Monday, June 24, 2013

Hot and Happy at the San Diego 100: My Low-Drama Race Report

The San Diego 100 was hot. I wasn't expecting it to be. "We got so lucky with the weather, should be some really great times tomorrow!" I said to my pacer Chris Gilbertson the night before.

Snowballs would have been nice.
On the day, it was a different story. I tried the same "we got lucky" comment to another runner and they gave me an odd look and said "You weren't at the race briefing, were you?" It turns out that it can be hard to get an accurate weather forecast for this race, but it was set to be a scorcher.

And, it was. Race management did an impressive job of keeping the aid stations well-stocked with ice, but over the weekend there were 82 finishers and 96 DNFs. The majority of those drops came relatively early in the afternoon heat, but others came as heartbreakingly late as 91 miles.

By early Sunday morning the race had its winner - returning champion Jeff Browning took first in 16:59:24, just 21 minutes over last year's time and in much hotter conditions. The women's race was won by Jenny Capel in 20:57:35 - it was her second visit to the race, having placed second in 2011.

Among my friends and others I saw there were some disappointments but also many stories of success. Two themes seemed to emerge: the importance of being flexible, and of not giving up too early.

Being flexible came into play early, as many started the day with a certain goal time in mind. As the day went on the heat challenged those goals and demanded that they be modified.

The important of not giving up too early became increasingly clear as the heat of the day yielded to a cool, balmy night. Many expected that the evening would be cold (similar to the year prior), but instead those that made it through the day were rewarded with ideal temperatures at night, and the opportunity to recover and still finish.

Running from mile 80 to 88 and feeling great. Photo by Chris Gilbertson.

I had several friends that were feeling awful by mile 51, but they were able to recoup in the aid stations and pull it together to make up time overnight and finish with a strong second half. It was an excellent reminder that you can never assume that how you are feeling for that hour, that mile, or that minute is how you will be feeling for the rest of the race.

The Plan

As far as my expectations, I was not at all certain how the day would go and was therefore setting the bar pretty low. I was just going to start out steady and see how it felt.

I was meeting my pacer Chris at mile 51, so my biggest concern was getting there in pretty good shape so we could actually enjoy the rest of the race - I enjoy having pacers, but it's not so much fun when you arrive to meet them feeling miserable, somehow that makes the whole thing that much worse. Also, I had invited Chris to pace as he will be running his first 100-miler later this year, and I hoped the experience would provide good exposure to some of the things that can come up during a race of that distance.

Of course, I realized that this could go a few different ways. I hoped it ended up being a positive experience, but I knew we'd just have to wait and see.

Envisioning the Course

I looked at the map and elevation profile ahead of time and had broken the course up into sections that made sense to me to help keep me oriented. From the start to mile 24, we would run down through the meadows, around Little and Big Laguna Lake, then make our way east to join up with the Pacific Crest Trail and follow it north to mile 24.

For miles 24 - 51, we'd drop from Penny Pines down to Pine Creek, do a 5 mile loop, hit Pine Creek again, climb back up to the rim, then follow the PCT for 7 miles to the Sunrise Aid Station at mile 51.

From 51-80, we'd do a counter-clockwise loop west, hitting Stonewall Mine, Paso Picaho, and Sweetwater before coming back to the Sunrise Aid Station to pass through one more time.

For miles 80-100, we'd follow the PCT south for 15 miles along the ridge before cutting over west and hooking up north to head back to the Al Bahr Campground, and the  finish.

Thinking about it this way, it actually sounded quite pleasant.

At the Start

I felt a little unnerved at the starting area as I felt I should be fussing more, but after checking in, there was nothing left to do but listen for announcements, say hi to friends, and wait. 

Waiting to get started. Picture by Chris Gilbertson.
Hanging out at the start with some good, good people. Photo by Lynn Cao.

Soon enough, Scotty called us towards the starting line. It was a pretty busy area, and crowded at the front. From the back I could not hear Scotty very well and hoped there was nothing important being said, though I was sure he would not have saved any critical details exclusively for that moment.

No, likely he would have also sent them in a pre-race email. I wondered if I had read all the pre-race emails.

Jeff Browning and other leaders at the start. Photo by Lynn Cao.

Then, we were off. The dust kicked up and my spirits starting lifting as we settle into a happy, easy run.

On the trail

It usually takes me about 10-20 miles to feel settled, but in this race I felt relaxed almost immediately, probably due to having little to no time expectations. Miles 0-14 were just lovely. The course was almost entirely single-track, and ran through meadows with tall pine trees on either side, then up through trees, rocky hills and some scrubby vegetation before winding through more open fields and forests. It was pretty wonderful, and I knew I had picked the right race.

Red Tail Roost, Mile 14. Pic by Chris Gilbertson

I saw Chris at mile 14, and he let me know he'd see me at mile 44. I knew the hottest and most challenging part of the day lay between me and that point, and I settled into the idea that I would be facing that section sometime soon.

Then from miles 14-18, things started feeling not so good.

Worry sets in

I was already feeling like I was pretty far back in the field, and as much as that did not matter, it was something I was aware of. "Patience," I said to myself over and over. "Steady."

