stay behind him step for step evaporated in the heavy canyon air.

Actually, I remember watching him go and making a mental note to ask him later about his training plan. I have always considered myself to be a good climber, but this dude was moving. Still, it had lifted my spirits to see him and made me all the more determined not to let him get too far ahead... I wouldn't be giving up without a fight!

After passing some fallen companions who were trying vainly to find shade on the trail, I made it to the top... but it did take a damn slight longer than 20-30 minutes. At the aid station, the volunteers offered me a rag for my face, which I refused but then accepted when they told me my face and neck were crusted with salt.

From there, it was back over to the Indian Truck Trial AS, at mile 38. I ran and walked, but mostly ran, trying to get a glimpse of Pedro up ahead. He was nowhere to be seen despite my efforts, and I reckoned he had quite a lead on me by that time. I kept pushing forward, certain I could break the record but not knowing how far behind the next woman was. Around each corner, I would accelerate, trying to stay out of sight in case the next woman was gaining on me.

There was another fellow I kept seeing, the aforementioned runner #150. We had been crossing paths all day, most memorably because I seemed to pass him on every downhill, and then he'd pass me on every uphill... because he would run the uphills. All of them. But, then he'd walk some of the downhills, so I'd catch him again.

It was an odd system, but he seemed to be progressing well and that's tough to argue with. However, I did give him a bit of ribbing at the next aid station, where I discovered that he'd been running without bottles all day. Not only that, but this fellow had never run further than 14 miles before.

Again, while a part of me thought that was crazy, another part said "Yeah, but look, he's doing it." And, so he was... as we climbed back up to Santiago Peak (it would be our final big climb of the race), he started jogging again, and I'll be darned if he wasn't moving forward with steady and controlled progress.

As for me? I was hiking that part, but did run when I could, and was very pleased to be able to run uphill at all by that time. Truly, I was feeling very encouraged by my position in the race, and had nothing to complain of. As I had with the first climb to Santiago, I focused instead on reaching the peak quickly so I could widen the gap between myself and anyone on my heels, and possibly even catch up to Pedro.

After reaching the peak, there would be 10.5 miles to go, with a descent of 4500 feet. My legs were feeling great, and I couldn't think of a better way to end the race.

I passed Pedro not far from the peak, and again we exchanged excited words at how well we were both doing. At the aid station, I was in and out fairly quickly, the main focus being to get my supplies, then get back on the trail. On the way down, I passed two women headed for the top, and while I was 99% sure they had started in the earlier group, I told myself not to assume that.

At one point I even pretended they had started in my group, so I had to finish as hard as I could to make sure they did not overtake me on the final stretch. With this in mind, I passed the final aid station at 46.0 miles - only 6.5 miles to go.

It was starting to get dark, but the sky was beautiful and the air temperature was perfect. I reminded myself that it would be easier to go fast before the sun went down at 6:30PM, so I ran as hard as I could, stopping to walk in just one section where the road climbed sharply.

The sky as the sun went down; pink, purple, and blue. Photo: Steve Rose

Descending the hill, I grew tearful as I looked at the sky and moon. It had been an incredible day, and I felt as fresh and invigorated as if I had only done 10 miles.

By about 6:40pm it was dark enough that I needed my flashlight, especially on that rutted fireroad, and I held the light down low so it would cast long shadows on the largest rocks sticking up. At that time, I told myself I had to finish by 7:00, for a course time of 12:00 - I thought the record was 13:20, but getting in under 12:00 seemed like a better goal.

I focused on the road and ran faster, pretending I was running to catch a boat that was leaving at 7:00 sharp, and if I didn't get there before then I would miss the boat. For a minute or two I even imagined raising the stakes by imagining my kids were on the boat, but then I decided that was a foolish game to play, and that running to catch a boat was quite enough.

Yes, these are the things that I think about :)

As 7:00 neared, I realized I had misjudged the amount of road remaining, and that finishing in under 12 hours was significantly out of reach. I slowed slightly; just enough to be sure I would not trip on the rutted road in the darkness - my light was detectably dim, and I wondered if the kids had been playing with it at home since the last time I had changed the batteries.

With about a mile to go, I felt the tiniest touch of desperation again nip at my heels... where was the finish? Where was the damn gate, to signify that I was getting closer? Oh, there it was... focus. Stay calm. Stay on track. You got this.

