UTMB 2019: If A Lifeline Appears, Say Yes

Last spring I took a packrafting safety and rescue course. We learned that as a swimmer in distress (aka pre-drowning-victim) you must have agency to be saved. It is not enough that an expert lifeline is thrown. YOU MUST REACH. And grab. And hold. And keep swimming. Your participation in your rescue is not optional.

At UTMB last week a lifeline appeared right at the time I needed it, but I had already decided that drowning was inevitable. I walked away.

This is that story.

Chamonix, late August: Terrified

When friends asked me how I felt in the days and hours before the start of the 170KM UTMB race, my standard response was “terrified”. The magnitude of the trails, the potential wet weather, and my injured achilles tendon had seriously fucked with my mojo (not to mention two hard 100s already in 2019, and some challenging interpersonal drama). Other months I might have been able to reframe my story, to tell myself, “I have no expectations other than enjoying the spectacle.” Alas, that was not my mindset, and mindset is everything.

[Part One of the UTMB story: Two weeks before UTMB, I “janked” my achilles on a boring pavement jog.]

Prior to the achilles thing, UTMB was supposed to be a “frosting race” to cap the summer. A time to use my training experience to get through the course without stress or hurry. I set modest goals: first a finish and second a decent time, perhaps approaching 40 hours. After the injury, the first goal shifted: no serious injury that would put me out for months or more. The other goals? Demoted to meaninglessness. Honestly, I fully expected the achilles pain to announce itself early and loudly and I’d last maybe 20 or 30 kilometers before hanging it up, smartly and with no “didn’t tough it out” regrets. The worst case scenario was frightening: pushing through pain only to rupture the damn thing on a remote mountain pass.

Chamonix, 3 p.m. Sunday September 1st

If you’d asked me 24 hours ago what I would be doing at 3 p.m. on Sunday in Chamonix, I would have assumed jogging through the streets of Chamonix-Mt-Blanc with new friends and a ton of grit (literal and figurative). We’d all be exhausted, jubilant, relieved, and overwhelmed by the noise of the crowd and the sight of the UTMB finishing arch. As it turned out, my friends were indeed doing their celebratory final steps after 45 hours on the trail. I was within earshot of the clamor blocks away, in a haze of processing and self-pity.

Fifteen hours earlier, under the dark cover of night with 50 kilometers remaining, I chose to quit the UTMB. At the 125km Champex Lac checkpoint, I walked up to the table that said “Abandonment” and let a woman cut the barcode from my race number. I lied to myself and to the race official, asserting that I “would not complete the race”. For me, there would be no more checkpoints, no more stretches on off-kilter trails strewn with runners sleeping on rocks, no more procession of lights ahead and behind me as far as I could see. There would be no more pain in my groin on nearly every step, no more nauseatingly soupy mud-fests that used to be trail, no more soggy pack, no more force-fed energy gels, no more gut pain with every stride.

End of the line.

Earlier in the evening my stomach had gone way off on a fast and technical downhill to try to outrun a storm (didn’t work). The daggers in my gut only magnified the conviction that I was not fit to continue. That I was at risk of serious injury. That I was not prepared for this endeavor, not this time. It all seemed so inevitable.

UTMB Start, August 30, 6pm: Quadkilla?

During the race, I carried no painkillers. I needed to FEEL what was happening in there. This meant that early on, the achilles was indeed unhappy. Tight, a bit sore, and certainly giving me warning signals that I was noting and then ignoring. For now. I keep popping my hippie anti-inflammatories (fish oil and turmeric – brilliant, FYI) and plodding up the conga line climbs into the first night. I have never had so many people behind me in an ultra before. I have never had this many people ahead of me in an ultra before. Amusing and amazing.

Here’s how UTMB goes: the average angle of climb or descent is right around 12%, similar to Hardrock Hundred. However, the flattish miles at UTMB account for a higher percentage of the course, which means the ups and downs are far steeper. And hoo boy, my quads were announcing loudly their disdain for the extreme angles and bumpy trail. This is when I need to call on my extensive experience to remind myself that this happens. This is OKAY. The quads might seem like they’re going to implode at 50K, but they will not if the calories keep flowing.

Achilles Yay, Iliopsoas Nay!

Despite the quad complaints, the evening and first night and day had been going relatively well, considering my fear around the achilles. I got through 20K, then 40K, then beyond 50K with no progression of the pain, possibly no threat of further injury. Très bien! And holy cannoli, the sunrise on the Italian border pass just made my entire year. On that pass I decided that I must come back to this amazing place, over and over, year after year. But after every blissfully grinding climb at UTMB there must also be a descent into hell.

Entering Italia

Around 60K, the downhill & flat running combo awoke my iliopsoas—an on-and-off injury for more than 2 years. Was this another warning from my body to stop to prevent real damage? Every single bumpy down on this course was followed by flat running and a fair bit of cursing.

Here’s the weird thing with injuries and pains and things that go bump in one’s body in the nighttime of ultras: they might not be anything at all. Or they could be THE THING that puts you in cross training rehab hell for a year, or more. My brother nursed a deep groin injury for over 5 years before hanging up ultrarunning for an actual life. That shit gets me paranoid. Luck probably plays a part in how it turns out, but knowing one’s own body helps immensely.

Through Courmayeur after a rooty downhill trail that would make HURT 100 proud, I changed into lighter clothes and got a burst of new enthusiasm for our next climb. Before leaving, I saw a runner with a mug that said, “WTF” and commented on it. He replied, “it’s not what you think…” and I chuckled. This is Paul from Ireland. I’d be seeing a bit of him over the next 12 hours.

I relish climbs. I grind, I pass people, I get it done. Usually in ultras I am asking, “when could I have another climb, please???” Which is why I’m drawn to stuff with big power climbs like UTMB. We ascended to an airy pass at a ski resort and then down to the next checkpoint with a fabulous shaded lawn for a 10 minute nap.

Yep, that's me in pink Vfuel attire.

Mentally, I was all over the place. Up then down, ebbing and flowing with my muscles and heat load. Next, our highest point at Col Ferret. On the ascent a storm rolled in providing welcome shade, but I knew we might get nailed. Sure enough, the fat drops came and the lightning-thunder gap was down to 3 seconds. I was ready to GTFO this mountain. When the 10 kilometer descent was described as relatively runnable, I was prepared to suffer the quads down to La Fouly to avoid as much of the slop and lightning as I could.

Storm Drain

Through a rainstorm that sent rocks down, blocking several roads, I ran HARD down the mountain into La Fouly, Switzerland. The trail, once we reached the woods, was absolute wreckage. Soft squishy pudding mud while it was still downpouring. The trail was the stream. The stream was the trail. I managed to not slide/slip/fall and coat myself in the muddle. But through all that running and desire to just get to the next checkpoint, BOOM went my gut.

[Side note: I don’t get stomach issues. I’ve been extremely lucky this way. I don’t get nauseous, I don’t puke, I have low appetite but can usually put food in. So this gut thing on the La Fouly descent was unfortunately unexpected and overwhelming to my (then) fragile mental state. Jason Koop writes with amazing insight about UTMB when he describes a likely DNF as a person with multiple issues that they are trying to address or think about all at once. One issue? You’re fine and nearly all runners will plod through with one issue. But two? Three? Odds of DNF start skyrocketing. ]

Even with my now multiple issues, I got through La Fouly and started on the next section, a “rolling” 7 kilometers to Champex Lac. Along the way (frankly, as I sat on a bridge still in La Fouly hating life) I met up yet again with Paul who tugged me along with another friend through my whines and (silent) desire to stop. Running sucked. Walking sucked. Sitting down compressed the stomach and sucked, too. After a bit, I let my pity grow enough to let Paul & co get ahead of me. Now I was alone in the dark, with another runner or two or three coming by with regularity. This was demoralizing. This was mortifying. To stop UTMB seemed both perfectly logical and yet oh so dumb.

And the fun continued to Champex Lac with multiple stops for no good reason at all. Being upright in any configuration hurt. But, I had nearly 2 hours on the cutoff so I planned to lie down and sleep for at least a half hour at Champex to reboot the gut. I joined the morgue of sleepers on picnic benches and conked out. My alarm went off and I swung upright and the gut rebelled. Gawd. Damn. It. So this was it. I was done. 14 more hours of gut pain? No. Nononononono. That was my brain. That was all I could think. Fourteen more hours. Fourteen more hours. Fourteenmorehours.

Bench morgue. Champex Lac.

Just then I found Paul again. He was about to leave. I said I was giving the stomach one more try with some rice. I didn’t tell him I planned to stop. He said, “Do you want me to wait for you?” I immediately responded, “NO.” I hope I also mumbled something nice about not wanting to take up more of his time, but my memory is shit. And that was that.

Lifeline: rejected.

No Regrets = No Growth

As it turned out, I did in fact meet my first goal—to not render permanent injury. But a massive shitstorm of second-guessing and regret came almost immediately after the bar code was cut from my bib. (Maybe I could reattach it and undo??? Maybe…??) Much of the doubt came from suspecting that I could have still had my non-injury goal while still finishing, even if slower than planned. Had I said yes to Paul, there’s a damn good chance I would have finished. Simple as that. Sometimes it’s a door you walk through, and sometimes it’s a door you close.