I also found myself muttering something that I had heard two runners discussing as we had run towards the meadows... they had been talking strategy and how they might be taking it easy in consideration of the forecast. One said "I was thinking about going faster for the first part to try to get some miles in the bank, but you know, there is no bank."

It's an expression I've heard a bit recently, and was first brought to my attention in an interview with Karl Meltzer after he won Run Rabbit Run.

"There is no bank," I thought again as I tried to keep up my pace. There is no bank.

More than my place in the field, what worried me more was that some tightness and strain were beginning to creep into my legs. The trail was rolling on this section, through the same beautiful trees and rocks, yet my heartrate was climbing. I felt out of breath. I started walking up slopes that others were running, and moved to the side to let even more people pass. I felt worse with every additional person.

It doesn't matter, I told myself as I stepped back onto the trail to keep walking. This is your race. Steady. Patience. 

Still, I could not help but question my decision to run this race so soon after my last 100-miler. Three weeks had not seemed like a big a deal, yet now it seemed like a foolish mistake. How could I be out of breath so early? I would have to drop out before even reaching Chris to have him pace me; he would have driven out here for nothing. I would be lucky if I lasted another 20 miles.

Stop, I told myself. Stop. Be here. Don't think about what might happen. Be here, and run this race. 

 I wasn't trying to run fast at that point, I was just trying to make it. Pushing myself harder in the first 20 miles because I "should" be going faster was not going to lead to anything good. I signed up for this race to run it and see the course, I reminded myself. Relax and see the course.

I calmed, and brought my mind back to the game-plan: first get to the mile 24, then focus on the next section. But before anything, get to mile 24. I relaxed, cleared my mind, and kept moving forward.

Cramping up

Feeling happier, mile 20. Photo: Lynn Cao
From Miles 18 to 24, the course was gorgeous. By this point we had joined the PCT, and it headed north through bright green brush over peaks and hills with sweeping views of the valley to the east.

I was feeling better, but a little crampy in my calves. I checked the rubber band on my wrist - it was loose, my wrists were not swelling. I had been doing a good job so far of taking in some salt and electrolytes in the form of food at regular intervals, so I just needed to keep that up, and continue to observe the heat. 

As I marveled at the views I heard a familiar voice behind me, then looked back to see my friend Anton, who was running his first 100-miler.

Anton looked fantastic and fresh. His pace was relaxed, and his long legs give him a wide stride so he seemed to cover the ground effortlessly. Based on his pace I expected him to disappear down the hill, but he and Brent (his companion, who turned out to be someone who helped greatly at one of the aid stations at Born to Run) hung out for a while and we chatted as we ran.

I was glad for the company as we ran and checked out the views, then doubly glad they were there when I kicked a rock and my calf seized up. It was a tight cramp, and they helped me stretch it out as I made unhelpful gasping noises. It was better after a few minutes and we carried on, though I could not run as fast.

Anton dropped back to check on me and hung out for several miles even when I tried to shoo him away so he was not slowing down for me. He headed down the trail soon, but only after making sure everything was fine.

In the meantime, the twinging in my calf had spread into shin and right quad. I was well hydrated so would try salt next, but I had none on me and worried that I would cramp before making it to the aid station. So, I started scanning the ground for salt pills. People always drop salt pills during trail races, it's just something that you will see on the ground, so I searched the trail for them now.

Within a mile, I got lucky and found a salt pill lying on the dirt. I scooped it up, then put it in my mouth and bit down. It tasted gritty but salty, and I felt a wave of relief. Just one moment later did it occur to me: I just picked a random pill off the ground and put it in my mouth.

Only in trail running.

As we approached Penny Pines at mile 24, I ran into my buddy John Hockett. Like many other runners, John was not feeling too great, but we had some fun running together for a few miles into the aid station, speeding up every time we saw a photographer then slowing down again once we were out of view of the camera. It was pretty silly, but one of the highlights of my day. It's the little things, I guess.

John Hockett leads the way to Penny Pines. Photo by Milan Kovacevic.
View from Penny Pines. Picture by Chris Gilbertson.

I was in and out of Penny Pines quickly, then started the descent to Pine Creek. This was the section where I would feel the most uncomfortable all day, and for some, it was the end of their race.

Bringing the heat: The descent to Pine Creek

The stretch to Pine Creek was 7 miles down Noble Canyon Trail with some patches of shade. No big deal, right? Well, kinda. I had two bottles, yet ran out of water with several miles to go. To add to that, the last few miles towards the bottom were exposed, with temperatures rising the closer we got to the floor of the canyon.

On the bright side, I knew there were 2 miles or less to go, and the aid station was being run by my local running group and good friends. I looked forward to seeing them and was glad we would hit that aid station twice.

In the meantime, it was hot. I took the tops off my bottles to pour the last few drops onto my tongue, then started scanning the bushes for palm fronds or something to put over my head... it was HOT. I looked at the leaves and ground around me - no big leaves anywhere. Only teeny tiny leaves. It figured. I thought about taking off my shirt and draping it over my head, but then considered that my torso would be exposed - would than be better or worse? I didn't know, but decided I would stay the way I was.

I looked ahead; no aid station. It was hot. How else to stay cool? I thought for a moment, then licked the inside of my wrists and blew on them. My wrists tasted salty. I licked them again. I ran some more, then looked down the trail and saw the blue tents of the aid station.

