My Race Reports

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  • Photo shoot at the Blue Pool.
  • Coming through the first aid station. Photo by Kevin Chan.
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  • Just a little chalet up in the mountains! Photo by Cyril Bussat

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Sean O’Brien 100k

I have put this off long enough. Fifty miles of Sean O’Brien last year did me and my knees in pretty well, and adding 12 miles and one more huge climb this year didn’t have me feeling any better.

Post Race Goodness. Photo by Greg Lanctot.

Last Year’s Finishing Knees. Photo by Greg Lanctot.

It was, however, fun to come on down to SoCal and join the locals and RD Keira Henninger for a beautiful day in Santa Monica mountains. Since this was a Montrail Ultra Cup race, the stakes were high for a few of the top runners still hoping to race their way into The Big Dance. I have only been in two races with Magdalena Boulet, and that was the Olympic Marathon Trials in 2008, where she made the team, and again in 2012, and I barely broke 3 hours both times. I didn’t expect to be in the same time zone as her most of the day, but did hope to be within an hour of her finishing time. Also vying for a Western States spot was one-time WS winner Anita Ortiz. Tera Dube, Darla Askew, and Luanne Park would also be women for me to compete with throughout the day.

We started at 5:00 in the dark. At least at the beginning, my legs felt pretty fresh, and I was determined to meter out the energy throughout the day, and to stay upright and finish with all of my blood on the inside of me where it belongs.

The course is advertised as having over 16k feet of gain in 62 miles. That is more than the old and too -long Waldo course, where my best time was around 12 hours. With that knowledge I was hoping to finish in between 12 and 13 hours. Ouch, that sounded like a long time. For the first hour and half or so, we ran with headlamps. I began bouncing around with Luanne and bit, and she pulled away on the first climb, still having a conversation with me even though she had dropped me. As it got lighter I found myself with Tera. We stuck together back and forth for many the mile of sandy single track, open service road, wildflower laden trail and great views. Darla Askew joined us after the 25 mile mark, but she was always out running/hiking me to the tops of the long climbs, and I would eventually reel her back in.

We lucked out with the weather. It was cloudy, sometimes misty, and did rain on some of the shorter races, but somehow I avoided any real rain. I never really felt bad those first 50 miles or so, but at the aid station at the start of the final dog leg,  my body was starting to feel broken and jolted and out of gas. I was on my own – Tera had fallen off and dropped with a locked up knee, and Darla had pulled ahead out of site. At least now I would be able to see the lead women and then calculate how far back I was.

I wanted to run downhill fast at least, but even that was not feeling good. I saw a few of the men coming towards me, and finally, Magda coming up the long grind. She was “only” 8 miles ahead. That’s a pretty big chunk.  A couple miles later, here came Anita, so focused on the ground in front of her that I scared her by yelling out encouragement.  And then came Silke Koester, another big gap and there was Luanne! “Darla’s right ahead” she said. I arrived at the turn around aid station just as Darla left. I lolly-gagged and then started back up the grind out of there. After about a mile, Darla, 20 yards ahead, stopped and yelled back “Do you want to just run this together? I’m done!” I gladly accepted, and we suffered well together, each offering to let the other one go at any time, but we had nothing vested in the outcome at this point. My enthusiasm for competing on this day had left me miles ago.

Darla and I made sure our legs and chips were all synced up, and crossed the finish line together in 11:40, which was better than I expected, but almost 2 hours behind Magda, and 1 hour behind Anita. Those two women both took their spots for Western States, where I will have another chance of finishing on the same day at least.

And the most remarkable and awesome result to me is that not only did I remain upright for the entire race, but I was in the top 5 women, and at the age of 53, I was 3rd in my age group!! Anita is 50, Luanne is 54. Fifty is the new insert what ever age you want here. Pretty proud to be amongst such fine female athletes.

In retrospect, I do think I can improve on this type of course. I’m “okay” at climbing, and don’t ever really expect to be a killer climber, but will continue to work on it by chasing Caren Spore uphill in training. Nutritionally, not sure I’m consuming enough calories in training and running, and with the help and advice of Stephanie Howe, I’m having more success in sustained energy on my training runs at least. I’ve also just switched to Altra shoes, and have been feeling much more fluid and less broken down at the end of long runs. If nothing else, these things give me a little spark to my training and outlook on my year ahead.

Many thanks to Keira for putting on a great set of races – the aid stations were complete in both food selection and enthusiastic volunteers. Thanks to Injinji socks for keeping me blister free. And thanks to Mark for coming along, suffering through the crazy extra long marathon, and chauffeuring me home.

World 100k Championships, 2014, Doha, Qatar

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Team USA L to R – Nick Accardo, Zack Bitter, Larisa Dannis, Matt Flarhety, Emily Harrison, Michael Wardian, Pam Smith, Amy Sproston, Me, Zach Miller, Max King. Team Management (kneeling) Lin Gentling, Lion Caldwell, Tim Yanacheck.

Qatar has not been on my radar as a must see place, so when the announcement was made that the IAU World 100k Championships were to be held there, I was a little disappointed and a little bit intrigued. It was also disconcerting given women’s rights are limited, but I thought that if by being there in a non-traditional role would enlighten and/or inspire the locals, then maybe I would be making a positive influence, and that was worth something.

I arrived 3 days before the race, with Max King, Pam and Mac Smith, Larissa Dannis, Nick Accardo, and Matt Flaherty. We were met at the airport by members of the local organizing committee and along with the Mexican team were escorted through Doha to our hotel, the Torch, in the Aspire Village – a small compound of athletic facilities – including an indoor track, soccer field, a research hospital, and gyms for men and women. Our welcoming committee at the hotel was our team management of Lin Gentling, Tim Yanacheck, Ann Heaslett, Sue and Lion Caldwell. It was good to be back in their capable hands.

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The Torch Hotel

The Torch was very posh – complete with an IPad to control the lights and temperature and TV and more. But, as Doha is sometimes referred to as a mini Dubai, it was no surprise. Most of the employees, if not all, were not natives, but immigrants from India, Philippines, and other nearby countries, as the natives are given a hefty stipend from the government generated by the wealth from oil sales. This all produced a weird vibe for me, of a place without history or purpose relevant to holding World Championship events. There were rules to be followed – as in keeping ones shoulders and knees covered in public, and during the race there would be no baring of midriffs by men or women.

The next day, I was able to visit a local boys English language school with runners from Australia, Canada, and Japan. I was thoroughly entertained by the 7-10 year old boys unable to contain themselves when given the opportunity to answer our questions with the hope of receiving gifts – it was total chaos. Birkha clad teachers were yelling and being mostly ignored, but eventually peace was regained enough for group photos.

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School Boys Gone Wild

Thursday, Max King, Susan Caldwell (team management) and I went to the Souq – a traditional market place in Doha. It was colorful and resplendent, and I was able to find gifts of more traditional or at least regional style.

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Downtown Doha

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Narrow street in the Souq

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More of the architecture in the Souq

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One of the fancier malls full of jewelry stores. We were not beckoned to come in.

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One of many colorful shops in the Souq


Thursday evening a Parade of Nations was held, each team assembled and escorted by a local child into an auditorium where the audience was basically the participants, but a good chance for all of the teams to be together before the event.

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One of our escorts resting up for his job

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Children getting very excited for their job!

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World class indoor track in the Aspire Zone

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The Bigwigs getting the parade organized

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Emily, Pam and half my face lining up for the parade

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Matt, Zack, Michael, Nick, and Timo lining up for the parade

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The Parade becomes the Audience

The race was Friday evening, starting at 6:00 pm, which allowed everyone a good sleep in, followed by a day of lounging about and trying to figure out what to eat and when, to avoid both digestive issues, and enough calories to get through 62 miles. I went with humus and potato chips, plus some dolmas. Roommate Emily Harrison and I hit the hotel lobby for coffee at 4:00, after sleeping some of the afternoon away. By 5:00 it was already dark, and by 5:30 we were all assembled at the racecourse, conveniently located a few steps outside our hotel.

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Go Time! Scott Race Rockers and Injinji light weight socks

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Tiny Clothes

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An ambitious amount of fluid

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Yummy

It was warm, 70, but not too humid. I warmed up a bit, and noticed that in the middle of our 5k loop were some camels, ready for riders. I was excited at the prospect of being able to ride a camel after the race!

A little before start time, we were herded to the start line, then asked to walk across the chip mat, then turn around and go back. Not sure how we would have determined whether our individual chips were working. Team USA women – Pam Smith, Larisa Dannis, Amy Sproston, Emily Harrison, and I, discussed briefly our plans. Pam, Emily and I seemed content to run at 7:20-7:30 pace. Larissa was going on heart rate alone. Amy was thinking 7:20-7:30, but commented that she and I usually say that and go out quicker. My plan was to not go out quicker this time. This is such a hard race, and nothing feels so defeating as getting through 50k fast, and realizing you have to go for another 4 hours, and it is going to be ugly.

Finally, we were off! Men and women together, it was hard to see where everyone was for a bit. Pam, Emily, Larissa and I grouped up, but I couldn’t see Amy anywhere. After about 400 meters, I checked my Garmin for my pace, to be sure I wasn’t going to fast, and was taken aback that the pace was blank. Hmmmm. Well, my heart rate was around 150, which was good – I wanted to stay between 150-155 – but knowing my pace would have been nice. I hit buttons, scrolled around, and fussed, and then accepted that I just wouldn’t know. Stay in the heart rate zone, and let the pace be. It was actually liberating. I had to let go and actually do what I intended without being trapped by my pace.

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Ready Set Go!

The course was convoluted and contrived to stay within the confines of Aspire Village and to equal exactly 5k, to be run 20 times. Yep. 20. There were several 90 degree turns, some 180 degree turns, hard tile, hard pavers, and one stretch of relatively soft pavement. It was also relatively flat. At the one out and back section a good mile in, we got a chance to see everyone. The men were flying and soon I could see the lead women peppered in. Amy was right up near the front, looking very good, with Ellie and Italian Monica Carlin comfortably behind. With 19 plus laps to go, I was merely observing and keeping my heart rate where I wanted it. Larissa and I were together, with Pam and Emily close behind, but by the end of the first lap I was a little ahead of them. I was quite anxious to see what my time was – and pleasantly surprised at the 22+ minutes. It felt comfortable and totally dictated by my effort.