Getting on the bus back to Chamonix with several other DNFs, the doubt was immediate. I could walk. I could keep going. Others seemed worse off. Why in the hell did I stop? I didn’t “deserve” to stop! One guy across from me was in his own world of funk, the UTMB running figure logo tattooed on his thigh. I looked at him, wondered what he was going through. If he couldn’t continue, or if he regretted already, too.

Regret is a tricky emotion. It MUST be funneled into positive action and mindset otherwise it will ruin you.

And this is why we process. When I take my experience running 75 miles through the Alps and really think about what I saw, what I felt, and the enormity of the event, I’ve got to believe that there’s little to regret. I came away with at least two new long-term friends (yes, Paul is one), and boy do I ever know what it takes to finish this course well for the next time I’m here. Of course there’s a next time.

Life has no guarantees. I might not get selected in the draw for 2020. This is how the game works. I am repeatedly reminded that I can choose better actions after making a questionable decision, but I might not get the chance again. I hope to keep choosing better before my time runs out. I’ve been running ultras for more than 20 years, and still I learn. Every single time, I learn.

“it takes a hard-won maturity to experience the depths of regret in ways that do not overwhelm and debilitate us but put us into a proper, more generous relationship with the future” – David Whyte

The After After: Advice

Take the lifeline. When the rope is thrown, no matter how much you think you can’t swim, paddle anyway and grab on.

Paul offered me a chance, though neither of us thought it significant in the moment. He didn't know I was literally about to go get my number cut off, and I didn't want to mess up his race if he waited too long for me. My stubbornness rejected it even before my head and heart could give it the consideration it deserved. Other runners had different lifelines that they were able to use. It might be an expectant crew. It could be kind words from a volunteer. Sunrise. Coffee. A nap. Paul’s was a photo of a friend now passed. In a race this long, we all need some kind of lifeline, however small. We have to bring them with us, or find them in the moments of doubt.

I'll pose, again. It's inevitable.

Why Would Anyone CHOOSE to Run 100 Miles with Sand In Their Eyeballs?

Short answer is, well, no one. Not on purpose. But there WAS sand in my eyeballs and I dealt with it and I continued. That’s what running an ultra is often about. Certainly, that’s what the 2017 San Diego 100 was about.

Two things happened in early June. I finished my 9th 100 mile race, and I was infected with Taylor Swift. The latter is a highly-contagious condition, passed through the air in the form of sound waves, affecting those most susceptible: the nervous and tired. And try as you might, it is incredibly difficult to Shake It Off.

It started somewhere in the parking lot in the cool dawn hours before San Diego 100. I heard the chorus of Shake It Off, a song I didn’t previously know that well but now is intimately familiar. Chirping along at 160 beats per minute, nearly the perfect tempo for a jog on the trails (though too low by most exercise physiology standards), and damn if some of the lyrics aren’t good for an ultramarathon kind of mindset. You can’t blame me, can you?

“. . . I keep cruising . . . Can’t stop, won’t stop moving”

But first, how did I get here, to this hamlet of a resort a few hours south of my current home, on this sunny weekend in June? Of course, it started with a little website called Ultrasignup and a credit card. San Diego 100 joined my 2017 race list in January, thanks to a tip-off from a few friends that this historically hot race was actually pretty darn fun and scenic, to boot. This meant I’d be able to focus all of my spring training on bulking up miles and doing heat acclimation, the latter a task I actually rather enjoy. Cycling through the recently-typical but still frustrating loop of train/injury/train/injury, I cancelled a 50K, skipped a long-awaited 110K, and finally toed the line for Leona Divide 50 in April, dropping down to 50K when it was evident that even 50 miles was too much, too soon.

All of these race cancellations and punts put doubts in my mind and a little nagging voice in my head that said, “whoa, there, cowboy”. Who wants long-term injury woes when the evidence points to just taking some REAL healing and rebuilding time? No one . . . except many of we ultrarunners when it comes down to it. You know you shouldn’t eat that extra snack if you’re trying to lose weight, but holy crap is it hard to soldier on when treats are all around us. To ultrarunners, that snack buffet is the massive list of races just waiting for your credit card and itchy typing fingers.

My coach bounced (literally, knowing him) between unbridled enthusiasm/support and cautious warnings to back the heck down. That 110K (Coyote Backbone)? Definitely cancelled. Leona Divide? Not advised, but worked out pretty OK. Jemez 50K in late May, bumped up from the 15 miler? Tentatively accepted. Even the whole shebang of getting to the start line of San Diego? Not adviseable with the extent of my recurring pain patterns. But then again, I’d found from my PT that much of my discomfort was NOT in fact a hamstring injury but rather some extensive referred nerve pain. I didn’t know whether to be estatic or freaked. Nerve issues can be long-lived, but then again so can hamstring complaints. At least I didn’t feel like I was going to be actively risking a muscle tear. THAT made me feel way, way better. Armed with exercises to retrain movement patterns and relieve that nerve, I (ill-advisedly?) decided that running with and through my rehab was an OK proposition.

andrea at jemez 2017

At Jemez 50K, sailing.

And so, despite any sensible long-range recovery plans, my need to run San Diego persisted and I followed it right to that starting line at 6 a.m. on June 9th. We set out slowly down singletrack. Actually really slowly, like walking a lot of the first mile, chuckling as we came crashing to a single-file halt from each brief jog. It was necessary through the swampy meadow, the path set through the grass and cold misty air. That cold was almost painful now but we knew we’d love to have it in about 8 hours.

A bit about San Diego 100’s weather: this is known as a hot, hot race. Want to run ‘downhill’ in the heat? You do Western. Want to run in the mountains in the heat? You do Angeles Crest. But in the last decade, the appeal of running moderately tough trails in the heat has brought a lot of talent to San Diego, making it well known as a sleeper tough 100. I prepped for heat for months; it’s what any pragmatic runner should do. Actually, I’d make a case for doing heat training in late spring to ALL ultrarunners, just because it better prepares you for any heat you encounter, and makes you a more efficient sweating machine in all temperatures, too.

All that in mind, I had no fear about heat. I knew to drink more than I want to (already being one of those low-drinker types), and to just not push the effort level under the mid-day sun. We ambled along out of the meadow and up a good fire road climb with ample rocks. I chugged along and said hi to a few known faces (hi, Summer! hi, Robert!) until we crested the climb and started down a fairly nasty Zane Grey-ish trail. The moniker of “sneaky hard” 100 owes some of its reason to ample sections with bad footing. If some runners find their weakness in long or steep climbs, I find it in technical terrain. I can grind out the worst longest steepest uphills and leave some folks in the dust, but throw me on a flat trail strewn with rocks and everything balances out. That’s a long way of saying that quite a few people passed me here, and that it’s not a concern. Some of them I’ll pick off on climbs later, some of them I’ll pick off in the last 30 miles, and some of them I’ll never see again. I’ll run my race and try to have a good day while finishing strong.

As the sun inched upward, any full blast of rays was just a teaser for how quickly the thinner air at a mile high can transfer heat to our skin. A dry breeze came and went, along with preemptive advice from early aid station volunteers to “drink up, drink a lot—that wind will dry you right out!” We passed through mile 8 aid, mile 12 on a friendly little out and back where I spotted more friends like Constance Wannamaker and Amy Chavez, two ladies I knew would do well and I’d likely not pass them later on unless they bonked hard *and* I had a phenomenal race. (They didn’t, and I didn’t.) Onward to the first major stop with drop bags and crew at mile 21. This would be mile 91 on the way back, and boy did that ever feel like a LONG way away at 11 a.m. with the temperatures rising. My crew and able photographer Geoff Cordner refilled bottles, fetched snacks, and sent me on my way to the next stop at 28. I made a note to really try to get through aid stations quickly as they can be quite a time-sink.

andrea coming into mile 21 san diego 100

Mile 21, stripping down to refill.

“…I’m dancing on my own; make the moves up as I go…”

Today—like usual—there is nervous and friendly chatter in the early miles, but my threshold for engaging in conversation varies widely. Some moments I’m the chatty one, other times I just grunt when someone is more chipper than I have bandwidth for. Today I wanted to say hi to a few known friends, and have a few quick meet & greets with new faces. After that, I’m usually good for the next 24+ hours of near solitude. Running solo is my preferred way to train, giving my brain the space to just wander. Oh, and music? Not my gig, either.

I talked a little with a guy from Ventura named Mallory nicknamed Mooey (Mooie?) (http://www.ultralive.net/sd100#tracking/runner/107) wearing RaceReady shorts. I complimented him on his old-school style, but he’d just bought them recently on a running store recommendation. That company was pretty much the only game in pocketed-shorts-town back in 1999-ish (check out this chafing discussion in 2001 and this gear summary from 2002). These days, I’m more of a better-than-naked fan, but hey, those mesh-pocketed pioneers carried my gels through a few ultras back in the day. Glad to hear the company is actually still around.

