Monday, 17 April 2017
"If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, run a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra."
"If you want to find out what it is to be elementally human, run 100+ miles."
Let me start by saying that this has been the hardest piece I've ever written. Maybe because the Zion 100 was the hardest race, in fact the hardest thing, that I've ever done, and I've given birth to 2 children. Many miles of this race were incredibly awesome. Many miles were not. But I finished my first 100. Here is the story.
Getting to the start line
I am a fairly new ultra-runner - this is my fourth season. Last year I had an epic season of very successful races that left me super confident with rainbow filters in my vision. I turned 40 in December, and decided that to celebrate my 40th year I would run my first 100.
Why Zion? I need to run in beautiful places. I love exploring as I run, fueled by great views and new terrain. I know now more than ever that running 100 miles is very much a mental game, and I am not inspired by looped courses or monotonous terrain. After visiting the Grand Canyon for the GC50 last year we made a quick stop in Zion and I was awestruck by the red rock, the mesas, the cliffs. I swore I'd be back, so when I started looking for races, Zion was at the top of my list. It is a Western States qualifier and earns me UTMB points. I was eager to explore the desert, Zion had a few loops but very few repeatable sections, the elevation profile was modest, and it was in the spring which meant I'd be done my training before the busy summer season began even if it meant training through a cold Canadian winter. And I needed a reason to train through the frigid winter.
So I signed up, recruited my crew, and just when it was time to start booking flights...I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my foot. Enter cast boot, no running all through December when I should have been starting my training program. I struggled with whether I should still go to Zion, and decided that I would just take each day and each week as it came and see how my body responded. My training was very compressed, but I was able to log enough miles in Feb and Mar to feel confident enough to toe the line at Zion.
When I showed up in Utah, I was very anxious. I was prepared logistically: gear, charts, and lists all ready to go. But in the days leading up to the race I admit I was not at my best. I felt undertrained, overstressed, fatigued and not really in fighting form. I was worried that my foot would not hold up, that my legs weren't ready for the climbing, that the elevation might affect me too much. Despite all that, I was determined to finish. When anyone would imply that I might quit, I would get irritated. Never ONCE did I let quitting ever enter my mind. I never envisioned stopping. All I thought about was continuous forward motion across that desert, because once you even open that door in your mind, it's over. Nothing was stopping me from getting that buckle.
Race Start - 6:00am
All my crew got up to see me off at the start - even though I had told 2 of them to stay in bed - which meant a LOT to me. Isabelle was my crew chief - she was there throughout the whole race. Sarah is my long term friend, mentor and coach. She was racing the 50k on Sat, but was there to support me on Friday. And Todd was my pacer - he was about to invest an incredible amount of energy, time and patience in me, for which I will be eternally grateful.
They were going to be up as long as I was over the course of the race and we were in for a long day...or two. Brad Whitson, another runner from Winnipeg was running the Zion 100 as well, and we started together, sticking close for most of the race.
Flying Monkey Mesa
The race started on a road that quickly narrowed into steep single track that took us straight up the Flying Monkey Mesa. I took my poles for this section and was glad I did. The pace slowed as we climbed, which was ok with me. I was following my rule: no heavy breathing, no burning legs. I was only 1 mile into a 100 miler! They had started the 100K racers after we started, and many of them were trying to pass us in this narrow section, you know, because 100K is practically a sprint compared to 100 miles! LOL There was one section where we had to use a rope to climb up. While waiting here I was able to get some great pictures of the sunrise, take off my headlamp as the sky brightened, and take a deep breath. The birds were starting to sing in the pre-dawn light, and then I heard a howl. It was hard to tell where it was coming from as the sound bounced off the rocks. Hmmm - a wild dog? Then the howling got closer and I had to laugh when we passed someone's domestic dog, perched on a rocky cliff, howling at the racers like a cheer leader. Other than a few beetles and dry snake skins, this was the extent of my animal sightings during the race. A minute later we topped out at the Flying Monkey aid station (AS). I ran right through - no need for anything yet.