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Max in the lead pack on the one nice section of pavement

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Max and Giorgio still in lead pack, running on the pavers section

Toward the end of each lap was one of the dog legs, and at the near end we could be seen and see our team table across the way. Two of our team handlers were sitting between the team table and the runners and able to ask what we needed and relay back so they would be ready when we made it back.

Slide in a slide world 100k

At the awards ceremony, this slide popped up. The men in front are playing drums to the show. Kind of an ironic picture.

Lap after lap, the field of men and women spread out more and more. Amy moved up into the lead by the 2nd lap, looking strong. The men got far enough ahead that in the out and back section I lost track of who was leading. At the end of my second loop, I could see Larissa across the dogleg limping heavily. Wow. There was no way she would be able to run 100k like that. She did end up dropping then and was later diagnosed with a stress fracture.

My splits for the first several loops were consistent. I was getting a bottle of GU Brew each lap from my handler, Lin Gentling, with a Gu taped to it. Each time, I consumed the GU, drank about half of the GU Brew, and tossed it. I grabbed bottled water from every aid station (there were 2 others besides our team table) and doused myself to keep cool.

My bowels weren’t happy, which became something I realized I shouldn’t ignore. My MO is normally to ignore all issues (including in daily life) and hope they go away. – funny how that doesn’t work – but like all human beings, it is never too late to learn and change. So as I approached my team table for the 6th time I yelled out that I need Imodium, and like a charm, they had it ready for me. I swallowed it and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, Amy’s lead grew – I was so impressed – she was booking! Ellie was starting to move up on her a bit, but the others were dropping back. I was running for a fair amount of time with another Brit, Jo Zakrzewsik, keeping it comfortable. At the out and back, I could see Pam every time, followed by a struggling Emily. I was moving up the field, little by little. The Imodium helped for a while, but finally I had to step into a porta-potty. I was quick, but had to work back up to my place.

As the 50k mark approached, I noticed that Amy’s lead was shrinking, and soon Ellie, then a Japanese runner, a few others, and then I passed her. I asked what was going on – her legs weren’t feeling good, and she was also having stomach issues. I encouraged her to try and fix her problems, and then pulled away. At 50k my time was 3:47 – a little slower for the first half in the past, but very sustainable. I was pleased that I didn’t want to shoot myself yet, felt in control, and could now implement plan B.

For several weeks before the race, I had been running pavement loops on the American River bike path with my boyfriend Mark, and buddy Craig. When I first started training for this, I had a long way to go before I would be ready, but weekend after weekend, we went. My best training days included 50k of 10k loops on the path, with Mark crewing and encouraging me every time. So now, I planted that memory into my race with 50k to go. I imagined being on the path in California, every stretch of the loop, Mark smiling and handing me gel and water, telling me I was doing great. Lap after lap.

The first Imodium was wearing off , so I asked for another, and took two more pit stops. After 70k I had moved up to 5th place, but was feeling the effects of the effort and the hard surfaces. I had been lapped my Max and Zack Bitter twice now, and it was fun encouraging them along. I passed my favorite Italian runner, Georgio Calcettara, who has won this race at least twice, grabbed his hand and said “my friend!” Upon recognition he smiled back, and kept walking. I was certain he would drop, but he did gut it out for a finish.

Before long, I was passed by Jo Meek, another Brit, and realized they were possibly going to sweep the race. It was pure joy watching Ellie eat up the course lap after lap, always encouraging me and I her. Next to pass me was Irena from Russia, the expressionless runner who placed third in our last encounter in Italy. My stomach was in turmoil again, and with 2 laps to go, I asked for yet another Imodium. I didn’t care if I couldn’t poop for week after the race, if I could just stop for now.

With 10k to go, I had slipped back into 7th place. I was definitely slowing down, but knew I could get through two more laps. There was more and more carnage, male and female alike, but I focused on keeping the best form I could. With one lap to go, I tried to push, and even so, was passed by a Croatian woman, and try as I might to stay with her, she slowly pulled away. I hoped there were no other women close behind. I passed my team table one last time to their wonderful encouragement and hauled my ass through the last sharp turns to the finish, in 7:52, and 8th place. It was my lowest placement at Worlds thus far, but I was more proud of this finish for racing within my fitness, and being able to run strong for most of the second half. This is such a challenging event for me still, and I will continue to pursue a faster time by running smarter. Being passed late in the race illustrates that I can go a little slower early on and perhaps maintain a pace all the way to the end.

Pam followed up with a solid 10th, and Amy not far behind to round out a bronze medal team finish. Emily hung in until she knew we had 3 finishers to score, then stepped off the course to the relief of her aching back. Russian men and women teams were disqualified for uniform violations, boosting our position. Our men’s team was amazing, with Max King’s new American record and overall win, bringing home the gold.

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Max given a hero’s reception!

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Little Miss Sunshine, lighting up the night!

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I must be finishing – looks like I’m putting the brakes on.

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Yay for being done!

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Mens Team USA Wins the Gold!

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United Kingdom takes the gold, Japan the silver, and the US gets the bronze.

Many thanks to my training partners and friends, Mark and Craig, to our team management Lin, Timo, Anne, Lion, and Susan, and to the local organizing committee for putting on a seamless event, and my sponsors Scott Sports and Injinji socks. Sadly, I didn’t get to ride a camel, as they were escorted off the course midway through the race.

UTMB 2014

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Race Day – So full of hope. Photo by Laurie.

Laurie pursed her lips, sighed, and then with a look of resolve said “Lets sit you down and get you into some dry clothes”. I had just come into Les Contamines, about mile 20, soaked and cold from the rain and sweat, my eyes welled up with tears and had told her “I don’t think I can do this!” I knew her mind was working on helping me turn my race around, and if weren’t for her support and encouragement I think I would have stopped right then and there. But sitting in some shelter, putting on dry clothes, and just resting for a few minutes was enough to get me going again. Nearly out of the aid station, I realized I needed my headlamp as I was now using my trekking poles as a literal and figurative crutch; so using a handheld light was not reasonable. I went back to Laurie, and as she pulled it out of my pack she claimed that it had already been on. Great. The battery indicator was red, so we fumbled around with new batteries, putting them in backwards first, and finally I was back on my way. Craig was waiting just outside the aid station and hugged me tight as I said, “I have never wanted to quit anything so badly”. I knew that he knew but he just said “you have your poles now” and with that I set out to see if I could turn this race around.

I continued to pace myself by staying in a reasonable comfort level. In this particular race, it is really important for someone who trains in the Sierra but not in the European Alps. My legs had felt like junk pretty much since Western States as I recovered from my ankle injury, but I was banking on experience and sheer will power to get me through the 105 miles of Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. My typical response over the past 3 weeks to that question of “are you ready?” was that I was severely undertrained, but maybe that was a good thing.

Somewhat recovered and hopeful, I began the dark ascent up the old Roman Road to Col du Bohnomme – the saddle below the peak Croix du Bohnomme at 2500 meters. As the trail went higher, the trees disappeared, and the headlamps lit the switchbacks up to the stars. I continued to move slower and slower, with unresponsive legs. The trekking poles were most certainly aiding me, but nothing seemed to lift my spirits or give me any access to my mojo. Every step was a grind, lots of steps up rocky terrain; I stepped to the side to let more fit hikers/runners go by. The only person slower was the guy puking by the side of the trail. Eventually our train encountered a volunteer coming down, told us we had 15 minutes to the top. I had convinced myself that I couldn’t finish the race at this point, and at the top I eased into the downhill cadence, and soon realized that I was recovering from the climb.

I began the conversations with myself – all of the reasons to keep going – I would regret stopping, I have 46 hours to finish, nothing is injured, I can get points for my UTWT standings – but the most powerful single reason I came up with for continuing on was – I love to cross the finish line. Regardless of the time, place, and circumstance – that was the most important. With that realization I had new resolve. Plus down hill running revitalized my will.

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My cheat sheet tattoo, compliments of Jason Schlarb and ElevationTat. Selfie.

We descended into Les Chapieux and I was feeling a bit better. I was mistaken about where we were in the race and thought I was about one climb closer to Courmayeur. There was a bit of flat running, then we started climbing again. And again on the climb, I was reduced to a barely moving shadow of myself, convinced I couldn’t keep going, but based on how I had recovered on the downhills, I ignored my whining and thought it would get better on the next descent. Plodding along up to Col de la Siegne I was again filled with doubt. Leaden legs and absolutely no resolve, I still managed to not entirely succumb psychologically. To my list of reasons to keep going, was the reminder that Boyfriend Mark was climbing much higher peaks in India at the moment, and that I should embrace this opportunity to hike and enjoy the mountains as a faux shared experience. After summiting, I eased into the downhill darkness, and felt somewhat better over the next few miles into Lac Combal in Italy. Realizing where I was now, I was a little more disheartened at how much slower I was from last year. I took my time at the aid station, noticing a few women there that I was leaving before.

Mark summiting Stok Kangri in India, his second 6000m peak. I was struggling to get to 2000m.

Mark summiting Stok Kangri in India, his second 6000m peak. I was struggling to get to 2000m.

Dawn was breaking, which was nice for visibility but a downer on the ego. Last year I was way ahead of this and further behind than I wanted to be. Ugh. And it was runnable, but I could only manage to jog for bits at a time. We hit the ascent to Arête du Mont-Favre, and now I was in the middle to the back of the pack of runners, and I was definitely in the way. Group after group passed me. Recognizing that in the next 60 miles lay 5 more ascents, with the final one being a steep, rocky, hands on the ground climb, followed by some bouldering-like-running before the final descent to Chamonix, I knew I was screwed. Even if I could stay ahead of the cut off times, it was not safe for me to be out there. The last thing I wanted was to be a liability to the race. It was over. My face crumpled up in embarrassing tears and I pulled my hood tight to hide behind. I felt like such an idiot, thinking I could pull off a monster of a race like this on minimal training. I hated mountain running at this point, swore them all off as I faced the first DNF in my ultra running career.