As the heat rose, I felt pretty good, all things considered. I was taking it at a medium-effort, staying near many of the same faces at least for now. Miles 30-45 can be the crux of this race: hot, with a pavement section that can destroy some knees, followed by an uphill trail slog with the sun directly on you as you clamber over technical terrain. This is Noble Canyon. It is 3pm and yes, it is toasty. But actually, it’s not *that* toasty. We are surely lucky, for now. Last year’s high was about 108. This year will barely crack the 90s.

mile 95 desert clouds

Nothing beats desert clouds, really.

Since San Diego almost fables itself as a scorcher, I had a vision of Race Director Scotty Mills seeing the mild forecast and then placing an Amazon Prime order for hundreds of cordless hair dryers, one for every runner to make up for the missing heat. Ultimately, the race had one of its mildest years on record, but that doesn’t mean we had pleasant temperatures. And boy was that wind dry, sucking the moisture out like a straw. I still saw serious ashen faces at aid stations and saw one guy step off the trail to launch his lunch. In the end, the race probably went through hundreds of pounds of ice instead of thousands.

The weather bonus was yet to come: we were about to be delivered a very different “treat” out there after dark, out in the moonlight. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.

I chatted a bit with a guy from somewhere near Redlands about his first 100 miler (this one). He was a little worried about what would happen after 12 hours, as he’d never gone that far before. He worried about lack of sleep and hallucinations but at least I reassured him they’re not crazy or trippy like pink elephants and stuff. I hope. My experience has been more like this: hey, an SUV parked near the trail, nope, that’s a rock; whoa, a big tent next to the trail, nope, that’s a rock; why is there a house out here right on the trail? nope, that’s a big rock; are those folding chairs sitting next to the trail? nope, that’s a tree. And on, and on. Mundane but out of place things is my style of visual fuckery. I would have a much harder time with night running if my hallucinations were actually scary. Now let’s hope I didn’t jinx everything forever.

Speaking of night, here it comes. The day’s heat dissipating, I roll into the 48 mile aid station just after dark, more or less on schedule. I’m not as fast in the dark (who is, really?), so this next stretch might take a little extra effort to keep things moving. It’s 7 more miles before our big honkin’ out and back downhill to the turnaround point at mile 64. I know, 64 miles is the turnaround? Hang tight.

Here’s the general layout of the course: picture one long out and back with a little loop at the beginning and a bulge in the middle where the trail diverges. Like a snake with a huge head and a gopher in its belly, and we’re going to follow the outline of the snake body. We do the loop (8 miles), then go down the first stretch of trail for about 20 miles; we’ll come back on this later. Then the trail splits and we go one way for about 25 miles, then join the snake tail for a 14 mile out and back, then come back up a different and shorter split of the trail for 20 miles, then join up again for the last 9 miles. Confusing? Yeah, I get it. Take a peek at the map on my Strava file: https://www.strava.com/activities/1032406160/overview

“…I don’t miss a beat; I’m lightning on my feet…”

Remember how we we dodged a bullet with the “pretty warm” temperatures instead of “scorching hot”? Here’s where things got interesting. Just when the moon was rising full and buttery over the PCT on that 7 mile downhill, it came: 50mph sandblaster dermabrasion treatments. A moonlight spa right there on the PCT, yeah, that’s what it was. I bet some destination resorts charge for this kind of torture just to tighten up the pores, or something. What it did for us was tighten up our jackets, and made me wish I still had my sunglasses to protect my eyeballs from dust. I’d turn my light up full blast to make up for the glasses and just get on with it. One switchback with blinding gusts, kind of sort of running, then the next with a tailwind so strong it was chilly without gloves. Repeat . . . until you almost can’t take it anymore, and then it’s another half mile to the aid station. I saw Constance on this stretch, headed back uphill and chilled without a jacket due to a mixup with drop-bags. Boy did I wish I had gloves to give to her since she does NOT have fun when it’s cold.

Eventual winner Kris Brown’s race report summed it up well, “A beautiful and serene day turned into a chaotic and violent night, but by then I was engaged.” I was engaged, too. Focused on getting the heck down that trail so I could go back up and get OUT. So here’s the thing: I passed about 15 people on this stretch. That’s where I can do alright at these things: when the going gets obnoxious, I can soldier on better than most. When folks around me are having the shit annoyed out of them, I see that and I get just a little stronger, seeing their trepidation. A fondly remembered high school XC teammate used to make us both chant as we strode upward, “I love hills! I love hills!” Everyone else’s bummer was our chance. Thanks, Robin.

“…I stay out too late; got nothing in my brain…”

I leapfrogged at least a few down at the aid station, and then trudge/jogged back up the trail. I passed a few more here, and started getting into my later-race groove: count the people you pass, try not to let any/many pass back. Repeat until finish line. These solitary miles were what I came here for: all static in my brain slows, all planning and worrying and scheming dissipates. During ultras I don’t have big brainstorms and new ideas, but I don’t have much of anything else that clogs my neurons, either. I just GO. Sometimes that’s all I can think about and it is a relief to the psyche.

As the night got deeper and we left the climb for more mild trail, I tried to reel more folks in but it was getting harder with how spread out we were. So I just went down into my cave and just tried to move as efficiently as possible when your feet hurt, you ass hurts, your actual ass hurts, and you could do with a little nappy right about now. Coffee instead? Yes, indeed! Leaving the 3:30am aid station with a jolt was just what I needed to get on with getting to my pacer at mile 84.

Only 5 more miles to the next aid, my drop bag, new socks and shoes, and a place to ditch my lights as soon it will finally get a wee bit light. But first, more miles in the dark, more gusty winds and sand blasting, and a bit of a slowdown in my pace. This is one of my slowest sections, despite the coffee. Just before dawn is often sleepiest, tiredest, and so on. Most runners have pacers through here (though San Diego is set up *perfectly* for solo runners and awards them accordingly with a different buckle), but mine will join me for the last several hours. This is a choice I make often, to run without a pacer or with one only for a short key section, or only if they want to join me. Just another introvert thing, probably.

At mile 80 the aid station is here and the light is indeed coming, so I ditch the headlamp and handheld and sit down to swap out shoes, but realize with my feet already swollen my new pair are just not going to cut it. So, I wipe my feet down and change socks only, which feels at really good. It turns out (after later inspection) that one of my socks had worn a big hole right in the heel over those 80 sandy miles. That could have been just one more of the sources of foot discomfort. Ok, get the heck out of here; I’ve already blown at least 10 minutes doing this swap out.

Despite the dawn, the winds do not abate and in fact become a bit stronger on this stretch, nearly picking me up on a few switchbacks over this open terrain. It’s an incredibly scenic section but difficult to enjoy with sand in my eyes. I picked up a few things on the trail that must have been dropped or blown off their runners, to hand off at the next aid station. I wonder how many things were blown off that didn’t land on the trail but are far, far away…. I’m a little hungry but not feeling the food situation. This leaves me low, mentally. A little sad, a little melancholy.

Actually, repeat #3-#5 for hours as necessary.

Mile 84 arrives and with it another drop bag full of gels (VFUEL gets my vote for the last year+) and one more pack of chews for extra salt and, well, just something to chew on. I’d exhausted my ginger chews already. This aid station and last actually had salty rice balls so I ate ate least one of those on my way out. They are hard to chew and move, but seem to deliver good calories. Must experiment more with this, as I don’t eat enough in these races to, well, race.

My crew/pacer/cattle-prod Geoff and I set out, now making better time because I still think I can crack 30 if I don’t majorly mess up. Earlier one of the pie-in-sky goals was 27, but I knew that would be a stretch. So I marked out the splits for 28, 30, and “finish” to be prepared. Mostly I’d been hitting the 30 hour splits but was behind those by 30 minutes right now. It is hard to apply last year’s results to this year as the heat was awful then, but it’s all I had. I know I am relatively strong at the end compared to most folks, so I can usually beat late-race projections, so off we went.

I was in a mental low point a few spots here, needing to run, wanting to run, but not actually getting the mojo. I felt a bit queasy, even a little dizzy for a spell, but realized that was because my stomach was completely empty. So it wasn’t bad food nausea, but rather NO food. This is actually a common problem for me: I get behind on calories not for lack of appetite but just because I don’t accurately refeed at the level I require. Sometimes I think I eat enough by grazing at the aid station but usually it’s far from the target. This is still something I am working out in order to be able to RACE ultras rather than just complete them.

So we ran, sometimes slowly but what I could muster.

andrea-mile-87-san-diego

And I walked, sometimes crabby and morose.

walking crabby at san diego 100

I was told at one point that my pace was falling off and that almost made me burst into tears. Not at the concept of missing any time goal, but because I felt like I was being scolded. Low points in an ultra must be like being a toddler again. No cookie? Wahhhhh! This is what having everything magnified feels like. Honestly, the emotional ups and downs that we 100 mile runners feel should go a long way to helping dudes understand, just a little, what PMS is like, when these moods and emotions just seem to come out of nowhere. How ya like that now, boys? Super-fun, ain’t it? But the key in both situations is this: know that it is normal, and wait it out.