Then we circled around the top of the mesa before heading back to the AS and then down the steep path we had just come up. This would essentially become the routine for the remaining 3 mesas in the race. Up, around, down. The elevation at the top of this mesa was 5100' and I felt it a little bit seeing as I live at 700' above sea level, but kept my pace easy. I grabbed a few pieces of fruit off the AS station table and headed back down the mesa towards the Dalton AS. Just before reaching it, we had to cross a creek. The race guide said we could cross with dry shoes if we crossed in the right place, but my feet were already mucky from a bog crossing earlier and I just plowed through the knee deep water, not bothering to wait in line for the few rocks peaking above the water.
My crew met me at the Dalton AS with fresh shoes and socks (in expectation of the creek crossing) and I quickly changed footwear. They handed me a fresh pack and I was off within 5 min. I left my poles behind for this section and I think it was a good call. I was a little ahead of my planned pace and decided to take it easy up the road (5mi) that climbed to the top of the Guacamole Mesa. It was starting to heat up, and I was making sure to drink regularly. I was worried about getting dehydrated during this race, and my strategy was to drink based on thirst. On the way up to the Guac AS, I passed Marcia. She caught my eye because she was a machine. She was possibly a few decades older than I was, didn't have great biomechanics (my physio eye couldn't help but notice), but I could tell she knew what she was doing. She wasn't moving fast, but she was moving very steadily up that mountain. Several times during this section I'd stop to walk and she would just come chugging right on up beside me, never wavering, with laser beam focus. I wouldn't see her again until the next morning in the Virgin Desert. 'And then you'll know the rest of the story.'
I arrived at the Guac AS for the first time around 10:30am. I had left Dalton with 1.5L of water in my bladder and 2x500mL bottles of tailwind. All the AS jugs were empty and the volunteers were having a hard time keeping up with the demand. I still had lots of water so I didn't waste time trying to get a few drops out of the jugs. No worries, I just figured I'd just refill completely on my way back down.
We travelled around the Guacamole Mesa in a big 7.5 mile lollipop. I felt great during this section. My stomach was good, I was drinking to thirst, taking 2 salt tabs per hour, and the hamstring pain I had started the race with was gone. I ran steadily on the slick rock, possibly too fast for this point in the race, but it felt good to find my groove. I rolled back into the Guac AS for the second time totally out of water, with only 1 super concentrated flask of TW left (that I usually dilute enroute). It was windy and high noon. I was hot and dry. And they were OUT OF WATER. I couldn't believe it. Six hours into a 100 mile race at mid day and they are out of water? They did have ice, so I filled my bladder to the brim with ice, and set off down the road back to Dalton Aid. There were still people heading up this road for the first time, and I sincerely hoped that they got water up to that AS for them soon or they would be in trouble. This was my only complaint with the race organization during the whole race. Running out of water there could have been catastrophic for many racers. But organizing a multi-distance race that spanned 100 miles must have been a monumental task and I can't thank the race directors or the volunteers enough for putting on really awesome race.
I ran fairly steadily down the road although not fast. I was so dry and figured that the sooner I could get to Dalton, the sooner I'd get to water. I could feel my feet heating up and could tell that I was getting a blister under the ball of my left foot. I started repeating over and over what I needed to do when I got the Dalton so I wouldn't forget. Body Glide, Blister, Eye Drops, Chapstick, Ice (in my arm sleeves).
I arrived at Dalton AS for the second time still feeling strong, but pissed off. I had let the lack of water on Guac get to me mentally. I was irritated that I already had a blister only 30 miles into the race. I spent 13 min at this aid station popping blisters, changing socks, guzzling water, putting eye drops in to clean the dust out of my eyes, filling up my arm sleeves with ice (OMG that felt good). My stomach was starting to go squirrely and I drank some broth and ate a little. Looking at pictures of myself here, I realize that I was already starting to puff up.