All around me I was surrounded by spectacular views of Mont Blanc and adjoining peaks and valleys. Runners were stopping to take selfies and group photos. I couldn’t even muster up the gumption to pull out my IPhone to join in. I was utterly and unequivocally exhausted. More than one runner asked me if I was okay while passing. I appreciated the concern, and was doing my best to keep going and not keep Laurie and Craig waiting any longer at Courmayeur than possible. I couldn’t even muster up a jog for the long descent. As I walked into the aid station they were waiting along the corral with the hundred or so other fans, and grabbed me in a family hug. Up until 15 minutes before I got there, Craig had been ready with the speech for why I should keep going, but when we saw me go from 500th place to well into the 1000th, he knew it was not going to be a good thing for me to continue on.

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Laurie and me after I dropped. Meh. Photo by Craig.

Oddly, I have no regrets on my DNF. What I learned is that my gut should not be ignored. I wasn’t excited about the race before hand. If it had been canceled I’m sure I would have been relieved (selfish, I know). And since the race I have been supplementing with iron, as I’m convinced my ferritin had dropped to levels not conducive for an endurance event. After 2+ weeks, I had my blood tested and am up to 50 (60+ is a good number for runners) and my running is going much better, I’m sleeping better, and my legs feel good again. And I’m hoping I get into Hard Rock for 2015. Got my mojo back!

Ultra Tour de Mont Blanc is a spectacular race and I would love to run it again, but only if I’m well trained for it. The volunteers and organization are incredible. The aid stations with all the cheese and meat and sweets and coffee and fruit – almost reason enough to sign up! In the aftermath were sweet moments – getting to witness Rory get her second consecutive win, and to see Scott Mills and Eric Skaden finish at 4:00 am, going to the big gathering hosted by John Catts, John Medinger and Karl Hoagland with what seemed like the whole of California Ultra running was a special event. We were all the walking wounded – either physically from finishing, or emotionally from not. It is a great family to belong to.

Special thanks to Craig and Laurie Thornley for their unrelenting support before, during and after the race, to UTMB race director Catherine Poletti, to sponsors Scott-Sports and Injinji Socks, all for making this life lesson possible.

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Me and my awesome crew. Us-ie.

Bishop High Sierra 100k 2014

With Western States on the very near horizon, it was something of a risk to sign up for a 100k race, so under the advice of my running partners Matt Keyes and Scott Wolfe, I kept my eyes on the big picture as I lined up for “running all day” in the Bishop High Sierra 100k. The course altitude ranged from between 4000-9000 feet, with a good majority of it being about 8000 ft. This would be a good test of how ready I am to run at altitude, and whether my minimal time in the altitude tent was benefitting me yet.

Bishop-ite and ultra runner friend Jeff Kozak hosted me Friday night. He gave me a some points to remember – such as the highest point in the race (9000+) was reached at mile 21, that there was very little shade, and that the first 6 miles could be run very quickly, and the next 20+ would be a long grind. Friend and coachee, Sada Crawford and I discussed the race ahead over sushi. She was the course record holder, but having moved to the cold northern parts of Idaho, was not feeling too confident about racing in the predicted 90 degree weather on tap for Saturday.

Next morning at 4:00 am, Jeff and I were up slugging down the coffee. Rice and eggs were my pre-race meal, and by 5:00 am we were on our way to the race start. The day dawned clear, beautiful, and looking to be warm. Seeing Sada, we warmed up together, and after a brief course review from RD Tim Stahler, we were off.

Sada and me at the start line. Photo by the Unicorn.

Another test to be run today was the selection of one of my pacers for Western States. My good friend, Mark Laws, had offered to crew for me, which I readily accepted, but when I asked him to consider pacing me as well, he was more than a little reticent that he would be up to the task. Turns out that Bishop allows pacers for the last 16 miles of the 100k, so I suggested to Mark we could do a test drive there. He was game, and his plan was to show up on race day in time to cover that last section with me.

So it began! Winding our way out of the park, through a campground and onto the first bit of very sandy trail. Very Sandy Trail. I kept trying to find a line where it might be packed down, but it wasn’t really worth all that dancing. Sada glided by and I kept my heart rate down as she gapped me. After nearly 2 miles of slipping around, we hit a less sandy road that allowed me to open up my pace. I went with Kozak’s advice and cruised pretty quickly, passing Sada back, and soon was running with Ethan Veneklasen, Paul Sweeney, and Howie Stern. We continued to run together loosely for a few miles as we finally hit the gradual ascent up to mile 21.

I had anticipated needing to walk at this time, but it was a rather runnable grade. For grins, I kept my Garmin set to where I could see at what altitude we were, so I could find at what threshold I would really start to feel it. Looking up, I could see runners spread out in the open terrain, but it wasn’t too intimidating. Trotting along, I met and ran with Peter Broomhall from Truckee for quite awhile, until he pulled ahead. Eventually I was running alone, following Eric Clifton in his running skirt, gray ponytail, and carrying absolutely nothing with him. That would not have been a bad way to go since this course has a 22 aid stations from between 1+ to 5 miles apart, but given it was going to be hot, I wanted to always have 2 bottles – one with calories, one with dousing water – and my pack to dump ice into to get the slow melt to keep me cool.

At 7000 ft and up I was still running. I was stoked. It wasn’t particularly easy, but I wasn’t gasping or feeling bad.   Winding up to 8000 ft and above though, I started to throw in some walking. Anytime the course flattened or went downhill, I would run. Some of this section meandered through a shaded Aspen grove which was a refreshing break from open skies most of the course offered. Lost in thought, I took a mild dirt dive, swearing at my stupidity and smashing the chafing butter packet in my skirt pocket so it was smeared down the side. Nice. I used my dousing water to try and sort of clean up.

Mile 21 finally arrived at a turn around aid station, and after I fueled and iced, I began a descent. Behind me less than 5 minutes was Sada, followed by Jamie Frink, and then Gretchen Brugman. I cruised the downhill section to the triple intersection aid station, checked in and started down the wrong road. “Number 3! Come back! Come back! This way!” Thank goodness the volunteers were watching!

Nice backdrop, which occasionally I remembered to look at.

Nice backdrop, which occasionally I remembered to look at.

 

The course went straight up a hill that followed a pipeline – we actually ran on the mostly buried pipe. It was quite steep, and at the top I tripped again and went down in some sort of heap, my right calf seizing up. More swearing, some sitting and waiting for it relax, and gingerly I set off on the sketchy downhill to a dirt road. I could see Peter’s red shorts in front of me and occasionally I would sneak a peek back to see if the ladies were there. I kept reminding myself “this is about Western States. Keep it real. Don’t blow up or do anything stupid. You’re not here to win.” And then the devil on the other shoulder would pipe in with “hey, you’re under 11 minute pace so far, you’ve done the most of the climbing, if you keep this up you’ll have the course record and maybe a win, but you’ll have to keep those girls off.”  Of course, kicking a rock or stumbling brought me right back to playing it safe.

The next aid station was set up on a small lake, replete with families out for the day playing and fishing. After I put ice in my skirt, sports bra and back pack, I cruised along the lake, laughing when a fisherman wanted to know if they were going to give us shirts saying “We’re Crazy”.

Down a rare bit of single track, across a paved road, more single track through some aspens, back out on another paved road, and it felt like I had an elephant on my back. We were still above 8000 ft, and the road had a slight uphill grade. I watched Peter in front of me and found myself walking when he walked, and grumpily running when he ran. I was hungry, but not bonking. I downed the calories from my bottle (mostly Tailwind) and planned eating something more substantial at the aid station. Finally arriving, I saw mini Clif Bars and decided I would just have to choke one down. I had half of it in my mouth when a volunteer asked if I wanted an Ensure. Heaven! I had never even had one, but was dreaming about chocolate milk, and I generally have a strong gut. I chugged it which helped wash the Clif Bar down as well. The combination was less than excellent, but I had to have some faith it would all work out.

Back down the paved road, life was much better, and again, just a couple minutes back was Sada, looking smooth as silk, and then Jamie, and shortly after, was Gretchen. I stayed grounded and positive, and worked my way back to the lake, with a bit of a queasy ClifBarEnsure stomach that resulted in a pit stop. Literally much relieved, I was now good to go!

Diffuse cloudy skies had dominated the morning, much to the runners relief, but it was now starting to open up. One volunteer encouraged me along stating “someone pushed the heat button!” He was right. I really started dousing now – face, head, neck – and let the shade attachment of my hat down. I was still above 8000 ft at mile 32 and starting to really want to get down, as I was feeling somewhat nauseous from it. Still cruising well on the downhill sections, but shuffling the ups, I did put some space on the gals. Back at the triple aid station, the volunteers said “you’re on your way home now!” Up and over a little nob, and I thought – yeah, some downhill! But it was still rolling to flat, and still 8000 ft. I expected to be caught at any moment and promised to not give chase when it happened. Through the aspens again, and finally I hit the descent. My quads were golden. Cruising now, I could see Peter once more, and as the miles clicked off and the elevation lowered, I got closer and closer. We finally ended up running together, and it made those miles glide by. What I was really looking forward to was mile 46, where I would pick up Mark. I love having a pacer whenever it is allowed, and well, I’m a little bit fond of this guy. I had predicted that I would arrive around 2:25 if I could maintain 11 minute pace, and I was perhaps 5 minutes early. He was ready to go, and for the next couple of downhill miles,  I debriefed him on how I was doing and what was working. At the next aid station, we went on what was the most brutal section of the course – an out and back that only the 100k runners were  privy to – all other distances were denied this delight.

bishoppic2

Mark Laws and I heading out into the most Godforsaken section of the course.

 

Uphill into a headwind we ran until I needed to walk, doused often, and tried to stay on solid rather than sandy footing. Peter had left the aid station ahead of us, so we could see the turns and climbs we had to make by watching him. For such a little blip on the topo map, the climb was hellacious. Every turn in the road I expected to see the last aid station, but it was several turns and climbs before we finally cruised down to it. It was baking hot, I sponged off completely, loaded the skirt and sports bra with ice for the millionth time. Mark made sure I ate and found another Ensure which I downed rapidly. From there it was 1.8 miles to the final turn around, where we would prove our completion of this section by picking up a poker chip to bring to the finish line. The descent portion was actually feeling good, but every little climb had me walking until I got annoyed with how long it took to get anywhere walking, and I would shuffle. Mark followed my cues, and gave me reminders to drink and douse. We saw Peter get to the turn around and with that visual I mustered up some mojo, finally getting my chip. The 1.8 miles back to the aid station would be slow, but we did get to see a large golden snake slither across the trail, and then met Jamie about 10 minutes from the turn around. We had a quick supportive hug, and she yelled “I’m so ready for beer!”