Math in my head showed me that going sub-30 was a sure thing, and now it was just a matter of by how far. So we ran. I passed a few more folks but everyone was moving pretty well so staying in front of them was work. That made me happy: I was surrounded by runners like me, strong at the end. One quick pitstop and I lost another place, but it was totally necessary. The end of Wasatch in 2014 was nearly catastrophic, so I hoped to not repeat that situation.

We rounded the lake, and saw a finishing chute, all uphill, and I had to run it. No walking at this point, no way. Not like my jog was anything resembling a kick, but walking across a finish line just doesn’t compute. And then, it was done.

Andrea after finishing San Diego 100

Aftermath and notes for future injury assessments: my ass hurt in several ways, only one of which was a deep aching at the inside hamstring attachment (not the priformis, that one I know well). But with that pain now gone I am not worrying about it. Some outside knee pain, the same kind as over the last month. Receded after 10 miles never to return. Hip/groin flexor pain: a little and manageable. Painkillers: 6-ish ibuprofens, plus 10 of these buggers after learning about them on a physio podcast: Meriva Curcumin. Can’t hurt, and maybe they helped even more than I realized.

That song? Yeah, it was in my head throughout the race without me even knowing all the verses. It’s actually not a terrible little pop song. Now, of course, I know it well, and now I can infect you, bwahahaha: Taylor Swift’s Shake it Off.

The gear:

  • Salomon Sense Ultra 3 pack (a little too big even in size S, but otherwise very comfy)
  • Salomon old style soft flasks – the new ones with the firm bottom hurt my ribs.
  • Target C9 Champion shorts circa about 2011: the only shorts that NEVER chafe me; this black pair have been with me on at least 4x 100s start to finish.
  • VFUEL shirt: nothing special about the shirt, just what it represents as my first ever ambassadorship in ultrarunning. Curious about VFuel? Give it a go with 20% off: use the code ANDREA20%
  • Julbo photochromatic shades: darker in sun and lighter in shade. I could have used these overnight against that wind!
  • HOKA ONE ONE Speed Instinct shoes: just a tiny bit too “light” for a 100? But really nice wide toebox and good but not aggressive tread. A thin rock plate would make these perfect.
  • Smartwool socks: super comfy but prone to getting holes when abraded
  • The food:
  • VFuel: about 15 gels in all flavors, plus Ginger Twist drink taken double-strength. I might lobby VFuel for chews, too, with the same flavors as their drinks. Or, maybe… maple bacon WAFFLE! Waffles are huge right now. Hint, hint.
  • Waffles: 3 GU gluten-free waffles. I like these except that they are too sweet. A little more savory, guys?
  • Chews: Clif chews mostly in margarita flavor for the salt.
  • Aid station food: not a heck of a lot. 2 rice balls, a handful of m&ms, a few pieces of potato.
  • Total estimated calories: 2500-3000? Not terrible if I were a better fat burner. Not enough for a carb burner.

I almost feel bad that I wiped off my feet at mile 80, which ruined the awesomely black coating of grime on them for this post-mortem photo op. My leg “tights” are still pretty impressive, though.

Like my tights?

Almost Too Wild & Tough: Three Dawns at Hardrock 100

Q: What’s brown, long, and sticky?

A: First of all, where did your dirty mind just go because . . . EW! Secondly, the answer is a stick. A Stick.

These are the kinds of jokes that propel me along at mile 90-something of a 100 mile race. It’s not in the telling, actually, but in the run-up in the miles before: thinking about delivery, planning for when I am going to unleash my childish humor on my pacer, wondering if they will smirk or eye-roll or chortle at my selection of amusements. I thought about this one for nearly an hour before it tumbled out of my mouth in the darkness of the 2nd night here out on this course, 2016’s Hardrock Hundred, while we are both fighting fatigue and potential failure.

So it goes. I paid good money to be at Hardrock this year, to take time away from the day-gig, to hand over money to local businesses and boarding establishments, just so that I could be cold out in the mountains after dark, falling asleep on my feet. If the Stoics lived now, they would surely say, “first world problems.”

So, then, WHY?

Ultrarunning is something you could call selfish. But so, I’d argue, are a lot of things. Things that are hard and personal and that we crave acceptance for are also “selfish”. Things that we like to get recognition for from friends or loved ones or just our community at large. How much different is it to the greater social population when evaluating one person’s accomplishment over another’s? Let’s say you’ve always had a problem with getting through the written word ever since small, but you worked hard for weeks and finally finished Don Quixote? That’s an achievement to be sure. Maybe you spent some sleepless nights worrying about the fate of the characters; perhaps meals were skipped, meetings missed. You suffered to get that book done. But get it done you did. And now, you can deservedly receive some congratulations.

When I think about it, an ultramarathon might not be much different than the non-reader finishing a great novel, smiling in contentment at their book club’s congratulations. Or standing back and admiring the deck you just built with a circle of friends over for a BBQ. Or completing your first (or 10th) knitted sweater and showing it off to the needle club and your Facebook group of knitting maniacs.

Ultramarathons are something that I personally pay (not a tiny amount of) money to enter, spend considerable time researching and crafting training plans. Then I must travel and ultimately do some literal suffering to complete the task. Afterwards my gait is a little stiff, my immune system compromised, and my ankles have taken a trip to third-trimester pregnancy status. Even my skin is sunburnt in odd places like one little strip on the right arm and a band on each calf. But I’ve done something that required time and a bit of discomfort, even if that something has no meaning to everyone on the planet save for myself and other participants. Getting a high-five from a small crowd of them is pretty awesome.

To the world, an ultramarathon is at worst stupid and at best a personal victory that is still mostly inconsequential. But to another ultramarathon runner (or “novel reader”), it is really something.

The Janked Up Knee: 2016’s Hardrock Hundred Preamble

I janked up my knee at Fat Dog 120 last August. In the bad weather, the cold, and the petroleum-jelly clay-mud, my knee started doing strange things at mile 25: random shooting discomfort, instability, and, most disturbingly, outright collapse. Most of these symptoms I had had before, so I knew them well. But that was years ago. It was the sudden appearance that was troubling.

To make that long story tolerable, the knee worsened from run to jog to walk to hobble to DNF at mile 80. The 8 months of treatment afterwards (including a couple of unfortunate months of stalling) made me think that it might have been a good idea to DNF at mile 50 instead of 80, but in the moment it is really hard to know what’s going to happen in the aftermath…. whether that’s a long term injury or a finish (or both).

2016-07-07 15.13.47

I don’t always camp, but when I do it’s at 10,800 feet.

After my name was drawn in the Hardrock lottery in December, it got real. I doubled down on actually rehabbing my knee (by then a hamstring/glute problem instead) and pondered the coming summer. By March I was doing some medium length runs. By April, days of 25-30 miles were doable, though still infrequent. By June I’d done a 70-mile 3-day weekend and things felt…. stable. This might actually work.

I never looked at my training mileage to compare it to previous years: it was less and I knew it. BUT, it was likely more than the first time I finished back in 2004. Those days I ran weeks in the 30s with barely a double-weekend in there for fatigue training. And yet I finished, in a not-horrible time. Although, I was 30 and living at 7000′ elevation, both of which were factors. Now I’m 42 and this is a good thing in many regards. My legs have way more experience with 100s and mountainous trails in general. But, I live at 500 feet these days and have learned that with each passing year I both value and need my sleep hours. With the prospect of a 2nd night out at Hardrock, I was leery.

Heat training occupied my late spring, partly for the planned pacing stint at Western States, partly for the altitude-like EPO effects from increased blood plasma volume. A little bit of time training between 6000 and 10,000 feet helped, too, but nothing at all like actually living there. So I set off 10 days early for Silverton with my work projects in tow and began camping at 10,800′ to make some more red blood cells. Because this course averages above 11,000 feet. Yeah:

Hardrock's Course Profile

Hardrock’s Course Profile

My Secret Sauce for Finishing 100s With Gas Left

And then, quickly, race day Friday morning came and we started climbing and I was right back to how things were in 2004. Up to Putnam basin and ridge, slowly like always as I start races. Honestly, I know a lot of folks who find success at 100s by holding back in the beginning so that they have legs and stamina in the middle and final stretches. Previously at Hardrock and at other 100s, my 2nd halves have been barely slower than the 1st half of the race. What’s my secret? Honestly, I think I don’t have a top gear. No top gear means I can’t go out too hard. I just go at what my speed is, and I can do that speed, more or less, until I’m done. If that’s a secret, it’s not a sexy one.

The women of 2016, 16 of us, had decided that we are all going to finish and make history. The word is passed around the field: no woman drops. I like this pressure. Just a little bit of extra push to keep me going. Not that I planned to drop, but who does, really?

By KT (the first aid station), I was exactly on the same pace as 2004. This is neither a good nor bad sign – if much faster I might have been happy but worried. If much slower I would have *definitely* been worried. When chatting with another runner nearby we talk pace and I mention that I of course plan to finish but that 40-44 would be ideal. At this moment I have the thought of a finish right before the end, something like 47:59, and I shudder. That sounds really, really awful. Two full nights out? Dear gawd.