I howled, then yelled "We got the aid station!" I was not sure who I was talking to, but it just seemed like good news to announce in general. I then summoned my energy and ran down the hill.

Pine Creek was the busiest aid station I saw all day, as it should have been. It was the hottest part of the course, and runners would pass through twice. Every volunteer in constant motion, so I just helped myself, then got out on the 5-mile loop so I could get out of the way and back to what I was supposed to be doing.

I was still feeling a bit overheated, so the plan was to use the next 5 miles to rehydrate and get focused for my 8 mile climb back up to the PCT at mile 44.

The loop was ok. I was slow. I tried to keep running but it was mostly exposed, and I had to walk and occasionally pause in the shade to cool off, though I never sat. In that fashion I eventually completed the loop. It was unspectacular (my running, not the loop). The loop itself was single-track, and up and over and down and through rocks and brush and trees. It was interesting I suppose, just very very hot.

After hitting the Pine Creek aid station a second time, I waved goodbye to my friends and headed out for the climb up the hill. I was happy to be tackling this section, as it was expected to be the toughest section on the course. I had grabbed an extra plastic bottle for the climb and felt that this would be enough to get me to the top - it turned out to be just fine. The climb was long and some sections were not very interesting, but I was pleased to be able to hike at a consistent pace and felt increasingly strong the higher up we climbed. My legs did not feel tired towards the top and my pace was steady. All of that was encouraging.

At the top it felt cooler and the trail leveled off - I felt unbelievably pleased to have reached that point. From there the trail wound along the ridge towards the Sunrise Highway, and I could see people gathering by the road to meet the trail. I howled as loudly as I could, then ran. 

Running up to Sunrise Highway, mile 44. Photo: Chris Gilbertson

It was fun to run this section after climbing for so long, and the trail was rolling and fun. As I got closer I could make out individuals, and I waved and howled - they waved back and cheered. Awesome. I ran up to the road, met Chris, then crossed the road to the aid station where we refueled.

With Chris, mile 44. This is my coy look; that's his everyday face. Pic by Erin Chavin.

From mile 44, it was a wonderful and uplifting 7 mile run along the PCT to the Sunrise Aid Station. The sun was getting lower and a gentle breeze was picking up. The trail was rocky and bumpy but curved along the ridge and provided views of the valley and mountains to the north and east. As we went further, large rocks dotted the hillside, which was covered with vegetation in varying shades of green. It was spectacular, and I felt glad that we would get to run this stretch again on the way back.

Approaching the Sunrise Aid Station I could again see folks cheering and waving, and again was very happy to be at that point. It had all seemed so doubtful around mile 16 or so, but it was looking better now, and while we still had the entire night ahead, I was glad to have the first half of the race down and still be feeling so good.

Coming into mile 51, Sunrise Aid Station. Picture by Chris Gilbertson.

Chris was ready when I arrived, so I got organized my gear, filled up on water and food, and we hit the trail. We got lucky, and overnight there were not many challenges - unlike the previous year, the temperatures were moderate and I rarely had to put on my jacket as long as we did not dilly-dally too long at the aid stations.

With Chris the focus was on completing the 30 mile loop that brought us back to Sunrise, then go 20 miles to the finish. For the 30 mile loop, we alternated running and walking when there were climbs or when I needed a break, but overall I was pleased with our pace. We mostly ran, and felt good. We went through fields and along single track, then up some rocky and hilly sections as we got closer to Stonewall Aid Station.

At one point we caught up with Josh Spector, who had been having a very tough day, and we chatted for a bit with him and his pacer Elan. Ok, well mostly it was Elan and Chris doing the talking, as Josh and I focused on running... I didn't feel bad about that. I don't think Josh did either.

At one point they dropped behind us, but we would see them again several times through the night. For me, my only rough point came just a few miles out from the Sunrise Aid station, around mile 77 or 78. I had been feeling fine and that section was runnable, yet I was hit with drowsiness that became harder and harder to fight and I was reduced to stumbling and weaving on the trail.

At first it was just annoying and I tried to hide it, but then felt the need to say something as I was slowing and stumbling visibly. I checked the rubber band around my wrist - no swelling. Electrolytes seemed ok. I didn't know what it was, nor how to shake it. I knew I had been awake for some time so the tiredness could be natural, but it had such a sudden onset that I wondered what had shifted.

All I could do was keep moving, but I was frustrated by my slowness. As I could not shake it, I instead tried to focus on reaching the aid at mile 80. We would get coffee there, and the sun would be rising - I had faith this would revitalize us and bring new-found focus. 

For the first time all night, I felt cold, and started shaking. I mentioned the chill to Chris and he told me he wasn't cold, but he had not been out all day like I had. I pulled my jacket around me tightly and tried to keep moving.

We saw flashlights behind us then watched helplessly as Josh and Elan overtook us easily. I wanted to follow them, but could not find the agility to run. We exchanged words of encouragement, then watched them leave. I hoped we might see them later, but suspected it was the last of them. I was glad for Josh but still frustrated, and felt like I was letting Chris down.

All that was left though was to keep moving forward. It made no sense to dwell on anything else. 