Mark and I continued the slog out, finding few runnable sections, eventually getting back to the aid station. Now with only 5 miles to go, I was smelling the beer barn.We hiked out hard, and hit the downhill fast, and eventually caught Peter, much to his chagrin. “Meghan – you’re a machine!” I threw in a few jogging steps to get around him, we exchanged supportive words, and again flew down some wind aided sections. I was making my “end of the race” noises – grunting and groaning, and assured Mark that those are normal for me. Before he had agreed to pace me, he asked me to promise that if I could drop him, I would. I didn’t think I would be able to, but with 2 miles to go, his allergies got the best of him, causing him to slow. “Take it home, Meghan!” I kept rolling, yelling back “only 2 miles!”  I blew by the last aid station, running hard when I could, and slowing down when the terrain flattened or got very sandy. Back on solid ground I clipped into the finish in 11:11, a new course record by 20+ minutes. I was greeted by several friends, including Sada, who had taken the 50 mile option as the heat had taken a toll on her – it’s pretty hard to run in such hot weather when you live in snow-laden Idaho all winter. Mark made it in soon, and RD Tim ladened me with way too many awards.

Some of the nice prizes! Photo by RD Tim.

Some of the nice prizes! Photo by RD Tim.

 

Quite a spectacular event in the scenery, volunteers, and course layout – it wasn’t about the trail here – it was about the backdrop.

Thanks to all the volunteers and RD Tim for putting on a great event, to Elke, Chloe, and Steve for driving me to Bishop, to Jeff and Margo for opening their home to me, and to Mark for driving all the way over to “take a test”. He passed. Looking forward to Western States! Thanks especially to Injinji socks and Scott Sports for their continued and awesome support!

Tarawera 100k 2014

Tradition. History. Spirituality. Passion. Paul Charteris, RD for Tarawera 100k had it all. And yet the race is a mere 6 years old. In its first year, fewer than 100 runners graced this beauty of a course, and already he is up to over 700 in the combined 100k, 85k, 60k, and relay race. It doesn’t take much to understand the numbers – the intriguing sulfer-laden air and steam plumes rising above the town of Rotorua, the old trails through the forests and around the lakes that made up the course, and the connections between the native Maori and the Europeans and their combined love and respect for the land. Add to that Paul’s love of ultra running and old school approach to ultramarathons, perhaps learned by spending extensive time on the Western States course and it’s cast of characters, and you have a world class event.

I arrived Wednesday before the race and was welcomed to Paul’s with friends new and old. He treated runners and volunteers to a barbecue, and fretted about the weather – cyclone Lusi was due to arrive on the weekend, presenting the possibility of wrecking race day. Thursday was still brilliant – late fall temperatures, soft skies, made the possibility of a cyclone seem rather remote. At 5:30, an 8k fun run was held, through the local but world famous Whakarewarewa forest.

Hobbit running in the 8k Fun Run

Hobbit running in the 8k Fun Run

It was beautiful and surreal – made me feel like a hobbit – and it ended in Te Puia replete with mud pools and hot springs. There the media groups held a photo-shoot of the elite athletes, and we had a playful time running around in circles in front of a thermal pool.

Photo shoot fun

Photo shoot fun

Friday morning we returned to Te Puia for a traditional welcome of the native people, in which both Paul and last year’s champion Sage Canaday were recognized and honored.

Sage making peace with the native Maori.

Sage making peace with the native Maori.

After a press conference and interview, I made my way back to the hotel for the pre-race meeting followed by a panel Q and A where I was allowed to act expert on running ultras, along with Sage, Lucy Bartholomew, Brendan Davies, Mike Wardian, Michael Aish, and Scott Hawker. I was fortunate to have gained a home stay with friends John and Rebecca Moore, formerly living in Corvallis, and being with family certainly kept me grounded. Home cooked meals and curious children make me feel quite at home, and for much of the time I had forgotten I had a race the following day. Nearing bedtime, the news came out – Cyclone Lusi was to hit Rotorua late Saturday afternoon, necessitating a shorter, safer course. Not one to ever consider fighting Mother Nature, I was relieved that we wouldn’t be allowed in harms way. Now it was time to rethink my race. It would be about 70k (42 miles) so effort could increase, but by how much? I settled on a heart rate between 155-160 – a little slower than for  50k, a bit faster than for 100k. I laid out my race gear, and by 8:30 I was asleep.

Four-fifteen I was up. Coffee, rice and eggs, and I was good to go. At 5:45 John drove me to the start where we were joined by the 100s. I warmed up a bit, headed for the start, and again we were given a traditional Maori dance, and a highly entertaining Tarawera ballad by a local girl and her ukelele.

A dark morning start

A dark morning start

A bit past 6:30, the stream of head-lamped runners took to the trail. It began with a long steady climb of double and single track, with series of steps built in. In the darkness it was not possible to discern individuals, a sure way to keep myself under control. Even s dawn approached, the forest here was quite dense and dark. Eventually, lamps went off and the day was warm with gray skies and dark green forests all around. Each moment I hit single track, my inner child danced along the trail, smiling. Dark, duffy and rooty, I consciously picked my feet high, bent on staying upright for the day. We were fairly spread out, although I had already started an on-again off-again relationship with one Fiona from Wellington – I outran her on the downs, and she outran me on the climbs, and in the middle bits, we became friends.

Running through the dark canopy

Running through the dark canopy

One Lusi-adjustment to the race was for the long course runners to do an initial 12k loop, bringing us back to the start line, while the short course  clipped this off for a 60k. Now reaching this point, I saw Anna Frost off to the side giving me a cheer. I tossed her my headlamp for safe keeping, drank some Heed and soda, topped off a bottle and was ready to do climb number 1 again. Running off, I saw Bryon Powell, yelled back “how many?”. He said I was 7th place and all were within 5 minutes. For the second time I made the long ascent, climbed the stairs, ran in the woods, only now I got to really see it. I felt as fresh as the first time up, and managed to move up one place as I passed 17 year young Lucy, having a bit of an early blowup. Still in good spirits though,  I told her she would recover. Soon we passed the loop and continued on an eventually nice long downhill to Blue Lake, rolling along on some very runnable sandy/rocky/hard trail. I was feeling pretty solid, keeping myself working hard, when I was easily passed by a young woman on a slight uphill. Our exchange was pleasant, but I didn’t quite hear her. Of course I tried to imagine that she said something about being on a relay, but what I heard didn’t come close, so now I had moved back to 7th. Finally at the aid station I quick filled a bottle, drank a lot of coke and Heed, and re-passed her. I felt splendid on the single track again, and soon caught up to Fiona who had been ahead for quite some time. We played along this single track, then ran out onto the pavement awhile, to where spectators could easily line the road. Entering back on single track, I was again caught from behind, and the three of us gals danced along the rooty duff until I said to Fiona “I’m hesitant to pass, as I’m sure you’ll need to go around as soon as we start climbing.” but around I went, the other girl right behind. I kept my lead over the two of them all the way to the next aid station at lake Okereka, now in 5th or so place. Lusi was making her way down, and the moisture in the air went from mist to drizzle. I was definitely wet, but I hadn’t really noticed. A volunteer helped my find my drop bag and Paul told me I was 5th woman. I left the aid station and began the gentle climb up the pavement, when I was again caught by girl number one. I said “well, at least we get to come back down this at the end.” She replied “we do? I haven’t a clue what the course is – I’m so blonde!” I told her she sure looked good, nonetheless,to which she responded “at least until I blow up!” The way she pulled ahead, I had serious doubts that would happen. Three kilometers later we hit another aid station, but it would be over 14k to the next. I drank a lot, then headed on toward Okataina lake. This involved a very long single track of a variety of trail – some double wide, some single and rutted, some grassy. It was a gradual uphill for a good half, then it began to go down. I was passing a lot of the 60k runners, but ahead I could see a woman that looked like she was from the longer race. She had begun to falter, so I said a few kind words I passed her, moving back to fifth place.  Soon after that I was passed again by another gal, and was unable to tell if she was relay. She was moving easily and quickly.

Making my way up, getting wetter by the minute

Making my way up, getting wetter by the minute

Summiting is always a victory for me, and now I began to descend to Okataina. I had heard it was quite steep, and that was no exaggeration. While I welcomed the effect of the gravity, I acknowledged that I would not be so fond of it on the return trip. I’ve learned to maximize my strengths (downhill) and work within my ability on my weaknesses (climbing). After the first steep slope, came. Another, and then another. Two men from relay teams had passed me on their return trip when I finally saw Sage coming up on of the long ascents. We yelled “good job” to each other, and it was quite some time before seeing the second place man. Yun Yanqiao, Michael Aishe, Scott Hawker, Vajin Armstrong all came toward me, game on. When I saw Mike Wardian coming toward me he looked bewildered and off his game. “Hey man, let’s go!” I yelled. But it was not to be his day. On a uphill amongst the downhill, I passed another woman, so now I was 4th or 5th. Short, steep switchbacks led us down to the Okataina aid station. Drop bags were available, but we had a short 2k out and back section, so I asked the volunteers if they could have my bag ready upon my return. As I began to speed out, John and Rebecca appeared having come to support and perhaps pace me. They asked if I needed anything, and I said I was right, and jumped onto the single track. Paul would later relate that this next 2k was the beginning of the best single track of the entire race, and it killed him that we were only running a short bit, but Mother Nature always wins. It was here I was able to really see where I was stacking up. I had gone about half mile when I saw the leading woman. With our names on our bibs, I knew she was “Jo”, but who the hell was Jo? Next was the first woman who had passed me, Claire,  having moved nicely up to second, then the one who had just passed me, Dawn, followed by Beth Cardelli of Australia. I had checked my watch at Jo and Beth, and at the turn around, calculated that Jo as 8 minutes up and Beth was 3. Now on my way back I saw who was close on my heels – the woman I had just passed plus Fiona, and then Lucy.