Then the hike up to Grant Swamp pass ensues and the marbles-on-hard-dirt descent. Along the way, Geoff is taking photos and the flies are biting. Luckily the latter isn’t going to last or else I might go out of my mind in the space of a few hours.

On the way to Grant Swamp Pass.

On the way to Grant Swamp Pass. Photo by Geoff Cordner

Like usual, I’m doing a combination of steady but measured uphills, jogging downhills not as fast as I’d like, passing on the ups, getting passed on the downs. Quite a few folks slip by me on the way down Grant Swamp, where I am as timid as a 90-year-old on crutches. Per Josh Gordon, “That was straight up hazardous!”

Over the next miles I meet a few friends that will spend some back and forth time with me over the next 40 hours: Tina Ure on the way to her 5th finish, Mark Heaphy of a bazillion finishes already, John Horns, Ellen Silva of Santa Fe, Ken Ward, and more. Not all will finish, sadly. But many will do fine. They always do.

Not eating enough: an ultra-only problem

I struggled mightily on a few of the ups, more so than my usual. Enough that it was clear things were awry. Calorie intake in 100s is typically a problem for me, but I don’t always notice it with the ease of other runners who crash on the side of the trail for lack of blood sugar. I’ve seen spectacular bonks in my friends that let them know loud and clear they need more food. With me, however, I just gradually slow down and feel sluggish. Cueing into that should be a key to better race performances, and then not eating the point of gut upset, also a common problem in races. Basically I don’t eat enough, I slow down, I feel slow, I get actually hungry but then I get nauseous because my stomach is empty. It’s a circle.

The slog up Oscar’s at mile 20 was fine. I passed a few folks. After Telluride, however, the climb to Virginius Pass and Kroger’s Canteen was painfully slow and, disturbingly, a little wheezy. But then that climb was over (sketchy final bit done, sketchy snow slide done, sketchy rock/snow slide done, whew) and I was running down the road to Governor’s Basin, and then, Ouray. In the darkness I ran what I could, hoping it was not too early to be doing that. But I made a food mistake while sitting in the warmth of Ouray. Leaving Ouray with eggs in my belly was the wrong approach. Hashbrowns would have been smarter: carbs and a little bit of fat/protein, rather than a boatload of both and no sugar.

Once on the Bear Creek Trail I wanted to stop about every 5 minutes, so I did, breathing hard and then slower and then slower. This is not like me. I typically just grind, grind, grind, passing folks who are stopped for a breather. Now I was the breather girl and folks were passing me. It was embarrassing. Finally Engineer Aid arrived and I realized I need more starch. Potatoes, yes. GU, yes, but yuck. Coke, yes.

Not surprisingly, the rest of the climb to the pass was far better, and the run down into Grouse almost tolerable. Despite being almost an hour behind “schedule”, I felt a bit better and ready to pick up Brenden, my pacer. We warmed up in the tent, pounded down a small amount of food, and set off again into the dawn light. Again I wanted to know if all the women were still in it. You know, just in case I thought I might need to drop and didn’t want to let everyone down. No one had. Off we go. I made it to the Grouse-American pass without too many pauses for recombobulation.

Handies, too, was OK. Slow as I anticipated but not awful. My lungs still felt weird. Not fully “full”. But I was still moving OK, I think. I worried about the descent on the other side, loose and scrappy as it is. But it was far more tolerable than Virginius and that was a relief. We did what I figured was some jogging on the way down to Burrows for more calories. Coffee with hot chocolate? YES. Fried rice (hello, wonderful folks of Burrows!!)? Oh, heck yeah.

For the entire run I took in gels but not enough. They started tasting not so great after only a third of the race, and later on the second day I had to eat each one in 3 stages rather than just knocking each one back in a go. Stay down and digest, digest you little calories! At least they all stayed down. Whew.

The heat on the way to Sherman was noticeable, tolerable. I thanked my hot spring yet again. Then I waited to get to Sherman to ask if any women had dropped. Nope, not yet. Good for all of us! Yet my mind still said, this sucks and maybe you might have to drop, just don’t be the first or only woman. Up the nearly 10 miles to Pole Creek and I saw the aid station in the distance no less than twice before it actually was there in my vision like a mirage. The first time I spotted white and I swore we were almost there. I bet Brenden that the white tent we saw was it.

I lost.

The real Pole Creek consisted of a good literal pit stop, some food, and then we were setting off for Maggie, 4.3 miles that passes like about 43. You’re not yet at that barndoor stage of the race, not with this many miles to go. It’s afternoon and I am falling asleep on my feet, 36 hours into the race. I mention to Brenden that we have at most 12 more hours to get through, which doesn’t at all sound like my idea of a fun weekend.

Nap Time

Suddenly, I wanted to take a nap. The desire was so pervasive and NOW that I think it sounds like an OK tradeoff to just lie down, doze off, and let the race clock run out. This is new. Let’s talk about the past and being 30 and 31, when I first finished this race. How mountain adventures are pretty, well, adventurous. Scree slopes with crazy angles and trails cut into them for a band of runners to traipse over? Awesome. Nighttime storms? Bring it on. Two nights without sleep? Nothing but a few hallucinations and a little surreality.

Oh, but now this body is 42. Sleep is suddenly something of importance for regular functioning. All of those Hardrock “old timers” in their 50s and up who do go the 48 hours without sleep? At this point they are gods. Youthful sleeping habits are surely wasted on the young and the ability to keep standing and moving forward on singletrack trail for two days straight is all of a sudden a fantasy nearly untouchable.

Sleep right at that moment, mid-afternoon on the second day, sounds awesome. So I tell Brenden, “10 minutes. Now.” and set my pack down as a pillow in the low sunlight. For about 3 minutes I am disappointed when sleep does not immediately take over. Then I decide to just get up and keep going and Brenden says, “that was 8”. So I guess there was a little shut-eye, despite my worry. But does it help? Not a lot, and I trudge up the hill.

Into the sunset goes the sleepy runner.

Into the sunset goes the sleepy runner. Photo by Brenden Goetz

I went deep into my head here. I realized that a lot of what I was feeling is what I was supposed to be feeling, and what I expected to feel. Including the desire to stop. But that didn’t remove any of the feelings or desires, unfortunately. Still, my brain plotted how to be OK with DNFing, even after the last 36 hours of work and toil, and the 36 weeks before that of training, planning, and hoping.

Deciding to DNF

When did I decide that it was going to be the end of my race? I’m not actually sure. I knew that my lungs felt off and not quite up to par. I knew that my legs felt totally fine. But I worried about my speed. Maybe I was just monitoring everything from miles 40 onward, that awful climb up out of Ouray, watching the clock, worrying. By mile 80 I was definitely concerned. And so I gave myself a good talking to, in which I made the very sane assessment that dropping is OK, if that is what needs to happen, if I have junk in my lungs and I cannot climb. I cried just a little at this realization, because I do want to finish. Maybe that’s a good sign, if the pending DNF gets me all sad. Or maybe it’s just a sad thing and not a sign. I think about the races I’ll have to do to re-qualify for this and for Western, the fall training. All of it occupies me for the better part of 5 hours. It seemed perfectly logical. Dropping seemed like all I could do. How could I finish? I could not. Therefore, I should stop. It seemed simple, even if it was difficult to admit.

And then we hit Maggie, finally. Everyone there is happy and that is awesome. Kristina Irvin is here and I ask her how she deals with being sleepy. She says, “sometimes I wake up in the bushes.” Har, and hmm. Not what I was hoping for. Otherwise, I like this aid station because I feel like the climb out of it is not so bad. But I do always forget the climb is two-fold. The first one is OK. The second one is gnarly. I take it slow and feel the lungs doing their icky thing again. I wonder if I am imagining it. Imagining what pulmonary edema feels like without really knowing. Maybe I’m not so bad off. But then I get sad again.

Green Mountain descent right, Divies ascent left, Cunningham center.

Green Mountain descent right, Divies ascent left, Cunningham center. Photo by Geoff Cordner

For the record, the final descent from Green Mountain is FAR FAR FAR better in the light. Remember that. In the darkness I am reduced to scared tip-toeing down the sliding trail using my poles as legs and generally freaking out nonstop for an hour. In that mess we pass by a huge herd of sheep, bleating in the dark, the yips of their dogs measured and urgent. I thought to turn off our lights and just LOOK through the moonlight to see them, but somehow I never said anything or did it. I regret that. And then I start sliding down the hill again. It ain’t pretty.

Brenden knows what has been going on with me wanting to drop. He is a little resigned about it, too. In retrospect that’s not a great sign, but he doesn’t know me. What is he supposed to do? He is supportive but nudging without being a commander. For the most part, that’s been working. We keep going down, then I get my second dose of brisket for the race. Within a half mile of Cunningham there is someone posted as a trail guardian who warns us about the next stretch and asks how I’m doing. I say that my lungs feel junky and he says that I have “Brisket” and should get down ASAP. Yep, I’m on it, dude.

At the bottom of the trail into Cunningham stood 6 people, silent, with their lights off. It was eerie and a bit somber. Like they were watching our horrible progress and just waiting to see what terrible shape we must be in, what help we might need, what medical attention was required. But all I wanted was someone to listen to my lungs. I plopped down on the chair in the tent and was promptly swaddled in massive blankets, Jabba the Hut style. Two separate med folks listened to my lungs and proclaimed me clean.