And it only got worse from there. Looking back: as irritated as I was that there was no water on Guac, it was a good thing, because I was slowly becoming over-hydrated. It was windy and the air was so dry that my throat felt like razor blades very early in the race. I was drinking thinking that I was thirsty, but it was only a dry mouth and throat. I had been drinking way too much and I guess 2 salt tabs an hour plus tailwind were not enough. I would continue to swell more and more over the course of the race, not really realizing it until it was too late. (Note all the pictures of me looking fat and bloated from henceforth on...this is why)
After thanking my crew, I left Dalton AS at 1:30 pm and headed across the desert with Brad towards the Gooseberry Mesa. After a short road rolling road section, we started up the 1600' climb that took us up to the Goosebump Aid station. My poles were back in my hands, thank goodness. It took us 1h22min to go 4.31 miles. The views from that climb were amazing and I stopped a few times to take some pictures. I still didn't realize how off my hydration was and kept drinking. I wasn't peeing and thought I was dehydrated. I arrived at the Goosebumps AS just behind Brad - he asked me how I was doing. I said, "not great." I ask him. He said, "not great." We dug into our drop bags, restocked our supplies, and chugged on out towards Gooseberry Point. It was finally at this point that I noticed that my hands were really swollen. I could hardly use my fingers. I should have known better, but I just figured that it was the heat and the fact that my hands were hanging in a dependent position for so long. Still didn't clue in I was getting hyponatremia.
|Climbing Gooseberry Mesa|
More about slick rock: it's never level and it grips your shoes like velcro. Great for biking, but for a runner, this means that your foot slides a little in your shoe each footstep and my blisters were getting worse and worse. As long as I kept moving I didn't feel them too much though. #whydidntIwearmywoolsocks? Never again.
|Top of Gooseberry Mesa|
|Brad Whitson at Gooseberry Point|
The front runners in the 100K event were headed back up the hill that we were coming down and I grunted a "great job" to each of them as they passed, running jauntily along, looking way to energetic. Then this guy was running up to me smiling and it took me a few seconds to realize that it was my pacer, Todd. He probably got the only true running of his entire experience in that stretch up the road to meet me lol. I was SO GLAD to see him. I was in a dark hole at this point and just needed to get to that darn AS.
I came into Grafton (53.5 mi) at dusk, around 8:15 pm. Brad had already changed into his nighttime wardrobe, and his partner Jen was shoving food in his mouth. I didn't feel like eating anything but knew I needed to. Isabelle was there and told me after that she was shocked at how I looked when I arrived. In her defence she didn't know what she was looking at and had texted Sarah asking for advice. I had swelled up something crazy during the previous 7 hours. Looking at pictures now, I can't believe how huge I looked. No wonder I was applying layers and layers of body glide to avoid chafing. Sarah told her to tell me to STOP DRINKING until I started peeing. Ok. I spent quite a while at this AS - 21 min. Much longer than I wanted to. I got my headlamp ready to go, changed packs, hats. Looked at my feet and....well...it was too late. They looked bad. The entire forefoot region of both feet was totally blistered and macerated, deeply. We poked a few more holes in the pockets of skin, tried to drain them, and that was it. It was what it was. I chugged a little chicken noodle soup broth, but did not eat enough. I was in a vicious cycle of over-hydration, therefore lack of appetite, therefore no desire to eat, therefore no food in my system to allow any salt intake to absorb, therefore further hyponatremia. I was taking in salt, but I was not absorbing it. At all. And I was not peeing. Now it's easy to look back and analyze this, but at the time I still didn't clue in. I just felt like shit and I was so glad to have my pacer with me. This was NOT how it was supposed to be.