Back at the aid station, Rebecca’s running friend, Andy, jumped in to pace me to the finish. I was thrilled. As promised, the volunteers had my bag. I took the bottle and gels, and off Andy and I went. He was eager to help, and I assured him that just following me would be grand. We started the long trudge up, and I was happy to be still pushing hard with about 12 miles to go. I was still unsure about some girls I had passed, so fancied myself as high as 3rd place. Now we had more traffic coming towards us, and thanks to Paul’s exposure of the elite athletes, I was getting as much personal cheering as I do in the US, including someone referring to me as royalty. Didn’t hurt the ego, that’s for sure. I knew the climbs would seem endless, and at one point I looked up and groaned. Andy said to stop looking up. So I kept my head down, tripped and fell in one of the most benign trail sections – which is a least not so painful. I brushed off the gritty wet dirt, and kept going, hoping to both close in on some girls, and not get caught as well. After the final summit, my legs unwound, and off I flew. Happily, my quads were golden.

Beginning to feel like a drowned rat

Beginning to feel like a drowned rat

Lusi was picking up steam, which I only noticed by seeing how wet I was. It was still warm, but I realized I was having a harder time keeping my heart rate up. I drank more of my mix of Vitargo and coconut water. Andy reminded me gently that it had been 30 minutes since my last gel. The thought of another one turned my stomach, but I pulled it out and held it for a few minutes. Eventually I gingerly placed it to my lips, gave a squeeze, swallowed, and said “yummy!” to which Andy said “really?”. I assured him it was most decidedly not, but I liked to try and fool myself. Regardless, it did start to sink in a bit. The amount of uphill in this downhill was getting a bit unbelievable, and I worried that my semi-truck uphill speed would result in getting passed by another woman. As I crested another hill again, I heard the dreaded sound of another woman. I tore off downhill, putting as much space as possible between she and I, with no idea if she was racing individual or relay – I would wait to ask later. When I could no longer hear her, Andy assured me she was on a relay, but my momentum was carrying me nicely now. We reached the final aid station, and I was incredibly parched. I downed 2 big drinks of water, and Andy and I tore out for the last 3k of mostly downhill paved running.

Saying good bye to the last aid station

Saying good bye to the last aid station

Andy pushing me to the finish line

Andy pushing me to the finish line

I was grunting pretty loudly at this point, and was satisfied that I had put it all out there. Down and down we went, Andy pointing to his right side for me to run behind, draft, and hang on best I could. With 1k to go, I saw my friend Peter walking his finish to the 60k in. I yelled at him “Peter!Why aren’t you running!”  Apparently I shamed him into it, as he finished shortly after me.

I now was sprinting for the finish, happy to get my wheels really going for the last little bit across the soggy grass. Paul was at the finish, gave me a huge Kiwi hug, and placed the beautifully carved wood medal around my neck. It was soon confirmed I was 5th female, spread out from 7:02 to my 7:26. I was pleased with my effort and the competitive field that had come to show their stuff. What this course lost in distance made up for in difficulty, as it measured 44 miles and 7900 feet – nearly the amount of gain for the regular 62 mile run. Lusi was now in full force, and in the pouring rain and wind, John and Rebecca got me out of the misery and back to a hot shower.

At the finish!

At the finish!

Prize giving took place next day, and Paul put the top 5 finishers on the podium. He asked us each to tell the audience about our individual takes on the race – a nice moment to share with everyone there. Every effort throughout this weekend seemed to be about making the individual experiences of this event accessible and meaningful to everyone.

Paul, Jo, Dawn and her daughter, Beth, myself

Paul, Jo, Dawn and her daughter, Beth, myself

The newly formed Ultra Trail World Tour  (UTWT) chose wisely in including Tarawera 100k. Runners and their supporters from around the world were able to experience the unique country, its laid back personality and warm hospitality, and its pride in its beauty, as a bonus to the event itself. Thank you Paul, for putting your heart and soul into this event! Thanks to my hosts John and Rebecca Moore, the volunteers, to Scott Sports, and Injinji, and UTWT for getting me to the start line.

Sean O’Brien 50 2014

I’m sure one of the first thoughts anyone has that follows my racing is “why is she racing 3 weeks after Bandera?” Three fold answer – 1) My brother lives 25 minutes from the start line and gives me the impetus for a visit 2) It’s part of Montrail Ultra Cup series and I wanted to score some points, and 3) I love supporting Keira Henninger’s events – she puts on a great party! As a bonus reason, I made some rookie mistakes at Bandera and wanted to revisit them while they were fresh in my mind.

It was frickin’ cold at 6:00 am in the Santa Monica mountains. I could barely warmup in the 28 degree air, having to go in and out of my car to stop shivering, despite the puffy coat and sweatshirt. I forced myself out of the toasty car and clothes with 10 minutes to go, and stood with the other runners, trying to encourage a group cuddle. As always, great to say hello to new and old friends – Timmy, Dom, Cassie, Paul, Scotty, Angela, Ken, Denise, Karolina, Shahid, Bree, Jimmy Dean. Keira gave a short introduction to the namesake of the race, told us to have fun, and off we went into the darkness.

Truth be told, my legs have felt tired on most of my runs since Bandera, except for running circles around the track at Placer High, where the ground is springy and flat. I was still putting in some long runs on the weekends, but I ran very little the few days before the race, and optimistically believed that the minimal running would be restorative. However, the first few hundred yards of SO I could feel junk in them – a slight burn – but went with the thought that it was because it was so cold and I wasn’t warmed up. I patiently waited for the feeling of lactate to diminish, but we were on single track going up hill pretty quickly. The first bit of downhill they were okay, but every climb early on had the same feeling. I watched my HR on the climbs, keeping it below 165, hiking when I needed to, and getting more beta on the course from Jimmy Dean. I was feeling very patient and focused on eating every 30 minutes besides sipping my liquid calories.

Sunrise!  Photo by Kevin Chan.

Sunrise! Photo by Kevin Chan.

After 30 minutes, I was greeted with spectacular sunrise and soon after some amazing ocean vistas. Bree Lambert caught and passed me on this initial long ascent. Next I heard a familiar voice behind yelling up “I wondered who that skinny chick was!” It was Luanne Park, working her way to up me. We caught up a bit before she left me behind as well. And then Tera Dube, whom I had not talked to in years, caught and ran with me for few miles before she left me as well.

Coming through the first aid station. Photo by Kevin Chan.

Coming through the first aid station. Photo by Kevin Chan.

Through the first aid station finally there was a nice bit of downhill single track – rocky, rooty, sandy, but not Bandera technical. I would have enjoyed it more, but legs were just kind of blah. Not bad, not awesome. I glanced back to the familiar voice of Ken Sinclair, surprised that he was behind me. When he caught up he told me that he and Denise were sitting in their car when they heard the start, so they were DFL across the start line. And soon after, Denise “Little D” came trotting up, light as a feather. We crested a small climb together, and she led the way for awhile. Then came a downhill where I let loose and gapped the folks around me. Around a couple of switch backs when I found myself flat on the ground – both knees banged and my quad scraped. Crap. I had not fallen that hard in a long time. I didn’t have to be embarrassed since no one saw, but on the next climb up I had to be sure and share with Ken and D my bloody legs. As we cruised into the 13 mile aid station I was offered a clean up which I refused out of fear of the stinging.

Back down a nice runnable section of single track, closely followed by a couple of men I had been going back and forth with, and BAM I was on the ground again. I was pretty pissed off as I felt careless and I had basically repeated the same action of slamming both knees on the ground. And this time I had witnesses. They were so kind, wondered if I needed any help, could they do anything for me – I laughed, shook it off, insisted it was just a flesh would, but it took a few minutes for the pain to ease and I could run smoothly again.

Keeping up on the calories and fluids and electrolytes was going well. We had climbed fairly high, giving way to more ocean views, and some coastal winds that were a blessing at your back, but tough to run into. I didn’t really run with anyone for awhile, but eventually I saw Bree’s bright green shirt and realized I was coming back up on her. I caught her during a descent, we exchanged encouragement and soon I was descending quickly with a newbie to the sport, Vince. We chatted all the way to mile 22, and I was finally feeling pretty good – as if I needed a 20 mile warmup. The aid station was at the end of a small dog leg, where I saw Luanne, then Tera, then Denise. It was good to know I wasn’t too far back. I was in and out quickly and started another long grind out of Malibu. This section was possibly one of my strongest, and thought maybe I would gain back some places if I continued a steady effort. At the top of this grind was a little downhill, where I could see Luanne once, and figured D and Tera had passed her. Every turn my eyes would strain, but she was no where in sight. I caught up with another runner who had trained on the course, telling me we still had 2.5 miles to the aid station. I had gone dry in my bottles and was disappointed in myself for not filling them both. Another grind climb and finally back to an aid station, filled both bottles, and to the well wishes and encouragement of the volunteers, I was inspired to stay strong and hunt some women down.

My legs, however, were of the same spirit as at the beginning of the race. Not peppy, but not dead. My downhill, which I love, was not loving me back. My quads had been golden for Bandera, but just weren’t ready. I was running alone for the most part now – passing the occasional 50k runner, or being passed by a male 50 miler. At mile 35, a water only aid station, a young man volunteering asked me if I needed anything, and then proceeded to follow me down the single track. He was a newcomer to the sport, currently local but from the Netherlands. He was very encouraging and supportive as he ran behind me to the next aid station, wondering what he could do to help once we got there. I was feeling pretty good again the single track, but when I arrived at the aid station, an even stronger Bree Lambert had caught back up. I fueled up with the help of the wonderful volunteers, and got the beta from the now dropped Jimmy Dean that the 2nd place woman was 11 minutes up, and Luanne was about 2 minutes up, with Tera and D somewhere in between. I’m sure Cassie, in the lead, was miles ahead.

Laughing at Greg for nearly falling off the trail. Photo by Greg Lanctot.

Laughing at Greg for nearly falling off the trail. Photo by Greg Lanctot.