Wait, what?

Now that that was resolved and there were 5 and 3/4 hours left on the clock, Cunningham was all business. My friends from Albuquerque set out on their task of getting me out of the aid station and headed up that last crazy mofo climb. But. But… I was done. Quit? Why in the hell would I do that? I had plenty of time (and in fact one of them actually asked me, did I want to take a nap!?) and my lungs were perfect: what’s the problem here? The problem was this: nothing but a whiny ultrarunner who thinks that they can just stop when they want to.

I was to be ferreted out of the tent and back on to the course without even a peep of recognition that here was the place that I was going to drop. Those sentiments were just not heard. When it seemed true that I *was* continuing, I still could not wrap my head around it. I even said out loud, “I just talked myself into being OK with dropping fro the last 4 hours!” To flip that around was excruciating. But according to the folks in that tent, nope, not gonna happen at this aid station. We’re mile 91 and everyone leaves here with a solid chance to kiss that rock. So shove food in my maw they did. Change my socks they did. Instruct me on how to cross the river in backup shoes so that I could put dry shoes on after I crossed and then throw the wet ones over to them. Dang, those guys were genius.

So I guess I’m going…? This is happening. We left at 12:45, a full 4 hours after I left in 2004. I have 5:15 to finish, and I know I’ve done it in 4:50 but that year I felt pretty good. This time, what’s going to happen? I’m going to bust out the poop jokes, that’s what. Brenden brings out his knock-knock joke:

Knock Knock.

Who's there?

Britney Spears.

Britney Spears who?

Knock Knock.

Who's there?

Britney Spears.

Britney Spears who?

Ooops, I did it again.

And we carry on up the hill. That awesomely steep climb I did 4 times in the last 10 days as part of my testing and training. We get up it in 2 hours, the same as in 2004. I am massively relieved, because I know the downhill is ugly. And scary. Some of the singletrack high up has slide areas that make me almost whimper in fear. I make Brenden watch me just in case he needs to stick an arm out. I make it across them all, shaky.

I go back into my head on this downhill, where I ran with my brother 12 years ago. I think about what is happening. What my body and brain have been doing to me. Where does the physiological meet the psychological? In the realm of the psychosomatic, that’s where. In an ultra it explains everything perfectly. Why the lungs didn’t seem to be at full capacity, but there was nothing actually wrong with them when listened under stethoscope. Why the stomach rebelled at the idea of food but then usually would digest what was eaten. Why the arms became sore, why the achilles tightened and moaned, why the ass chafed: because they are SUPPOSED to in a race like this. It’s expected.

In the pre-dawn tinge, Brenden and I still didn’t know how far to the finish. I told him about 2 miles. He says, “it’s 5:15 and I’m worried. Do you think you have another gear?” So I run. Or it feels like running but I’m quite sure it is a 14 minute per mile gimp-jog. The light begins to appear. We bust out above town, bumping down the hill to the ski hut and I see Geoff waiting. We jog. Another runner is coming behind us. I hope it is the doubler guy (Alan Smith), but it is an unexpected treat: Kris Kern, friend and president of Hardrock’s board of directors. He’s had a rough 2 days, too.

We run the last few blocks together before he lets me go ahead—after I tell him he is welcome to the caboose award train tickets with a grin. Knowing we’ll be the last few finishers is dawning on me. The dawn, too: that’s dawning on me. Boy, my brain is fried.

Before this weekend began, before the unraveling mental state, there was that baseline expectation: a finish. It comes.

A hat-head hanging heavy.

A hat-head hanging heavy. Photo by Geoff Cordner.

So That Happened.

And, the surreality. 16 hours after finishing my third Hardrock 100 I have had two “sleeps”, two meals, and one awards ceremony and none of it seems like it actually happened. I’d been planning on Hardrock for a long time, through injury and training and thoughts of a decent time despite any setbacks. And yet, here it had JUST HAPPENED but you could have told me that that was just a dream and Hardrock was still weeks away and I would have accepted that. The brain is a strange animal, in coexistence with my animalish body. And I love that.

Going back to my real life is too fast, even now, a week later. I want a slower on-ramp. I want an easier chute into the hubbub and meetings and deadlines and expectations. Again, to hear the Stoics in my head is therapeutic:

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” – Marcus Aurelius

The postscript and material stuff details:

Gear: Ultimate Direction AK pack circa 2011 or so. Altra Lone Peak 3.0 for first 40 miles, then Hoka One One Speedgoat. Both had excellent traction and crappy water drainage. Tech t-shirts, arm sleeves, Target running shorts that have finished at least 3 100 mile races so far. Switched into Pearl Izumi 3/4 tights in the first night for extra hamstring support. Black Diamond Polar Icon headlamp, Fenix E25 handheld. Black Diamond Z poles. Tailwind drink, GU gels, various real food. 

Total eaten during the 48 hour stint: 12+/- gels, 1 cup instant potatoes, 2 cups coffee, 2 cups hot chocolate, 1 cup hash browns, 1 cup soup, 1 cup instant mashed potatoes, 1 handful M&Ms. 1 bite of brisket that stuck to the roof of my mouth for 10 miles. So…. not a lot. Oh, and 2 scrambled eggs which, as mentioned, were a lead balloon in the gut.

**Brenden was a 4-star Yelp review kind of pacer. He packed everything he would need in this tiny little vest, from pants to jacket to foods to extra lights. Why not 5 star? Only one niggling little thing; nothing I fault him for. He took a quiet wait-and-see approach to my idea that my lungs were janked up and I would not be able to finish. It ultimately worked out fine. Next time he paces me I’ll ask for a little more dictator kind of handling if needed. Thank you, Brenden, for the company and the pushes when we were on our way in!

The packed-up gear pile ready to go home.

The packed-up gear pile ready to go home.

What Makes An Ultrarunner: Guts, GU, and (minimal) Glory

(Cross-posted from Medium.com)

I’m experimenting with writing long-form for Medium, and would love to have your feedback over there. It’s a lovely site with good content.

I wrote a very long report from the viewpoint of a pacer for a 100-mile race, the Javelina Jundred in Phoenix. I’ve run the race before so I know it pretty well, and I was assisting (with another friend) a runner to their 2nd finish. We encounter GU, nausea, the founder of ultrarunning in the US, sand, and pizza. Enjoy.

What Makes An Ultrarunner: Guts, GU, and (minimal) Glory

I Love To Run Even Though It Could Hurt Me

Hamster in a wheel, running just cuz it's fun. Maybe.

Hamster in a wheel, running just cuz it’s fun. Maybe.

I’ve been running for 27 years.

At least half of those years were “seasonally” around two-thirds of the year or so, in fair weather or around the competitive season. When I was off, I was really off, not doing much of anything for several months (youthful metabolism is what made that tenable for so long). However, the last decade has been year-round training – and not because of slowing metabolism, but rather to be more competitive and get rid of the inevitable training curve/wall after a few months off. I did get faster – and I got skinnier – and how the two are related and not related is another story.

It took many years of those 27 before I had any idea that running was anything but super awesome for the human body. I mean, how could it not be? All that fitness and endorphins and pleasant exhaustion…. Hell, even mice like to run for no reason at all. I looooove this! Some animals, including we crazy humans, like to run just to run. Brain cells grow, stress hormones go down (within some limits), and things are just good. Usually.

Opposition on a running wheel. From https://www.flickr.com/photos/eyesplash/

Opposition on a running wheel. From https://www.flickr.com/photos/eyesplash/

But there’s two sides to the endurance running deal. The benefits of judicious jogging seem to be pretty clear: all the stuff mentioned above like better thinking, lower disease markers, lower stress, better cardiovascular fitness, et cetera. But when you get into territory like many habitual runners – an hour or more every day on average, with more on weekends or race days – that’s when the benefits rocket down to zero or below.

Net Negative Benefits?

Why? Right now I think there are two main areas of concern: atrial fibrillation and movement monotony.

Atrial Fibrillation

In some adults – those with a predisposition, it seems – endurance athletics will bring out their latent Atrial Fibrillation (“AFib” to the cool kids) where it might have been dormant for a lifetime of less vigorous movement. Only a few years ago it was easy to dismiss the folks who collapsed and died during marathons as pure probability given the population numbers. Those fatalities are still explainable by demographics, BUT there are likely a lot more runners out there with ticking AFib bombs in their chests. A google search for “atrial fibrillation endurance athletes” turns up 3190 results. Yowch.

So, this is just like the misconception that running will GIVE you knee problems when in fact it is slightly protective of your knees in general. What happens is that your knees – if they’re normal – will be benefited from running. If you are prone to knee problems like arthritis or degeneration, you *might* notice those issues sooner because you as an athlete are more in tune with your body and you demand more of it. Running does NOT cause knee problems.

Likewise, running does not seem to cause heart attacks or sudden death, but for some people it functions as a very sobering “stress test” and can make their life quite a bit shorter.