As night fell, Brad, Todd and I left together to begin a sharp 1150' descent to Cemetery AS. I had my poles and leaned on them heavily at this point. It was steep and there was a congo line of people hobbling down the mesa. We encountered one man who had fallen into a cactus on the way down. It was pitch dark by this time, so Todd and I stopped to shine our headlamps on his leg while he picked the super fine cactus quills out of his leg. "Please God do NOT let me fall into a cactus." We passed Sunny and Carol on their way back up the climb just ahead of us with their pacers. Carol had her son with her and Sunny had her son's friend. So cool. Someday I hope my kids will want to pace their mom through her stupid crazy races. I had been unsuccessful popping the huge blister on my right foot, and with one hard landing going down the mesa, I felt a pop. Oh sweet relief!
We were in and out of Cemetery fairly quickly. I chugged some Coke and ate a pickle. Let's go.
Now for the long slug up the mesa we had just descended. More congo lines. Thank you GOD for my poles. Somehow I started to perk up on this climb. I do like climbing and turned into Chatty Cathy for a while, conversing with (I didn't even get his name) a guy whom I thought was a pacer for a while as he looked so fresh. He was working on his PhD in sport psychology and kept me entertained with stories of his past races and experiences living in Flagstaff and Colorado. That was the last time I really talked during the race. Poor Todd was about to enter a long night of near total silence. Pacing is hard work, and never acknowledged enough. That guy deserves a lot of credit.
When we arrived back at the Grafton AS, Isabelle was there with Jen. I was pretty confused at this point and we couldn't see them in the dark. We refilled our water, and I started devouring quesadillas and pickles. I told Todd that we couldn't wait for them, that I just needed to get going, when we saw them. Of course they were where they were the last time we went through, but my world had narrowed and what I couldn't see within the beam of my headlamp didn't exist.
I spent 15 min here eating. I was suddenly very hungry. Maybe the cool night air and less drinking water had allowed my body to start to regain equilibrium. I devoured 4 quesadillas, a cheese stick, pickles (couldn't get enough of these although they hold NO nutritional value) and chicken noodle soup. I had no desire for anything sweet.
We left Grafton AS at 11:45pm to go back up the long road that we had come down from Gooseberry Mesa. It took me almost 2 hours to cover 6.25 miles. Brad power hiked away in the darkness as I struggled to keep up, feeling totally demoralized. This was not supposed to be the way it was to go. My pacer would join me and we would run. I stared at the circle of light my headlamp created...and wretched. I basically puked my way up that whole climb. All I could do was walk. I wanted to run and I just couldn't. I felt like such a poser. Here I was an "ultra runner." I was just over half way done this "race" and I could barely walk. The only good thing about this stretch was that I finally started peeing. I finally started to eliminate all that fluid I had been hauling around for about 25 miles. I must have gained 10+ lbs and I swear I was stopping 3-4x/hour to pee, astounded at the volume of fluid leaving my body. Thank goodness it was under cover of night in the middle of the desert, but it cost me a lot of time.
During this time, Todd got me going on the "airborne shuffle." My husband is in the military and Todd is a veteran, so it seemed natural that he suggested that I try the shuffle. I would walk anything uphill, but I would try to shuffle anything downhill or somewhat flat. It was not really running. It was not pretty. But it made my feet bear weight differently for brief periods of time and that was good. I had been avoiding climbing on the balls of my feet ever since my blisters got bad, and by then I had replaced blister pain with intense achilles tendon and heel pain. So I wasn't comfortable on my forefoot and I wasn't comfortable on my rearfoot. The shuffle seemed to mix it up enough that I could keep going.
"Let go, heel toe" became the mantra of the night. I credit Todd with keeping me moving steadily along. For hours and hours.