Then, with half a mile to go, on the road ahead I heard "HOOOWWWL!" It was Pedro!

"Whooo-hooo!"I cheered back, to let him know if was me in the darkness (a howl would have been more appropriate, but I'm fairly new to this Coyote thing and honestly, under the circumstances, it slipped my mind).

"Hey Pedro, how's it going!"

I can't remember his response, but suffice it to say we were both pretty pleased with ourselves. I was excited he had done so well, and he was excited I was about to finish, and to smash the women's record so decidedly, as well... or so we thought.

We rounded the final turn, and there was the finish - it was hard to see anything, but the lights showed the finish line, and that was all I cared about. Jessica walked over to congratulate me warmly on being the first female finisher in 12:18, and then gave me $250 cash for first place, plus $100 cash for breaking the women's record... or so we thought. She also gave me a mug for being the first woman in my age group.

It was all pretty sweet.

After that, I got some food, talked with the other finishers, got some warm clothes on, and waited for Steve to finish, which he did, fairly shortly afterwards. Runner #150 also finished, despite not having a flashlight in the dark (somehow, I had guessed that he might not have one).

All in all, it was an incredible event - low-key, challenging, and very satisfying. It was also fun to get to run with people I knew; besides Pedro and Steve, there were folks I recognized from other races, and the camaraderie made it even more fun to be out there.

As for the record: Later that week I would find out that I had not actually set the women's record, which was disappointing, but important to get right, obviously. And, it pretty much settles my decision to return next year... I simply have go back and take another crack at it, along with any other woman out there who'd like $350 cash for her effort. 

In conclusion... what did I learn?

I always like to follow races with what I learned, and what I'd like to do differently next time.

What I learned: 
  1. For me, focusing on heartrate as a gauge of how fast I should be going is a better technique than trying to adhere to any pre-determined pace. If my heart is pounding early on during a long uphill climb, I need to ease back just a bit, and bring the heartrate down to something more manageable for that stage. The goal for me is steady and consistent effort, not using myself up in the first third and dragging myself through the rest of the race from there.
  2. 300-400 calories and 300-400 mg of sodium is about what I need for fuel and salt. I kept those levels dialed in all day, with about half of my calories coming in the form of Gu energy gels, which are easy to digest (the rest came in whatever looked good at aid stations, but usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, potato chips, mini candy bars, etc.). For this race and for the SBER, those levels worked, though in different weather conditions they may vary.
  3. Knowing the course provides a distinct mental edge. This is a tough course, but knowing what to expect made it manageable, and I was able to focus on knocking out certain sections at a time, knowing that the rest of the course held no surprises. There are many times when I can't practice a course in advance, and that's OK - but when I can, it definitely helps.
  4. Prepare for the terrain you will be racing on. In this case, that was big climbs, and having spent many Saturdays steadily hiking up mountains had to be of help. That may be why my legs still felt so fresh towards the end... or perhaps that was all in my head as I was so excited to win the race and finish strong. Regardless, my legs were ready for the climbing. It only makes sense. 
As for what I would do differently next time? That's a tough one, besides "know what the record is" and "go faster". There's not much I would do differently. I think it suited me not to prepare too hard for it; going into the race with a relaxed attitude was what was needed. I'm not sure I want to change that. 

So after Twin Peaks, what's next? 

Well, there's the Chimera 100 miler in 4 weeks, in the same area... now that's going to be a kick in the pants. I'm glad that Pedro will be there doing the 100K, and other new friends I've made on the trails; it should be a good time.

And, there's always next year. Now that I've come so close to breaking the record, I feel an obligation to return - but more than that, I want to return for the race itself. It's a beautiful location, with just the right amount of ups and downs to keep it interesting and keep us runners rolling along. I'll definitely be back to see what happens next year, and hopefully we'll get a repeat of the ideal weather from this year's race.

Thanks to Jessica and to all the volunteers for a great race experience, and to Pedro for being great company out there, especially during the final stretch. Thanks to Jimmy Freeman and the Coyotes for being great inspirations and training partners - this group has a weird mix of taking their running seriously while having some serious fun doing it, and it's a pleasure to be a part of.

Anyway, that's it - hope to see you there next year!