The Final Stretch: Sunrise to the Finish

I was excited to get to Sunrise, and was greeted there by Christine Bilange. Christine gave us updates on runners, then gave me coffee even though the ladies at the aid station said it wasn't ready - they looked on with outrage when she grabbed the pot and poured me a cup regardless of their gestures. I was estatic to drink it.

Happy to be at mile 80. Picture by Erin Chavin.

After shedding some gear and filling our packs, we caught up with Erin Chavin, who was waiting to pace our friend Amy to the finish. After getting updates from Erin about the rest of the Coyotes, we hit the trail again - this time, heading south towards the finish.

Fiddling with supplies while Chris holds my coffee. Pic by Ein Chavin.

The run back along the ridge from mile 80 to 87 was pretty awesome. I knew it would be. The sun was coming up, the breezes were light, and the views were inspiring. Every now and again I would just have to look around and yell, "I mean, come on!" We felt pretty lucky to be out there.

Headed south along the PCT from Sunrise AS. Picture by Chris Gilbertson.

We also had to laugh as the sun came up, for while it was energizing to see that sight, within a few minutes of the sun getting higher, reality set in. I turned back to Chris and said "As great as it is to see the sun rise, your next through is always, 'Oh crap. Here we go again.'"

He laughed, but we both knew it was true. Within a few hours the trail would start getting hot. I was glad we were getting as close so it would not have to be too much longer.

To the left, a steep drop-off with great views of the valley below. Pic by Chris Gilbertson.

We saw Anton at Pioneer Mail - he looked weary, but seemed ok, and I knew he was going to be fine. The sun was getting higher, and I felt impatient to finish. We had nine miles to go. I wanted them done.

"Chris, you ready? Let's get the hell out of here." We hit the trail and started running.

From mile 87 to 91 we ran a lot, taking breaks as I needed to catch my breath, but pushing forward the majority of the time. Chris ran behind me and encouraged me through the uphills. "You can run this part," he would say as we approached some rolling slopes. I looked no further than the trail directly in front of me and just kept running.

We overtook a few more people, each time with Chris gently encouraging - "Keep going... there are a few more people up there I think we can say hi to." We kept moving forward. By the time we reached mile 91, tiredness had hit. I was pleased we had just pushed, but needed to recover. Chris let me know he would let me recover, but then we were to hit the last 4-mile section hard. "Deal," I said.

From miles 91-96, we hiked quite a bit - I tried to run when I could, but felt sapped of energy. I just accepted that I would walk a bit, then try to run to the finish. Around us, the views were amazing. Cliffs of layered brown and red rock jutted over the canyon, and lush green vegetation covered the hillsides and the valley floor below. We hiked up and over one tall peak, and I dug out my map for the first and only time all race so I could officially check before announcing to Chris that it was indeed the highest point of elevation on the course.

We cheered, then carried on.

To the finish

We finally arrived at the last aid station, the romantically named "Rat Hole." I had some soda and a snack, then we got back on the trail. I was really tired, and my emotions also felt very close to the surface. When Chris would talk to me or tell me to do something, I would either not respond or would get teary-eyed, or both. And it was not because he was being mean, just because I was tired. At times he would look back or wait for me, and I would have to remember to smile or say something positive, but it took effort. 

We had trouble finding the trail at one point and I used that as an excuse to walk, as I did up several hills, but other than that, we ran... slowly. I tried to go faster but it wasn't there. I didn't hurt, I just felt tight, and I was having trouble catching my breath when I went uphill.

At the same time, I was pleased. I was running, and overall, it had gone well. My time would nothing to dance about, but I was happy to be finishing. So many had dropped. We had gotten through, and were feeling good. 

As we got closer to the finish, I just kept running - at that point, I would not be taking a walking break on any account. Chris, for his part, was getting more and more excited to be close to the finish. He had run behind me for most of the race, but now he practically skipped ahead to scout out the trail and encourage me on. It was pretty funny to watch his new-found energy.

With less than a mile to go, he saw another runner with his pacer several hundred feet in front, and he beckoned me to speed up - "Come on! You can catch this guy!"

My voice was failing me, so I raised my hands like a traffic cop, as if to say, "Stop - you need to stop." He got the message, but his enthusiasm refused to die. He scurried ahead some more, then looked back with big eyes to make sure I was still following.

He dropped back as we ran through the campgrounds, so we ran side by side and reflected on the race. I think I apologized at that point for not having a faster time, so it was more exciting - I don't think he cared. I didn't really care either. I was very happy to be finishing. We ran over the bridge, then up towards the finish, and he dropped back again to let me cross the line.

Trying not to cry so I can see the finish; Chris to my right in red. Picture: Lynn Cao.

It was nice to reach the end. I got to stop running, and take seat. I got a cool medal, and a hug from a bunch of people. And it was nice to sit and talk to the other finishers. We were all pretty pleased to be done.

Getting a finisher's medal from Scott Mills. Photo by Lynn Cao.

Anton finished just behind me, his first 100 miler! Photo by Lynn Cao.

Yes, all was well... until I tried to refuel with a fruity protein drink, that is. It was handed to me at the finish, and while it was delicious and refreshing on the tongue, it was a little too acidic for my tummy, and after about five minutes I had to get up and wander over to the bushes so I could vomit. But I wasn't quite ready to vomit, so I just sat there on the porch, unable to move, hanging my head down every time I felt the urge to hurl.