We topped out at the Goosebumps AS with a very quick stop, and left there at 1:41am. I don't really remember much of this period, other than a very slow, very painful descent down the climb that we had come up at mile 34. It was now mile 70 and if I hadn't had my poles I know I would have just tipped gently over the edge of the cliff and fallen to my demise. Maybe a little melodramatic, but I was seriously depleted at this point. I was not keeping calories in me at all. And once at the bottom of this descent, I knew I had a 6+ mile stretch of road through the Virgin Desert to traverse before reaching the Virgin AS. My watch died just after the 20 hour mark, and I had to rely on Todd's watch after that. I had expected this, but didn't realize how much I relied on my watch to keep me on track until then. Without a reference point with regards to time left to aid and elapsed time, I totally fell off my eating and drinking schedule or whatever there was left of it.
I continued to puke and pee, shuffle, and walk. I remember dry heaving mid-stride as I was running. I knew nothing was going come out, and it was pointless to stop. So onward we went. We crossed some low places that I could see would be really bad if there was lots of rain and water on the course as there had been last year. This year it was dry and the wind really whipped up on the desert, blasting dust and sand into our faces. My contacts were getting really gritty and even with my eye drops, my eyes were so sore that I ended up just closing my eyes during each gust and waiting for it to pass. This is definitely the non-glamorous part of ultra running.
All through this section we could see Brad's light just ahead of us, and FINALLY, we turned a corner and arrived at the Virgin Desert AS at 4:26am. At 3:51 I had officially gone longer than ever before, and was only slightly ahead of my Fat Dog 70 pace but in a race with a LOT less climbing. I was trying not to get down on myself here. So hard.
Isabelle was waiting at Virgin with a fresh pack and a smile. I tried desperately to eat something but nothing would go down. Coke was all that seemed to agree with me. Despite eliminating water all night long, Iz said that I still looked really puffy when I arrived. To my crew's credit, they really worked hard to help me get my electrolytes back into balance. Despite looking horrible and having a foggy brain, I never felt that horrid headache or heart palpitations that can come with hyponatremia. I honestly never felt that I was in actual danger medically, other than possibly just before dark the previous day.
I changed shorts, ditched my pack because my shoulders were very sore, and headed out for the first of 3 loops around the Virgin Desert before the final leg home. Four more legs. I can do this.
The Red Loop was the first and shortest of the 3. There was a lot of confusion about the length of each loop and discrepancy between the published splits and what the volunteers were telling us. The sun came up on this loop, but it barely registered. I was in full-on robot mode by then, shuffling when Todd told me to shuffle, walking when he told me to walk. He was doing exactly what I need him to do. I still had my poles in my hands, but my arms were getting as tired as my legs. Red Loop done at 6:33 am. Sarah had just started her 50K race and was likely sprinting up Gooseberry Mesa by this point in the lead pack. I was right.
Isabelle was set up really well at this aid station and it was too easy to just sit down and rest between loops. I needed to eat something, but I also just wanted the race to be done, and getting up and going again after sitting down was worse than just continuing to move. It took about 5 minutes for my blisters to numb out each time we set out, during which time I seemed to creep along as Todd gently told me to keep moving. Ok, maybe gently is not the right word. Firmly is better. But that was what he was supposed to do and what I needed.
The White Loop was very flat and boring. Nothing to look at, no variety in the terrain. I had gone all night waiting to see something other than Todd's feet in front of me, and I was not to be rewarded here.
'And now for the rest of the story.'
It was then that we came upon a lady walking ahead of us with a crazy list to the left side. She seemed to be dragging her right leg, but was steadily moving forward. Todd told me to keep moving (lest I forget LOL) and ran up ahead to check on her. As I approached, I saw that it was Marcia. For much of the race she had obviously been well ahead of me and I was seriously humbled, but now the physio in me could see she was not doing well. I could barely process anything at this point, but I am a healer by profession and helping people is automatic for me. When I saw a woman with a serious gait deviation who would benefit greatly from an assistive device, obviously I gave her my poles. I hadn't been using them much on the flat trail and after a brief moment of hesitation, she gratefully accepted them. I made sure they were adjusted to her size (of course - because any assistive device must ensure optimal posture and biomechanics), got her full name and the location where she was staying and continued on. It amazes me that I remembered her name at all in the state that I was in. I may have been foolish for giving her my poles, but I had Todd's as back up. She ended up finishing. I helped her. That's all the mattered to me.