Leaving the aid station, volunteer Greg Lanctot was determined to photo my beautiful knees, and ran up the trail ahead of me and Bree. He nearly fell off the trail in his attempt, much to our amusement. Bree went around me as if I was standing still, strong and smooth. I was definitely alone now and in a bit of a lull. I checked my HR, which was a little low, so I worked on getting in more fluids and trying to push myself. I passed a few more 50k runners, and finally coming to the 39 mile mark, Portlander Jessie Boisaubin popped out behind me, wondering when I was going to catch him. He fell in behind me, and we had a long session of running together – sometimes chatting, sometimes just working hard at moving forward. We were close to getting to the end of the big climbs, so in theory things were getting easier, but finally he could hold on no longer. At the last aid station, I took a little more aid, then had some short climbs before the more steady downhill that would last a few miles. The steep pitches were killing me – my right quad was quite sore from the crash, my left arch was sore, and as much as I wanted to override it all, I also didn’t want to hurt myself.

With about 2 miles to go, and one more climb, I could once again see Luanne. She was one or two bends in the trail ahead. And I would see her looking back at me. I couldn’t close the gap, and frankly, wasn’t really interested in chasing anyone down at this point. Up and over this last hill, down to the flat finish, I was greeted by the usual fanfare of the ultra community, 7th female, just a minute behind Luanne. She remarked that the two of us represent 105 years, and we were pretty damn satisfied with our day.

Luanne Park and I representing the geriatric crowd with a combined age of 105! Photo by Bryon Powell of Irunfar.com

Luanne Park and I representing the geriatric crowd with a combined age of 105! Photo by Bryon Powell of Irunfar.com

The race was good for many of my friends – Cassie nailed it coming in over an hour ahead of all the women, Dylan “D-Bow” Bowman won the men’s race. Cassie, Tera and Sally McRae earned spots at Western States. Over all, I’m more satisfied with this race than Bandera, as I took care of myself much better and had no real issues other than tired legs. Six weeks until the next big race, and I will be rested and ready to go!

Thanks to Keira Henninger and all of her volunteers for putting on another spectacular event, and my sponsors Scott-Sports and Injinji Socks!

Post Race Goodness. Photo by Greg Lanctot.

Post Race Goodness. Photo by Greg Lanctot.

Bandera 100k 2014

I like to tease my friend Ryan Yedinsky, relatively new ultra runner, who by trade flies helicopters for the US Army in dangerous places, like Afghanistan. If you’re not an ultra runner, you may not be aware of our ease around discussing bodily functions, but sometimes I wonder if that is our strongest commonality. And here is your fair warning – if you are squeamish or easily grossed out/disgusted with poop talk, stop here. I, having run these crazy distances some 10 plus years, have mastered the ability to poo in the woods sans toilet paper. If you squat just right…but my brave Army flier can’t go out the door without a pouch of Wet Ones – no dry TP for his tender bum!

Who needs 'em!

Who needs ‘em!

After this year’s Bandera 100k, I think my teasing days are over.

Moving to Cool, California last month, opened up a new world of trail running to me. I have run these trails in the past, in a weekend or full week here and there during a calendar year. But now, everyday, I am out on beautiful single track, and thanks to the example of fella competitor and friend Pam Smith, I have sought out the rockiest sections of any trail I can find, to prepare myself for what I knew lay ahead in the Hill Country of Texas. I also put in a couple of 40+ mile days to get my brain ready to “run all day”.

Team Teranova (Paul and Meredith) of Austin graciously hosted me, carted me, fed me for the entire trip, and we were joined by Paul’s sister Nicole and husband, the aforementioned Ryan. Paul, Ryan and I were signed up for the 100k, Nicole the 25k, and Meredith would be crewing, and managing and organizing and basically being a bad ass supporter the entire time.

This was my third go at Bandera. First year, I was completely schooled, humbled, and bewildered by the experience, dying a long painful death from the rocky terrain and sotol cactus, and hills that become mountains the second time around. Two years later I came again, only to fare worse from having had the flu a week before. This time, having had 4 days to practice running in rocky hill country at the Team Red White and Blue trailrunning camp in Nueces, I felt ready. It was the first race in the Montrail Ultra Cup series for 2014, entitling the top 3 finishers a slot in Western States 100 (with a roll down to 4 if a top 3 is already in), and the USATF National Open and Masters 100k Trail Championships as well. My competition wasn’t easy to determine – on paper, I knew the main contenders were quick, but wasn’t sure how they would fare on the specialness Bandera offers up, but I figured they would be Melanie Peters, Silke Koester, and myself. And oh – yes, Liza Howard, who had a baby 4 months ago. Yes, she is breastfeeding, Yes, she isn’t getting sleep, but YES, she is Liza Howard – the record holder for the course. Never discount the home town girl.

Silke, Liza, myself, Paul, Jorge.

Silke, Liza, myself, Paul, Jorge.

Race morning was crisp. After a 20 minute warmup that included one last pit stop I felt quite good. Race director Joe Prusaitis counted us down and at 7:30 we were off. Very quickly Liza and Silke and I were running together, chatting comfortably. I felt very good, strong, fresh, in control. In about 2 miles, just Liza and I ran together, chatting about life, babies, running, balancing. When we cruised in the first aid station, Nachos, I was already bloody from the sotol cactus, but somehow it just wasn’t bothering me this year. I topped my bottle of Vitargo/coconut water off with heed, took one bite of PBJ, and Liza and I were out together again. We fell into a nice pattern of leading and following, always suggesting that we don’t hold each other up. Seldom do I have a chance to run with someone in a race so evenly paced, content to share the load for as long as it seemed comfortable.

I am a goal setter, and after all of these years I don’t bother with the obvious, but for those who wonder, the number 1 goal is FINISH. I didn’t fly across the country or around the world to not finish a race – sometimes they are easier and prettier than others, but everyone of them has a lesson or 2 or 3 involved. Next goal – break 10 hours – my first year, I ran 10:19, and it was pretty miserable. Last year was a disaster and I was over 2 hours slower. This year, I felt ready to do it – just average under 10 minute pace and I would do it. By the second aid station, Chapas, Liza and I were well under 9:30 pace, and again we came and left together – me with a mouthful of pringles potato chips and more fluids, now in the form of Heed. The chips were challenging due to the dryness, but I managed to get them down. I wasn’t paying much attention to my HR due to the up and down nature earlier, but asked myself instead if I would be running harder if I was in the 50k, and the answer was yes, so I felt confident in my effort. We chatted our way into Cross Roads 1 aid station, where I again ate food from the table, filled up with heed, took a couple of endurolytes, and Liza and I trotted off together again. Remember now, she is breastfeeding, so her request to the AS volunteers was to have her drop bag available when she came in so she could pump. Not sure I know any other competitors that dedicated to the family and the running all wrapped up in one seriously generous human being.

This 5 mile loop involved more cactus and climbing and rocks again, after having a good 10 miles of easy flat running. We both politely reminded each other not to hold each other up, but eventually I began to gap her. By the final ascent, I was alone in the 100k, but passing several folks running the 50k. I fairly cruised along back to Cross Roads, comfortable, happy, and at about 9:00 minute average pace. I drank coke, ate banana, filled my bottle and was gone. A few flat miles, and I finally gave into the urging bowels by diving off the trail. It was not as smoothly executed as I like to brag about. Let’s just say I lost more water than I had anticipated. I quickly got back in my groove, up another climb and finally into the Last Chance aid station at mile 26. My dear friend Olga King was there, with my designated safety runner Dave James.

Last Chance AS, 1st time around

Last Chance AS, 1st time around

They attended to me closely and scooted me out, Dave letting me know he would be ready at the end of the first loop  to run behind me. His final words were to stay relaxed through the last section, and with an overall pace of 9:10, it was easy to abide. Two more long rocky climbs, much of it runnable, and a technical descent back to the start/finish, I was greeted by much enthusiasm from the spectators and friends. Dave swapped out my bottle so I could start up again with a fresh bottle of Vitargo/coconut water. I drank some coke, ate banana, and headed out for loop two – my first loop completed in 4:35.  And there were no other female competitors in sight.

The field was completely spread out. No one in front, and only Dave James behind me. I was glad he was there in case of a spill or twisted ankle. I was pretty stoked to be feeling as good as I did, albeit slower on the climbs the second time around. I fully anticipated that, and it wasn’t feeling ridiculous. The down hills and flats I was still cruising. Back to Nachos, I had some water poured over my head and back as it was heating up a bit. I ate a piece of orange, banana, had ice put in my bottle with some Heed, and ambled out to the support of the volunteers.

Overall pace had inched back to 9:30, but I had just come through one of the toughest sections. The next 10+ miles had LOTS of runnable trail, so I was ready to bring the average back down again. The short climbs were more like crawls, now, but the flats and downhills I was moving – however – my abdominal muscles were feeling a bit constricted, and I felt the need to use the bushes again. I put it off as long as I could, but  somethings are better NOT left undone. In I went, and the stinging was a bit worse than the sotol scratches, and the urine over it was special. But  – all should be good now! I eased back into running, but before Chapas aid station, I took yet another visit to the bushes. Holy-mother-of-gawd. Don’t dwell, get up, get moving, pain is temporary. Into Chapas I drank two cups of coke and ate a fig bar, had the aid station volunteer dump ice in my sports bra, and Dave, who had been running quietly behind me, was able to encourage me here. My pace was still around 9:30, so at least it hadn’t gone up any more. I trotted on, not feeling over heated, but my stomach muscles were tight. I had taken a few endurolytes so far, plus Heed has sodium and I had been using coconut water. Some. I finally pulled out an S!Cap, and hoped for some sort of change/comfort. Before long I had another trip off the trail – this time I didn’t have much to hide behind, but didn’t much care anymore. I took a deep breath, and made my way into Cross Roads aid station. I ate banana, coke, two more endurolytes, and switched to gatorade to see if changing my beverage would help. And then, David, from endurance buzz, who was tweeting the race out to our little world says to me “Your daughter asked me to tell you “Go Mom!”.” I melted a little bit and my spirits were lifted. Not quite satisfied I was keeping up on calories, I asked for a gel, and it went down like gravy. Uh oh. If gel tastes that good, I must be behind. I grabbed one for the road, buoyed by the calories and the words from home. Dave kept his space behind me, and it really seemed we were the only ones out. The single track was getting a little bit slower, but I was still very pleased with how I was handling the twists, turns, loose rock, and cactus. My feet were getting a little banged, but nothing to write home about, my hip that usually talks to me was silent.