Finally, many, many years of running might actually contribute to AFib. That’s the thing that as a runner you should know about. Not necessarily worry about, but definitely consider it if you are actively choosing to be a runner instead of taking up other pursuits. The research is still ongoing, but it does not look like a win for running when it comes to AFib. Aside from the medical research, there are some runners and medical professionals blogging about the nexus of AFib and athletics, like Michael McCullough’s site AFibRunner, a great reading for all endurance athletes. I also like the site Athlete’s Heart by Dr. Larry Creswell – he is looking at the issue as a very interested 3rd party point of view. Good stuff.

Movement Monotony

Trust me when I say I will have a lot more to write about this, so this little paragraph is but the beginning. Here’s the nutshell. Many endurance runners like myself have desk jobs. We move from the coffee pot to the chair to the bathroom and back just a few times per day. Then we sit down to eat. We sit down to read. We go to sleep and we wake up and run for an hour and think we’re OK. We are not OK. I repeat – we are not OK.

In the always spot-on words of Katy Bowman, we athletes are doing the equivalent of saying to ourselves, “Hey, oranges have vitamins! I’m gonna eat 20 and then have some milkshakes!” We are taking in movement nutrients that are vastly inadequate and unvaried. We should be getting up from the chair every 20 minutes to bend and stretch and focus on the wall 20 feet away. We should take walks in the sunshine and squat down to pick up our groceries and kids. And then, maybe if we want, then we can do something as ‘crazy’ as striking the ground at 2.5x our body weight for 6000 reps (the amount of footstrikes in a 6 mile run)!!!

Ok, more Katy to come. Don’t worry.

After all that… why in the heck do I and we run?

Here’s what I know: the main benefit to me is in my inner world. What I mean by that is I get good shots of positive neurotransmitters (the runner’s high) in addition to mental calming and the ability to brainstorm and daydream while out there. This is why I don’t listen to music during 99% of my training time. Now, the runner’s high is real and can be proven by lots of research. But – and this is a big but – the rest of it might just be a self-reinforcing addiction. I get to daydream and clear my head because that’s what I expect from running. It calms me because I haven’t figured out any other way to calm my caucophony.

THERE ARE OTHER WAYS. There’s gentle yoga (not that power/hot stuff – that’s also addictive). There’s just daydreaming while taking a long walk. There’s meditation. All of these involve minimal exertion while having proven mental benefits.

And, I love my running friends, all over the country. I am able to go and experience beauty and connection and soul-crushing fatigue in myself and in those around me, and we get through it. When it’s almost over, we see our families and cross that line and it’s magical. How could you not love my 2 year old niece running to catch me in this photo???

Andrea and Howie finishing Wasatch Front 100 2014, family and pacer in tow.

Andrea and Howie finishing Wasatch Front 100 2014, family and pacer in tow.

I know all of this. If someone new to exercise or fitness or general lifestyle health were to ask me “what should I do?” I would NEVER tell them to take up jogging or running. If one is starting from scratch or starting over, everything I know suggests that we should do three major things with our time. In order from most time spent to least, those three would be: tons of general movement and walking, meditation, and power bursts (sprints, climbing, jumping, weights).

Running is for becoming a better runner. Period. And becoming a better runner all by itself just might make you a more fragile organism if movement monotony isn’t balanced with really well-rounded movement nutrients in the rest of your life. Here’s to a long and movement-filled life.

Tuesday Tribute: Katie DeSplinter

Hi kids. I’m back on the posting wagon, finally, with another Tuesday Tribute. The schedule goes back to weekly from now until eternity or I run out of amazing women in my life. That could be awhile. But now, on to Katie DeSplinter, ultrawoman of mystical powers. She doesn’t break bad, she breaks excellent.

Katie downhilling a not so technical trail. (from iRunFar.com)

Katie downhilling a not so technical trail. (from iRunFar.com)

Me: “Holy shit you’re running amazingly fast!” Katie: “Not as fast as those guys!” Me: “No one runs as fast as those guys. Seriously.”

Those guys were Dominic Grossman & Co, screaming down a loose cannonball run of babyhead rocks next to a steep creek drop-off on the way towards Grouse Gulch on the Hardrock Hundred course. It was a training day, but it seemed to me that Katie was getting some serious turnover practice for future racing days ahead.

Katie is a new person in my circle, but one of influence in just a few encounters. She’s learning her way around racing ultramarathons in one of the most open and generous and patient ways I’ve seen. She blogs about her successes, her worries, her failures, and the intersection of all three. Case in point, AC100 this year was planned to be a dream race, sub-24, with everything looking pretty good. Then, worries about training load (too little) and previous issues with kidneys (too much) and finally, she just went and did it. The write-up is pretty spectacular and takes a meandering course through angst, joy, flow, bloody pee, and rain in Los Angeles. Yep.

“The only thing I honestly feel right now is everything.” – Katie

Just read it, already.

Are ya back after reading that? Good. Now, let’s talk about AC in general. She’s part of the overly-feared next generation of young ultrarunners. Young ‘cuz she is only 31 – the age at which I knocked off from ultras and went down the marathon rabbit-hole for 5 years, losing all sense of moderation and some of my bone density in the process – and yet she is capable of winning races. A few for now, but more to come I’m sure. Her generation (really a sub-generation, but whatever) is overly feared by some in the long-standing ultra camp who think youth entails enthusiasm at the cost of respect. But in many young runners, as well as many older runners, the respect and volunteerism and community are part of the ultra life. They give back. They volunteer and crew and pace with abandon. They do trail work. They organize their own races (hello Nick and Jamil), adding to the pool of awesomeness out in the country and world.

But enough about other runners. Katie’s getting the podium today. I ran into her, not quite literally, on the PCT outside of Los Angeles last weekend. She was running with a friend, as was I, in opposite directions. The four of us stopped to chatter about everything under the warm sun, only finally disbanding when we all realized we probably should get back to our respective days. She sported a hat that can only be pictured to be appreciated.

Katie says 25% of people get it. I'm surprised it's that high. (by Geoff Cordner)

Katie says 25% of people get it. I’m surprised it’s that high. (by Geoff Cordner)

It’s a snarky hat from a snarky 2008 youtube phenomenon, but underneath the hat is a good dose of earnestness. Without the dippy video, this could actually be Katie’s motto. Do what you like and give zero Fs to those who stand in your way without reason.

That’s why she is here. Another woman making me rethink what it means to be solid in your own self.

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**Tuesday Tribute is my way of showing off the women in my life who have done something to influence me for the better, through direct advice, great example, resilience, strength, bad-assery, or any number of things. Every week. Every Tuesday.

The Spaghetti Approach to Achieving a Breakthrough

Let’s say you’re stuck in your progress toward a goal. Doesn’t matter what goal – it could be a physical feat or it could be getting your homework done. There are two generally accepted ways to make progress: incremental change (ideally with tracking) and jumping off a cliff (not literally).

Incremental change is the preferred method: it can be tracked, measured, and reproduced. When you make progress you know WHICH thing enabled the progress. You know that it was the fact that you started flossing your teeth right after eating that made you less likely to snack, versus putting an alarm on the fridge door. You know which behavior change you are in the middle of, and therefore you know what is working. Incremental change gets much love, partly because of how sciency it is, probably also because it is easier chunks to bite off if you’re the person making the changes.

But here’s the problem. It’s fucking slow. Sometimes you need or want the end result to happen very soon, or at a particular point in time rather than just “when it happens”. This is where jumping off a cliff becomes useful. For clarity’s sake, let’s alternatively call this method the Spaghetti Approach.

Oh please.... stick!

Oh please…. stick!

In the spaghetti approach, you simply change a whole BUNCH of stuff all at once. In the snacking example, you padlock the fridge, take herbal appetite suppressants, floss after eating, drink water before meals, AND buy a dress a size too small. You throw all the spaghetti against the wall at the same time. If enough of it sticks, you have made your breakthrough in record time. The only drawback (if you can even call it a drawback – it depends on how sciency you like your life to be) is that you won’t know for sure what really worked, and which pieces of spaghetti you can ignore the next time around.

BUT, here’s why the drawback might not be a drawback. The next time around, things might be totally different. Knowing exactly what worked before might not even be useful. This is especially true with things involving the human body or even relationships. Humans are just a mess of ever-shifting potential. It’s true you can generalize, of course. If you take up weightlifting, you will almost certainly get stronger. But generalizations are for generalized results. Doing MORE weightlifting, and MORE, and MORE, will not necessarily move up your maximum squat by 20 pounds. When things get detailed, humans get slightly less reliable results.

What works today or this month or this year or this decade will not necessarily work again.