Man, this was not cool. I couldn't even watch the finishers. I was suddenly having flashbacks to sitting on the curb on early mornings outside of so many clubs, trying not to vomit as my head spun from too many drinks. But I shook off that bad feeling, and reminded myself that I wasn't outside a club, and this wasn't alcohol, it was running. This was a race weekend, and I was among friends. I would just sit there for a little while, until the world stopped spinning.

Chris Gilbertson walked over wearing an expression of concern, then handed me some water and crackers. "Do you want me to hold back your hair while you throw up?" he asked.

I laughed, rolled over on the porch, and tried not to vomit.

Final thoughts

This race was not only fun and a great way to see some trails, but it also helped build experience in running in the heat, as well as providing me with what will continue to be a never-ending lesson in how much electrolytes I need, and when to take them.

It was also fun to experiment with having a pacer. I go back and forth about having pacers during a race, and think it's good to try both experiences. Really, there is no one right answer about when you need one, or when you don't, as it will vary from person to person, and race to race. On that weekend I was ready for some company, and grateful for it.

Finally, I was impressed with the other runners and the solid performances of friends that struggled with serious challenges through the day, but were able to hang in there and come back harder than ever to finish the race. It's cool to be out there with those folks, and encouraging, and an excellent reminder not to base how the rest of your race will go considering how you feel at a certain section early on. 

But that's not all. Other things I learned: Race wrists are salty. Dirt tastes gritty. Carry salt pills (they weigh next to nothing anyway) unless you like the taste of dirt. Wear a hat with a flap. Elan talks a lot of smack. Chris is an awesome pacer. Elan is also an awesome pacer. Chris is super competitive, so if you are running against him, don't let up even if you can smell the finish. Josh has tough feet but a tougher spirit. David is terrible at drinking water but excellent at suffering.

And whatever you do, stay away from the fruity protein drink.

Bye-bye, San Diego. Until next time.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Baby, We Were Born to Run

Best prize ever! Best race ever. I love Born to Run.

It was the surfboard that got my attention, but it was the spirit of the weekend that sucked me in. There really is nothing like it.

And when you get a final letter from the Race Director that starts by laying out the principles around which the race is based, you know you’ve made the right decision.

1. Be kind.
2. Be respectful.
3. Be prepared.
4. Be responsible.
5. No open fires.

These are the directions that Luis communicated to us two years ago when the even was created, and they have been adopted and practiced ever since. Or else, as Luis would put it, "Don't like it? Don't come."

Easy as that.

The Set-Up

And actually, easy was something of a theme for the entire event. It took me less than an hour to pack for for the weekend, including my camping and running gear, and nutrition. The night before the race, I drove up to ranch at Los Olivos, let myself through the gate, then followed the road to the main camping area located near the Start/Finish.

One of the welcoming signs on the ranch, night before the race. Yup, this is the crew I was looking for.

Main camping area in the daytime, with cars lined up along the final stretch

I parked my car along the final stretch leading to and from the Start/Finish area, with the plan that I would be able to hit my car for supplies each time I looped through camp.

I had a bag of extra running gear, another bag with nutrition and random accessories (Power Bars, ginger chews, body glide, extra flashlight, etc.) and a third bag containing groceries (bagels, almond butter, chocolate-covered espresso beans). I arranged these neatly at the back of my car so I could access them quickly the next day.

The night before the race I simply laid out my clothes, set the alarm on my phone, then crawled inside my sleeping bag and looked out the window on my right at the stars... and thought about how lucky I was.

Day of the Race

As I suspected, I woke early and without needing an alarm. The stars were still out, but now sounds of life were starting to emanate from the general direction of the starting area. We had to check in by 5AM, but as it was only 4:20 I just sat up in my sleeping bag, ate a bagel with peanut butter, drank some cold instant coffee from a bottle and contemplated the stars.

Over at the check in, the camp was buzzing with energy. There was a small but steady bonfire with some early-rising runners already huddled around to keep warm. Lines of brightly colored flags crossed in the space above our heads, and a large flag of California as well as the Stars and Stripes swayed gently in the breeze. I chatted in line with some of the other runners; the two behind me were there for the first time, both running the 10 mile race before heading out to the Grand Canyon later on in the week.

Runners checking in, around 4:30AM

At the desk, I checked in quickly with Beverly Escobar then ran back to my car to keep getting ready. I got to the starting line just minutes before the race was about to start and quickly greeted some friends as Luis delivered the final instructions. I love Luis’s speeches so I was sorry to miss it, and I hoped I had not missed any critical new developments... because if so, we all knew whose fault that would be.

My fault.

One of the final rituals before beginning the race, Caleb Wilson stood to deliver the oath of Caballo Blanco: “I solemnly swear that what I am about to do is stupid, stupid, stupid. If I get hurt, lost, or die, it’s my own damn fault.”

We laugh at this oath, but the intent is a good one. We alone take responsibility for what we are doing out there. It’s up to us to make good decisions, understand what we are capable of, and take ownership of our actions. By accepting this responsibility and not depending on or blaming someone else should something go wrong, we become stronger and more self-sufficient, not only as runners, but on a personal and individual level. They are good principles to have.