A slight sense of impending crampiness of one hamstring whispered to me “ Psssst – you might be cramping…. just sayin’. “ And I didn’t acknowledge that little voice. But the actual cramp, I heard. Ugh. I stopped, relaxed my leg, kneaded it a bit, and took another S!Cap, and slowly started moving. Small steps, calculated foot placement, more gatorade, and I held it at bay, until I started running downhill. It cramped again, and this time I even got my adductor magnus to join in. Wheee!  I took another S!Cap, more gatorade, and again, slowly made my way into walking, then jogging. I danced with it for another 10 or 15 minutes, before I finally won, and was running pretty normally back into Cross Roads for the final time. I found out here that I had a substantial lead over the next woman, and with 9+ miles to go I was relieved that at least it looked like I had a shot at the title. I got more Gatorade, drank some COLD water, and had a little dumped on my head. BRRRRR! I ate another gel, some banana, and was actually feeling like I made it through a pretty long (15 miles) bad patch. With 3 climbs left, my sub-10 hour goal was not realistic at this point as my pace was about 10 minute now, but I didn’t want to dally. I stretched out my legs and flew along a straight section, Dave racing to catch up again to his 30’, and when I hit the twists and turns I felt my stomach get a little quick on me again. I really did NOT want to go again. Ever. Alas. On this final squat, I felt a special bond with Ryan and would have wrestled him for a Wet One. It hurt so bad that when I stood up I was woozy. I did not want to move. Screaming would probably have eased the pain. I maintained decorum, and fell back into place on the trail.

Before the last aid station, Meredith came running out towards us, picking up one more duty of the day besides crewing Paul, and that was to pace her friend Todd in. She was encouraging and positive – and absolute giver in our sport. At the final aid station, Dave pulled up and said he was going to take the short cut back to the finish so he could video me near the finish. I drank some mountain dew, filled my bottle with gatorade, swallowed 2 more enduralytes, and made my way to the last 5 miles. Two climbs – Cairns Climb and Boyles Bump (or should it be Boils??). And just like Joe said the first time I ran this race “the climbs will appear to be twice as long and twice as steep the second time around” – they looked like Everest. My hiking was actually still pretty solid, my running was smooth but I was starting to do a lot of grunting and sighing. Any urge to go to the bathroom was promptly ignored. The day was cooling off and evening was approaching. After Boyles was summited, my eyes strained hard for the final descent.

At last, I saw Dave at the bottom, announcing to his IPad that the 2014 USATF National Trail Champion was now one mile from the finish. “Half mile, Dave, half mile!!!” I was at 10 hours 10 minutes, and was satisfied that I was able to really kick it in. I squeeked in at 10:12, a 7 minute PR from my first attempt.

Winning is fun!

Winning is fun!

So, epilogue, wrap up, and general consensus after lengthy discussion with Meredith (who if you don’t know, is a nutritionist, specializing in sports, and is an amazing endurance athlete herself) – #1 – I got behind in electrolytes – uh, yeah, at my last few races I have not needed many S!Caps, but OH YEAH, I used power gel which is high in sodium. #2 – I was too polite of a guest and didn’t eat my normal pre race food – too much salad, not any rice, too much bread. #3 – When I had my first bout of diarrhea, I should have taken salt and water right then. I lost a lot of water with each pit stop, and didn’t address it. #4 – probably not enough calories. I carried a lot of Gu through the race, didn’t use one. I wanted to try eating real food. #5 – just because I’m 52 doesn’t mean I can ignore my monthly cycle. I started my period shortly after the race, which often causes loose stools. Check the calendar, and use Imodium. #6 – Don’t make fun of the army helicopter pilot for using Wet Ones. It might turn on you.

Big hug from big hearted Joe Prusaitis

Big hug from big hearted Joe Prusaitis

The lovely Olga King!

The lovely Olga King!

My heroine and friend, Liza

My heroine and friend, Liza

Paul and I being interviewed.

Paul and I being interviewed.

Winning feels good. It takes the edge of making mistakes and not meeting your goals. I never have a goal of winning a race because that assumes I can control everyone around me. If I had come in 2nd place, I would be feeling my mistakes more acutely. The great news is that I made these mistakes early in the year, and I don’t think I’ll forget them…

It was a fantastic weekend. I owe a debt of gratitude to Paul and Meredith. They are humble, hard working, on task, and they work magic together. Joe Prusaitis – who told me at the beginning of the race “I think it’s going to be your day”. At the halfway, he was pretty stoked for me, and I reminded him that the day was young, and I am still young enough to make mistakes. He was genuinely pleased for me at the finish. All of the volunteers – they are very dedicated to Joe and Joyce, and it shows. Liza Howard – who fell into 4th place with her breast pumping and midday nap, got her self together to come back into 2nd place by several minutes – definitely my heroine of the day. I’m excited for 3rd and 4th place gals Melanie Peters and Silke Koester who ran their way into Western States, and were truly good champions. Paul pulled off a 4th place in a stacked mens field, winning the USATF Masters Championship. And dear Jorge Maravilla won with a course record and another go at the big dance. Grateful to Dave James for following me for 26 miles to at least be able to run for help if I got broken. Ryan for laughing and crying with me. Todd and Krystal and Nicole for filling out the weekend fun. And of course, special thanks to Scott Sports and Injinji socks!

Good stuff.

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc

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The weather gods were with us!

 Slightly rippling in the corner of the apartment shower appeared to be a small cellophane wrapping, clear, with the word “soap” in red print on it. Curious. Must have been left from the previous user, but as I peered closer it disappeared. I stood back. It appeared again. Whoa…what? I blinked my exhausted eyes and shuffled into the room, sat on my bunk, counting the hours I had been on my feet plus awake…33 and…now what was that on the floor? I hadn’t seen that writing before – little messages hand written – one of them for Laurie, and the longer I looked the more there were, and there was that cellophane again. I rubbed my eyes, wondering if there was something with print stuck to my eyeball. The writing on the floor grew, and as I realized I was hallucinating, I wanted to watch and see how much it grew, but then decided it would be in my best interest to lay down and get some much needed sleep.

Breakfast of Champions!

Breakfast of Champions!

It all began two days before. I was up at 8 or so, and Amy and I went for coffee and pastries, then back to the room to eat more and prepare for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 100  (UTMB) which was to begin at 4:30 in the afternoon. Although our packs with the required gear (full rain gear, an extra layer of clothing, warm gloves and hat, survival blanket, extra calories, 50 ml of water, bandage, passport, cellphone, 2 working torches with spare batteries) had been checked at race registration the day before, we spent a good two hours fussing about where to put what. We both tried to rest and eat through the day and at 3:00 headed to the Alpina Hotel to gather with the other seeded runners. We mixed, mingled, and at 4:00 the large group made our way to the start line. The closer we got, the tighter the crowd. Most everyone was through when behind me Mike Wolfe stated “Wow, this is the easiest it has ever been to get through” and I came to an absolute impasse. I didn’t know I had it in me to shove and squeeze around the innocent spectators, but somehow I squirmed through. It took Mike still some time and he grinned sheepishly once he was finally through. So much fanfare in the starting corral, and behind us, 2000 runners, all clad in gear that would take them over the 105 miles over the next day or two. Music was blaring, the crowd was cheering, the race director was making many announcements and many invitations to get us dancing and clapping and hands up to the music – the excitement was contagious, the day was sunny and the mountain was glorious. We carried on for 15 or 20 minutes as the time clicked down.

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Start line!

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Amy and I, fresh as daisies!

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Enthusiastic Fans before the start

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Some 2000 runners behind us

At 4:30 the dam broke and we spilled into the narrow cobblestone street through the iconic village of Chamonix. I put my hands out to the side a bit to protect myself from the onslaught of runners and trekking poles. One trekking pole was dropped and I knew the owner had no chance of recovering that, nor the pair of sunglasses that shattered on the ground before me. Cow bells were rung, families, friends, lovers of sport, lined the road. I was fairly soon in the clear and running a good clip, but already Amy and Rory were out of my sight. Didn’t matter, we had hours and hours to run, and the first physical thing I noticed was how the pack sure felt heavy when I ran…I guess I should have TRAINED with it a LOT more times, versus TESTING it. The crowd didn’t thin too much all the way from when it became a bike path to the first town of Les Houches, about 5 miles in. Bryon Powell and Dave James were both there taking pictures and cheering us all on. I grabbed a drink of water from the aid station and continued through the town to the beginning of the first climb. Killian and Emily, both spectating after last weekend’s victory, were amongst the vocal support – it was good to see such champions be a part of the support side of competition.

As I began the first climb, I reviewed my plan and goals. Keep my heartrate below 165 on the climbs, and around 155 on the runnable sections, and recover the heartrate during the descents. It seemed reasonable to me, based on female times from past years, I could run this course in between 25 and 30 hours. I had used a split generator and randomly chose a few splits that were based on a 27 hour finishing time. Now into a serious climb, I stopped, removed my pack, pulled out my trekking poles, geared back up and continued to climb, now with more aid from my upper body. The surface we were on was mostly gravel on a ski road, which allowed room for the still quite thickly crowded runners. Occasionally a woman would pass, and while my awareness was raised, I reminded myself of the hours and miles ahead. Up and up, false summit after false summit, and finally we were on the top of Delevret at less than 2000 meters, and started the steep cruise down.

First climb, looking down on Les Houches

First climb, looking down on Les Houches

With so many runners, seemingly focused on footing and speed control, there was little conversation. I definitely am more skilled at downhill running than I am fast at going up, and I found myself passing many runners. If I were really going to make a 27 hour-ish finish, then I would be around 2:40 into the run by the end of the descent into the town of Saint Gervais. Getting closer, I could hear the town below, and on one of the many switchbacks I turned an ankle. Not unusual, but it did make me hop a bit, and think about Dylan Bowman, unable to run because of spraining his before the race. Luckily I shook it off, hit the pavement into town, enjoying the crowded scene.