This is why my 2014 Wasatch Front 100 race is getting the spaghetti approach. I am going out for a breakthrough, and I’m going to try a lot of new things. New things that I have not tried before, or things I have not done in an ultra in awhile, but all things that I have reasonable confidence will not be utter disasters. I’m not going to just decide to go keto-adapted and eat only macadamia nuts. That would be truly nuts.I am happy to share my plans. So here is what I *am* going to do:

  1. Use music. I never, ever, run with music. But I know it helps a ton of people and has sciency research to back up its effects on performance. (See, science!)
  2. Bring back my gaiters (woo, Dirty Girl!). Haven’t worn these in several years and dust/dirt is a big issue for my feet on this course.
  3. My own hydration drink, always. Preloaded dry into bottles or baggies in drop bags. Tailwind, if you’d like to know.
  4. MOAR calories. I undereat at ultras and I suspect that it has an effect on my pace, even if I don’t feel like I’m bonking.
  5. New food (to adjunct to #4) – rice balls. Many, many rice balls.
  6. Swap hydration pack at mile 82 for bottles.

Of all of these, the one with the most potential for bad effects is #4. That will have to be monitored closely so I don’t hurl all over the trail (at least not more than once, anyway). All the rest should have minimal side effects and if they are annoying I can stop or change course in moments.

Wish me luck and sticky pasta.

spaghetti-stuck-on-wall

Tuesday Tribute: Charlie Thorn

[A NOTE ABOUT “TUESDAY TRIBUTE” and it’s beginnings]: a few weeks ago my mind went off a-wandering during my run. As it often does, it strayed into the realm of songs I’d rather not play on repeat, what the weather might be like today, did that car just wave at me, and wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if ideas. Ideas like Facebook memes. I thought about how nice it is to see gratitude posts directed at a certain person or community, someone that made a difference even if they didn’t know it. I thought about those 52 week challenges to leave little notes for strangers or smile more. I decided on a new challenge for myself: I will take every Tuesday to highlight someone from my life, past or present, who has changed my outlook or given me reason to make a positive change.

There is only one guideline, and one caveat: First, I must have interacted directly with this person. Authors or public figures that have had positive effects in my life are not candidates if I do not know them well enough to call them an acquaintence. They might collectively have their own post(s) in the future, but this series is for my direct circle. Second, those I choose to highlight are in no particular order. There is no implicit hierarchy or chronology. That is all.

TUESDAY TRIBUTE #2: Charlie Thorn

charlie thorn

Charlie Thorn, in front of his house, gathering for trail marking.

It was 1998 and I was an avid participant in this email group called the Ultralist. I had recently started doing 50Ks back in the Midwest and now, living in Albuquerque, I was jonesing for good trail running and connecting with whatever ultra community was around. Trouble is, there wasn’t a lot in the way of races in New Mexico. Like, none. Sure, there were trail runners, ultrarunners, and lots of trail fun runs – you just had to find the right people to hear about that stuff.

Up in Los Alamos there were a bunch of folks who thought about two things: physics and ultrarunning. One of them owned a house in Silverton and went up there a lot to run and stuff… that’s as much as I knew. On the Ultralist came a notice of some trail work being done in Silverton over Memorial Day weekend. I had nothing better to do, so I contacted the guy organizing it, Charlie Thorn, and he offered me a spot to crash at his house, even. Off I went, into these totally new-to-me mountains north of Durango, and had quite a hard time actually finding these guys as they did trail work. Luckily I found them the next day (Sunday) as they were constructing a totally new trail for some ultra event that summer. That trail was the Nute Chute (named for Chris Nute), and it removed a few miles of road from the course. That course, of course, was/is the Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run, and Charlie was one of the founders of the event.

On that Sunday – and the next day when he and his wife Andi Kron took me up to Cinnamon Pass half on bikes and half on foot – Charlie told me about Hardrock. I was impressed, obviously. The run didn’t fill up in those years, so Charlie told me I should enter. I thought he was joking at first, and then completely nuts. Had I entered then, who knows what would have happened with my Hardrock “career”. I ended up pacing a new friend instead for about 40 miles and had a really enjoyable and tough time. Sometimes I think Charlie wanted me to enter to see how badly I would blow up. With aid stations and support, I wouldn’t have been in danger, but it might have been an interesting experiment.

Charlie, in his many years on the Hardrock board of directors, has been a voice of reason, humor, snark, and sanity. He has a boatload of Hardrock finishes – TEN, that’s 1000+ miles of Wild & Tough! – and has arguably spent more miles on the course than anyone else still traipsing the trails.

Thanks Charlie!

Tuesday Tribute: Mike Kline (and origins)

Today, on this ordinary Tuesday, my mind went off a-wandering during my run. As it often does, it strays into the realm of songs I’d rather not play on repeat, what the weather might be like today, did that car just wave at me, and wouldn’t-it-be-cool-if ideas.

Today I thought about Facebook memes. I thought about how nice it is to see gratitude posts directed at a certain person or community, someone that made a difference even if they didn’t know it. I thought about those 52 week challenges to leave little notes for strangers or smile more. I decided on a new challenge for myself: I will take every Tuesday to highlight someone from my life, past or present, who has changed my outlook or given me reason to make a positive change.

There is only one guideline, and one caveat: First, I must have interacted directly with this person. Authors or public figures that have had positive effects in my life are not candidates if I do not know them well enough to call them an acquaintence. They might collectively have their own post(s) in the future, but this series is for my direct circle. Second, those I choose to highlight are in no particular order. There is no implicit hierarchy or chronology. That is all.

Let’s begin.

TUESDAY TRIBUTE: MIKE KLINE

Coach Mike Kline taking notes during a meet.

Coach Mike Kline taking notes during a meet.

Mike Kline was and is the Cross Country coach at University of Wisconsin – Green Bay. He is a marathon runner, jogger, and embracer of anyone who finds joy in running. This inclusiveness, I believe, is one of the reasons that our cross country team was not competitive amongst our peer colleges. But it is the reason that it was a dynamic and enthusiastic herd of athletes.

Coach Kline believed that the title student-athlete was ordered that way for a reason. GPAs of less than 3.0 were offered tutoring to bring their performance back up. Being a B student was something that allowed one the privilege to run on the team. Scholarships were frequent and partying was minimal. We trained relatively hard given most of us didn’t have a summer workout schedule, and some of us got injured a lot. Coach Kline was new to this, too – he was about 26 when I started college on his team.

A dedicated runner himself, the one thing that Mike Kline did “to” me as a runner was to condition my head to the idea that some people really, really just like to run. It doesn’t matter if you’re competitive or past your prime or anything. If you like to run, you should do it. He’d show up for practices sometimes after having run 15-20 miles on the roads around campus, looking like I often do these days after the same kind of run – a little sweaty, a little dehydrated, a little crazy. I could tell he had a bit of a compulsion but in a certain way it was alright.

If I were a coach now, I might be a bit more nudgey with my athletes to help them compete, but I’d also be that wild-eyed salt-streaked weirdo showing up for practice right on time because my run went a little long. I’d hope that one of those kids would see the joy in my obsession.

 

Pernicious (or persnickety?) Anemia: Round One

I’ve felt fat and slow for a long time now.

Years. Part of that is not that I’m fat, but that I do actually weigh more than I did 4 or 5 years ago. What happens when I run is just physics: it feels different to hit the ground at 2.5x your body weight with an extra 12 pounds. Strength and experience can get through a lot of that. Good weight training, endurance work, neuromuscular development – all of these contribute to performance even when not at the featherweight category.

And yet. Feeling like you’ve strapped on a soggy wetsuit when going out for a run or trying to bound up a hill and gasping like two decades just jumped on your back ain’t fun.

So I turn to my red fluid of life: blood. Specifically, the known condition deep in my tissues that has lie in wait for years without too much bother: anemia. Uh-Knee-Me-Uh. Sexy, huh?

What is anemia?

Anemia (or anaemia for the fancy) means a lot of things, just like being overly warm can mean a lot of things. You might have a parka on. Or it might be 100 degrees out. Or you might be feverish. Or you might have just eaten Thanksgiving dinner.

With anemia, generally there’s something going on with the available red blood cells and/or their ability to give you oxygen when you request it, either by bounding up a hill or by getting out of bed.

I’ve learned craptons by reading the overview on the Merck site, which delineates different kinds of anemia and how one might get them. Anemias that I am extremely unlikely to have: excessive bleeding, sickle cell disorder, certain other genetic diseases.

Candidates for my own anemia, from lifestyle and bloodwork:

  • footstrike hemolysis (basically when my feet hit the ground the red blood cells get smooshed and die)
  • B12 deficiency (mine is low-ish but not that low, also I get numb fingers sometimes like Reynaud’s)
  • “simple” iron deficiency (caused by malabsorption – gut issues)
  • G6PD deficiency (genetic mutation, can be triggered by infection or fava beans. Yes, fava beans.)

So…. there are a lot of moving parts. But one thing I can start with is to try to increase nutrient absorption. I eat in a manner that does not explain my low nutrient levels – seriously I should be super high in damn near everything, and I’m not.

First experiment: HCl

From scdlifestyle.com – an awesome HCl resource!

Poor absorption of nutrients can be simply because there ain’t enough acid in one’s stomach. Supplementing with Betaine HCl will increase stomach acid and lead to better breakdown of food. It’s not crazy. (In fact, LOW stomach acid, not high, is the most common factor in heartburn and GERD. Weird, huh?)

I’m excited to try this, even though I’ve known for years about HCl. No time like the present, I suppose. I’ll follow some good guidelines about how to do it right, and let’s see how it goes.