Two Blasts of a Shotgun

Per tradition, the race was started by the firing of a shotgun (heads down!), then we were off down the trail. Then, things went pretty much how most runs go for a while. I ran. For quite a bit. It was awesome. I was awfully happy.

The first loop is the pink one (pink tags, really). It’s ten miles long with about 500 ft of elevation gain. It’s definitely the more gentle loop of the two, with three minor hills and the remainder being flat or downhill. You get to run quite a lot, with the majority on a dirt road or slightly rocky trail, which is mostly wide open.

Running past a field of cows on the pink loop

As for the views, there are hills and trees for miles around, in various shades of gold, green, brown, grey, and red, against a blue sky. Some don’t like the grassy hills so much. I happen to love them. There’s something soothing about the landscape, and the pale gold sweeps of grass. It suits my mood very much as I’m running. It feels peaceful. It's a very special place.

Then, there’s the yellow loop. It has about 1500 ft of elevation, and the climbs are a bit more noticeable but still very slight. The terrain is also a bit more technical in some areas, but mostly due to some gopher holes or the uneven surface on some trails. This is not really a big deal but will be more noticeable at night, when every uneven surface or misstep can throw you off that much more.

Trail on the yellow loop, with cloud cover earlier in the day

It’s also variable enough to keep you interested, while offering longer stretches where you can pick up the pace and really get into a rhythm... that was the really fun stuff right there, and something I don't always get from the mountain races I usually run in.

For the first time in a 100 mile race I felt like I could really get into a zone and just get lost, however momentarily, in the running... and it was awesome. Easy, light, and free, I found myself thinking when I would hit these longer stretches... and yes, I know the expression is really "easy, light, and fast," but in my case, "easy light and free" is just a better fit.

On those sections, I could feel myself relax into the rhythm of the run and just go with it... I felt like I was gliding, like I was free. And it struck me during those moments that this experience, this feeling of flying easily down the path carrying only a single handheld as I ran, ran ran for 100 miles...that this might just be what the entire race was about.

Running free through the hillsides, with a bunch of friends, vagabonds, like-minded fools and amigos as we ran and stumbled and swore and cheered our way to the finish line... this was what was intended.

And for the tenth time that day I considered how glad I was that I had decided to come to this event.  

Enjoying the run, with Heidi Heitkamp and Ken Hughes. Photo by Beth Burrell.

The strategy? Run... pause, eat, drink... then run some more

In terms of any strategy, my main plan was to start running and see how I felt. As I had recently had some issues during races taking in too much salt (then too much water to chase down the salt), I was determined to keep a better eye on salt and water intake. This was my number one concern. Other than that, I would just keep going and take the day as it came.

There were over 200 runners signed up for the 50K, and as we all started together I wondered if this would make for a crowded first loop. I was glad to find this was not the case. The trail is wide in most areas, and we stretched along the route pretty easily. In addition, it was fun to hear the conversations and take a look at some of the characters that were running. Everyone seemed pretty happy. There were more than a few dudes wearing skirts, and one girl in a superwoman outfit. I felt good, so I zipped around some of the runners and settled into my own pace on the trail.

Aid on the Course: First Bill Kee, then Barbie World

There were two aid stations on each ten mile loop - on the pink loop, you hit Bill Kee's aid station first, at what seemed like 2-3 miles in. Then you run for about 4-5 more miles to the Barbie Doll aid station, run by Nancy and featuring some of the naughtiest Barbie Dolls that have even been branded.

Then, you run back home, hit the timing mat that will log you for your last ten miles, hit your drop bag in your car (or the aid station at the campground), and head out on the yellow loop.

Road to get to the main camp: the end of one loop, and the start of the next.

For the yellow loop, you hit the same two aid stations, but in reverse order, so you see Nancy at the Barbie Doll station first, then Bill Kee's aid station, then head back to camp to see the usual suspects. 

Luis Escobar on the main stage at camp. Running Sucks. Pic by Beth Burell.

The aid stations had most of anything we needed: hot food, cold food, cookies, candy, salt pills, TUMS, Vaseline... y'know. All the good stuff. But besides that, for me they also provided a sense of comfort, knowing we had such experienced, no-bullshit ultrarunners on the course. 

Even when nothing is going wrong, it's still good to see them out there, to know they are there. At night especially, there was a feeling of comfort in navigating down the steeply graded hilly section on the yellow loop, hanging a sharp left, then seeing the lights of Bill Kee's trailer and aid station glowing brightly at the bottom of the slope. You knew you could pause there, even if just for a minute, and get that little bit of encouragement and nourishment that you needed before heading on.

In the heat of day they were critical for water, precious water... by night, a kind word and a warm bite of whatever they had cooking. As in previous years, these volunteers were a great asset to all runners on the course.

Ok, now back to the race.

Considering the distance of 100 miles

In each race I always like to break the distance up in my head into more manageable chunks or sections, then focus on knocking them out one by one. For this race, I decided I didn't really like to consider doing ten loops (ten sounded like a lot), so instead I thought of it as three loops, three loops, four loops. That way I could just focus on one of those chunks at a time. It just felt a bit easier.