|Finishing the White Loop - Todd pulling me along|
|Blue Loop - I barely look recognizable|
This loop would have been beautiful if it hadn't been so bloody long. I had hope to be almost done by then, and despite my best efforts I just couldn't move my body very fast at all which frustrated me to no end. But Todd patiently kept chugging on ahead of me and I just followed. It rained a little which perked me up (I love rain), and I looked up to see the top of Gooseberry Mesa shrouded in grey, where Sarah was currently running. I hoped the slick rock wasn't getting too slick for her.
The Final Leg
Finally we made it back to the Virgin AS and got ready for the final push to the finish. Six miles left. "No," Isabelle told me, "8 miles." WHAT?!!! Yep, they had moved the finish line since last year and my split chart was off again. At the end of a 100 miler, adding 2 more miles is just cruel. We had been told that the race was officially 102.6 miles, and now I saw where it was added. I struggled not to cry, stood up, and mustered all the strength I had left in me. I certainly was not about to waste all that suffering, pain and puking to quit now. And this was what what I came for.
|8 more miles...|
When I finally saw the finish line, I pictured videos of people I have seen passing out just before the finish line. "Don't pass out, don't pass out." I didn't pass out and I ran across that line in 31.5 hours - well after my goal time, but well before the cut off.
"102.6 miles, because 100 just isn't enough."My crew was there to greet me and I collapsed into their arms, sobbing with sweet relief. Thank-you just isn't enough when it comes to what my crew did for me. They gave me a gift that money cannot buy - the gift of their time and support so I could achieve my goal. Thank-you from the bottom of my heart guys.
Brad and Jen: thanks so much for all your support and words of wisdom and encouragement. Brad: you raced well. Congratulations on your finish and I hope to race with you again sometime. My crew also included my husband and kids at home. They sent me videos that Isabelle played for me in the middle of the night to keep me going and were my cheerleaders from afar. I love you guys.
I need to mention that Sarah (@wildseads) completely ROCKED her 50K race and earned herself a podium finish. So proud of that girl.
And I owe a HUGE thank-you to Salming Running Canada for providing me with my running shoes. I ran the race in the T3's and EnRoutes, and was very happy with both. I do not attribute my blisters to my shoes.
The 2017 Zion 100 was my first 100 miler. I achieved my goal in finishing it, but I can honestly say I'm disappointed with how I ran the race. I guess we all have to start somewhere, and I have a lot to learn. I know better than to let my nutrition get so out of whack and I'm disappointed in myself for doing that. They say that the person who eats the most fairs the best. That definitely was not me during this race. I walked a LOT more than I expected to due to lack of calories and blisters. I knew I'd be trekking and hiking up the climbs, but I am still struggling to make peace with the fact that I walked so much of the course.
One hundred miles is far. It's really far. It's really really far.
Will I do another one? I know better than to say never. I qualified for States, so of course I'll have to put my name into the lottery this fall. But I have a lot to fine tune before I attempt another 100 miler.
Am I glad I did it? Absolutely. No regrets. The course was amazingly beautiful. The desert is very unforgiving but oh so interesting. I learned so much about myself during that day in the desert. Now nothing seems impossible. Billy Yang just released an amazing film entitled "Life in a Day." That's exactly what a 100 miler is. Life in a Day. You start feeling youthful and energetic and end up feeling positively archaic. There are highs and lows, euphoric victories and feelings of utter defeat, connections with people and places, lessons learned. Anything can happen in a 100 miler and anything can happen in life. Any day any one of us can wake up unable to run. Unable to do the things that we dream about most. Do we all dream about running 100 miles? No. But we all have goals. We all have secret dreams. What are you waiting for?
102.6 miles, because 100 just isn't enough...and tomorrow may be too late.