The first three loops passed quickly, as I thought they would. As mentioned, my main focus during all loops was to monitor my intake of fluids, salt, and calories so I could remain steady for the entire race... I was happy to find that I did this all race with no real issues, but replicating it again in future races will be the trick.

My other focus was to observe the course, and get to know it... not only because that's interesting, but to aid in keeping my bearings on later loops, so instead of just stumbling forward with no real sense of how far it was to next aid station, I would be in tune with where I was on the course.

I also left my watch in the car, deciding instead to just check my time every ten miles as I looped over the timing mat. This was really all the clock-watching that would be needed - regarding pace, I already had a good sense of how fast I could or should be running, and needed no watch to help with that. Regarding nutrition, I decided I would have to be more thoughtful about how much and how often I ingested anything, and just do the best I could without a watch.

I have to say, I enjoyed this aspect of the race - not running with regard to time or an eye on the watch, but just running to run, and based on how I felt - very much. 

So, that was essentially how I made my way through the loops. Focus on the first three, focus on the next three, knock out the last four. During any particular loop I tried to focus on the loop I was in, and moving from landmark to landmark. It worked very well and for the majority of the race I felt steady and happy, with no aches or pains.

Early evening at Born to Run, just after the start of another pink loop.

Even once it got dark, I was enjoying where I was. I was enjoying being out there. And I felt happy by myself, but was also happy to see runners or volunteers again. The only time I started to get into trouble was getting close to the 80 mile mark... by this time, I was starting to get sleepy, which was probably not helped by the fact that I had gotten such little sleep in the few days before the race, an average of about five hours per night (that's just how my schedule is sometimes... it's not ideal in the week before a 100-miler, but it is reality). I knew coffee might help, but didn't really want to pause to drink a large cup of it... though I think I finally did this in my last loop through Bill Kee's aid station.

And you know, it was damn fine coffee. 

One mile to go. One mile to be here.

Finally, I got to it... the last stretch. It was the last mile of my 100-mile event, somewhere close to 4AM in the morning, and I was headed to the finish. It had been great for the first 80 miles, but in the final two laps the fatigue had washed over me, and now I was ready to be done. A nap... a nap was what I was looking forward to the most. 

As I ran I could feel more body tensing up, my impatience to reach the finish line, or even just get a glimpse of it, getting to me. Where is it, where is it, just keep going... I suddenly felt my tiredness, my desperation to be done. I was making silly whining noises. I clenched my teeth to make it stop.

Then gladly, in that moment, I caught myself... I have been getting better at doing that, in those instances when I find myself searching ahead for the aid station, or looking up at the skyline for the peak of a hill or mountain top... those moments when I am not considering the journey, but just anticipating the ending.

Don’t “just keep going,” I thought. Be here, and enjoy this moment. This is something amazing.

I relaxed and let my shoulders creep down, releasing the tension in my neck. My arms and legs began to swing more easily, more fluidly. I breathed out slowly, calmly, and looked up at the sky to the right. It was dark, with thousands of stars, and I could not recall another night when the Milky Way had appeared so bright.

I listened to my breath, to the night, and to the sound of my feet on the dirt. Pat, pat, pat, went my feet on the ground. Easy, light, and free, I thought.

And then, there were the lights of the campground. I picked up the pace and swung my arms and legs faster. I felt awesome, tired but strong, powerful, and in no pain. While most of the camp lay dark and sleeping, there were a few random cheers from cars lining the sides of the course. A few folks were sitting by the bonfire. I would look at who they were just as soon as I finished.

I ran hard across the finish line mat, then looked up at my (unofficial) time of 22:00:09.

LT (Lambert Timmermans) had been in charge of the timing of the event and did a fantastic job of it, and he now looked happily at me from under his sleeping bag in the finishing tent. Then, he looked from me to the clock, and a look of puzzlement crossed his face. He turned back to me once more.

"What, you couldn't go just a few seconds faster?" he asked.

Wrapping it Up

You can guess most of what happened after that... I got my awesome finisher's amulet, and would wait until the next morning to get my plaque and surfboard, which I still find just so cool. After finishing, I was happy to sit by the fire for a while with some of the folks who had been running or helping out at the event, and they very helpfully got me some hot soup and a blanket. After about 30 minutes or so I then made my way to the car, changed, and passed out on my sleeping bag for several hours.

When I woke, it was just getting light and folks were still running. They looked cold and tired as they ran past our cars, but they were still running. I shivered from my sleeping bag and felt awed by their toughness. I had needed to nap and get out of the cold, yet they were still running... I cheered and clapped as they went by the car, then got up in search of breakfast and updates on friends.

Second day, Sunday morning... they are still running. 

My friend Jennifer Davis, nearly done with her first 100-miler. Way to go, Jennifer!

Reminiscing and Results

After the race, the event's Facebook wall was filled with messages from happy runners, crews, friends, and family. Pictures from the Thursday and Friday before the race were posted, so we could laugh and get a sense of the full spectrum of events making up the weekend.

Following that, the results were posted, and it was then that I noticed with interest the way that gender was split among the distances.

In most ultra events, you'll see a field where men are the majority, making up about 60-80% of the field, or even higher. At Born to Run - and this is something I noticed when I was out running on the course - the field was 50% women in every distance except the 100 miler. In the 100 miler, men still outnumbered women by 2 to 1, but in the 10 mile, 50k, and 100k, the field was at least 50% women, and in some cases, higher.

Now that, my friends, is awesome.

What's more interesting, I think it's likely that such gender equality comes not just from the fact that trail running is growing increasingly popular, but due to the nature of the Born to Run atmosphere itself. It's accepting. It's supportive. It's silly. It's good spirited. It's non-judgemental (unless you ask too many questions about where you can find the elevation chart, or where the GPS coordinates for the course are, and then yeah, we might judge you a little bit about that).

It's just plain fun. And that fun comes in all ages, all genders, all speeds, all shapes and sizes, from James Bonnett whipping through the course in a burning 15:58 to Cody Garnett finishing his first 100k at the age of 16.

Many other runners out there were also trying their hand (and feet) at a distance that was new to them. I ran with Vanessa Felts briefly in the first lap of the course, and while Born to Run was her first 50k, she will also be participating in a multi-stage race of over 250k later in the year. She wasn't certain that she can do it, but she is going to try... her inspiration was a friend who did the race a year earlier to raise money for charity. She felt it would be shame if the charitable effort had ended there, so she was picking up the running torch and moving forward with it... I mean, holy cow.

Great role models, all of them - and great reminders that any of us, as long as we are willing to dedicate some time for the training and to learn a little bit about the trail and what is needed, can get out there too.

You don't need to be a certain size. You don't need to be a certain age, or gender. You don't need to have the latest running shoes or arm sleeves, or use a GPS, pacer, a crew - if that's what you like to use and you want to bring them, fine, but you don't need to.

Just bring yourself. A positive attitude. Some firewood. Camping gear, and a donation to the camp. Running clothes for your drop bag, and if you're fussy about nutrition, you need to bring that too, but otherwise... you don't need a lot of stuff to do this. Anyone can get started doing this.

But you do have to be kind. Be respectful. Be prepared, and take responsibility for yourself. Leave no trace.

And by all means, run free.

Future BTR participant... because running doesn't suck. Picture by Luis Escobar.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Nobody calls it a sweet 37... but they should

It's my 37th birthday today... at least, by the time I post this, it will be. I'm not planning on making too much of a kerfuffle about it. I made some cookies for the kids to eat and decorate (or perhaps even vice-versa, as it might be a little more successful in that order) and will go for a run later, but that will be it. 

Really, I wasn’t thinking too much about my birthday this week until I remembered it was eight years ago today that I went for my first official ultrarun... although at the time, it felt mighty unofficial.

It was on my 29th birthday that I decided to run 30 miles. I'd never actually ventured farther than 10 miles before, which had been bloody awful enough, but I had been going through a really bad time, for quite some time... it was just a really really bad time. Floundering, drinking a lot, searching for meaning and not finding anything, and as my 29th birthday approached I decided that I desperately needed to do something on that day that felt like it meant something. 

I decided that running 30 miles was it. 

I know. I didn’t know why either, but I knew I needed to find out. I was pretty sure if I ran those 30 miles I would feel something, or learn something. I just didn’t know what that was. 

So I went out and did it. Parked my car near the dog beach in Ocean Beach, CA, then ran loops of 6-8 miles around my car, back and forth along the waterfront. It took me 6 hours and 20 minutes to run 30 miles... one mile for each year I had lived, plus one in case I had somehow screwed up on the distance and it wasn’t quite 29 (I mean, we were going for legitimacy here, for pete's sake). 

I finished in the dark, with no light, and was so sore by the time I was done that I could no longer lift one leg straight up, and instead had to swing it around to the side to get it placed on the ground in front of me so I could move my weight on to it and keep running forward. Luckily by then I was within a few miles of the finish, but there was no way I was going to stop, so I just kept shuffling. 

After completing the run I remember slumping in my car, and feeling... tired. I also felt vaguely pleased, but mostly, tired. I remember being surprised that there was no epiphany. Perhaps the epiphany would come later, I decided... really, I didn’t care. I just wanted to get home. So, I tucked my legs in under me and drove home, then somehow got up the stairs, which was incredibly painful. 

The next day I was still in some pain, but because I didn’t know anything about anything and thought my newly accomplished distance meant I should be running more with no problem, I went out and ran 10 miles. It sucked, but I pushed myself through it. The next day I did a better job of listening to my body, and let myself get away with only 6 miles. I’m glad to say I’ve gotten even better at listening to my body since that time. 

However unglamorous, that was this first journey into the realm of ultra-running, and having proven to myself that I could complete the distance, it was not soon after that I started training for my first 50k. I would not actually run 50k for four more years as I took time off to have two beautiful children, but as soon as I was fit again I completed the 50k, and the challenges, learning, and distances have only gotten better since then. 

So today I'm celebrating not just my birthday, but my ultrarunning anniversary, as silly as that might sound - really, it’s a reflection on the day I decided to run 30 miles without knowing why or what it would accomplish, just knowing that there was something within me that needed to try. I’ve been trusting that inner instinct with more and more every since. 

While I still have my challenges, I have come to a place where I am happier and feeling more like myself than I have in a very long time, since I was a young girl, even... and that is truly something worth celebrating.

Here's to many more.