In the tented aid station I drank some coke, a little soup, put some cheese and salami in a baggie, just in case, and ambled out, again to the wild cheers of spectators. My split was under 2:40, and I was so pleased, as I felt I had been running conservatively. Now on the road to Les Contamines, I decided I should “beet” up with some BeetElite. I mixed the powder while I ran, drank it down, and had a nice time cruising the gradual uphill of some single track, some double wide, and still pretty congested field. There were definitely some women who had great strength on the climbs, so there was a fair bit of back and forth on this section. Not feeling comfortable with how it felt using my poles, I decided to pack them away and hike hard without them.  I turned my headlamp on as dusk had turned to dark, and hoped that with less visible cue I would relax a little easier about my competition. Finally hitting Les Contamines, I checked my time against the splits, and was still right on for 27 hours. Mind you, I was only 18 miles into the race,  but there was a percent decline in output factored in to the final result, so all was good.

At the base of the next big climb at Notre Dame de la Gorge, I heard someone shout out my name – it was Donn Zea from California coming out to represent Western States in an official capacity – and it was nice he was able to pick me out in the dark. Spirits lifted a bit, and soon I was power hiking up the old Roman road for the beginning of the second big climb – first to La Balme, at about the same altitude as the first climb, then further on up to 2500 m to Croix du Bonhomme. Whew. It was now a little chilly, and at this checkpoint one of the guards told me to put my “pantalones” on. Huh? I told him I was fine, but he said everyone had to put their extra leg layers on. If I had expected this I wouldn’t have argued, and I didn’t argue much. Actually it gave me a little bit of rest as I had to take my shoes off to put my wind pants on, and decided it would be nice to put my windbreaker on as well. It turned out to be a good decision, as it was now the middle of the night and chilly. Now descending for awhile, I asked my legs to relax and get into the downhill groove. They responded with weakness, and my light was less than satisfactory – I felt like such a rookie at this point – first not practicing with the loaded pack, then not practicing enough with the poles, and now having the light of what seemed like a glowstick – aye-yi-yi. I caught up to a runner with a brighter light and looked ahead at the beam it was giving. That helped a lot until I kicked a rock and my calf nearly seized up. I regained my balance and composure, but he had gapped me enough that I was back to picking my way along the narrow cut out switchback trail of the grassy slope. Another runner came from behind, just as I tumbled all the way to the ground, both calves cramping fiercely. I assured him I was okay, and just lay there on my back waiting for calm to take over. Gingerly, I stood, walked, then jogged, and thought perhaps now having the poles would be a good idea. I didn’t retrieve them yet, and soon arrived at the next aid station in Les Chapieux. One of the kind volunteers helped me add my concoction of Vitargo and Gu brew to water, and motioned for me to relax, made a motion of a big climb before Courmayeur. Not really knowing the course, I then believed it was a climb away from there. I only had one more split memorized and that was to be at Courmayeur at 3:15 in the morning. That seemed doable, but this climb we were on now was taking it’s toll – I was hiking reasonably well, but my god, these climbs went on forever. It was a beautiful night, the stars a seeming extension of the head lamps above me. I was hiking in every way imaginable, hands on knees, hands on hips, pumping arms, all the while thinking how under-prepared I was for this grade that would present itself over and unforgivably over again.

Summiting Col de la Seigne, a checkpoint only, I asked one of the volunteers if they would hand me my poles off my pack. He very kindly obliged, asked me how I was feeling, and I chuckled and responded “I’m tired!” and ambled off. Grateful to be working with gravity rather than against it, I soon realized that my legs were pretty fatigued even for the downhill, and I wasn’t even halfway through this race. Hope, in my mind, always springs eternal, and I was sure once the night was over, I would be a new woman, ready to start cranking down. At the end of this descent, we were NOT in Courmayeur, but in La Combal, Italy. Feeling certain that Courmayeur was just down the road and it was already 4 am, I thought that just an hour off wouldn’t be too bad. I moved up a place or two amongst the women, as I trotted down the road, and was surprised to be directed up some single track again. As if I had bricks on my back, I was crawling again, and soon resigned my thoughts to the fact that there was indeed another climb. I lost the places to the women I had gained before we summited, and the downhill into Courmayeur (finally!) was filled with tiny switchbacks and cut through trails, dust in the air making my already lame lighting less effective. I re-passed a woman I was annoyed about because she seemed so hunched over and ancient, yet kept passing me on the hills, only to find her ahead of me on the streets of Courmayeur, having taking a cut through trail.

Yay! Finally Courmayeur! Our drop bags were supremely organized and those of us without crew were motioned upstairs into a gymnasium. I was momentarily appalled that we were made to go up stairs – really? We have to run up more mountains and you want us to go up a flight of stairs? Then I realized it was the easiest climb I had done all day, and laughed at myself. I finally looked at my watch – it was 5:30. Wow. I was no where near 3:15. No point in dwelling, and at least that meant sunrise was just around the corner.

Runners in the gym were eating pasta and soup, sitting at cafeteria tables. Two women I had been near most of the night were there, and I ate soup, drank coke, filled my bottles and left. The crowd, even in the wee hours of the morning was just as animated as the previous. I began running, missed a turn and was in the middle of a parking lot with no where to go. It wasn’t rocket science to figure out, and thankfully that was the only place I got lost the entire event. I made my way up the long paved road out of the village in the stillness of the night, accompanied only by fellow runners. At some point we were on steep single track again, and I was looking over my shoulder numerous times waiting for the women to catch me again. Dawn broke, I turned off my light, and the reality of the steepness was doubly apparent. Sometimes I carried my poles under my arm, sometimes I lightly used them, but mostly I cursed myself for not seriously studying all the little things that go on at UTMB. Practice with a full pack. Practice with the poles until you’re strong enough to use them for 30 hours. Do multiple hour training days, back to back, with lots and lots of vert. Practice and tinker and find lights that actually light up the path 5-10 feet in front instead of just down at your feet. At least my nutrition seemed to be working. Wheeee.

Grand Col Ferret was looming ahead, reportedly the hardest climb of all. I was full of resolve and still hoped for a 28 hour finish, which would probably still be in the day light. We reached a summit, then ran relatively flat, so I wondered where this great climb was to be. Then into Arnuva, which was downhill – I was pretty confused and thought that maybe in my delirium, we had done the big climb, but then I saw a sign that it would be coming up. I had learned along the way that I was in12th place for females, and I thought that was the perfect place to be when hoping for a top 10 finish. My strength is in my endurance, and at this point, that was the ONLY thing I could bank on. I had no power, no speed, no resilience in my downhill running.

Running through a fairly open yet narrow valley, I saw ahead the trail that would lead me up to the Col, a beautiful grassy mountainside, with runners dotting the way to the first summit I could see. A Swiss flag was mounted on a nob at the base of the climb, so I had made it to the third country at least. A fit man, possibly in his 60’s, with a Swiss flag on his number passed me going up, and I thought about all the fit Europeans I was seeing. These folks are bad ass, not because they set out to be, but because of where and how they grow up. Everything out here seemed like second nature to them, and I felt like a soft American, in over my head, with only my stubbornness and optimism going for me. Nearing a summit, a young runner clad in red spandex lay on his back, staring up at the sky. I asked if he was okay, and he replied “I’m just very tired”. I continued on up and in a short while he was back pacing himself behind me, struggling with the altitude. His number bore the name Dominic, and he hailed from Austria. Despite my fatigue, I was in such awe of the landscape, the sunshine, the runners, I was in heaven.

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Still climbing – Dominic ahead in the red

View back from where we came up

View back from where we came up

Runners up on a false summit

Runners up on their way to the summit

Finally cresting, for real, I began the descent, and omigod my legs were dead. This descent is the longest one – 18 km – so I had plenty of time for them to respond, right? I gingerly made my way, sometimes letting go to gravity, but never feeling smooth. In the distance, cowbells were ringing, and I soon approached the children ringing them – from a family sitting in chairs near their home/refuge – just out to cheer the runners on. Smiles from the family raised my spirit and I cruised along on down to La Fouley.

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Small child with child sized bell, ringing us in

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Small child’s even smaller sibling. They were fully body ringing those things!

Some children ran out to greet and run with their father into the aid station. Once inside, a man with American accent commented “hey, another American!” His name was Chris Wolfe, and I teased him about having a good ultra last name. He denied any relation to Mike Wolfe, but I said he might as well claim him – who would really know? We ran together from there for a good 3 miles, through the next village, past farms, pastures, and spectators. We talked about how the steepness here was much more than we had anticipated and that our legs were shot, but apparently mine more than his as he pulled away when we starting our next ascent. This was a relatively short climb into possibly the most enticing village – Champex-Lac. It was a gorgeous lake village, the sun was shining, spectators lined the streets, played in the water, drank beer and wine. I teased one of my comrades “You know, we have 46 hours to get a finish. We could stay here for hours, drinking beer, swimming.” He agreed, and yet we kept the forward motion. He was from Grenada, Spain, running his first UTMB, and we ran together until we had a decent downhill. I actually was able to let gravity work me down, and my friend fell behind for awhile. In the forest I was surprised by a group of spectators that once again included Donn Zea – a quick encouraging hug from him was so appreciated – and he allowed me time to describe how woefully unprepared I was.

Now we were into the next climb, er, mountain number seven. Obviously they were mountains. Climbs are what we have in Western States and Waldo. Mountains are what we have in Hardrock and UTMB. And I was no mountain climber. So many lessons in such a short time span that at the same time seemed a lifetime. No amount of high altitude tenting and beet juice can replace training on specific terrain. I could have (and have) told anyone that. Hmmm – practice what you preach? Walk the walk? So humbling, but at least I stopped feeling like I would cry at every switch back, and just felt resolve and a little humor. I was generally with the same men (my pod) that I had been with for awhile. They would walk by me on the climbs, and I would catch them at aid stations and leave before them, and we would repeat this dance over and over again. Most were clad in tight Salomon gear, which they wore rather nicely I might add. I kept thinking about Andy Jones-Wilkins in his attempt to don the same attire in some sort of glute supporting fashion, and, shall I say, that he failed epically. And so we went, up and up and up. I would let the men by, until on this climb, one of them said “no, no, I like this pace! I will stay with you. I need to stay slow.” I believe he was from Germany, and he and I kept grinding on. Then I heard a female voice behind. I was getting passed, by a nice young Canadian. She was reluctant to pass, but she was in far better shape, and thus I was in yet a lower position. A volunteer came running down the trail, and we asked how far to the summit. “I think about 300 meters!” Ah, great! Pull, pull, pull, and what seemed like 3000 meters, we finally leveled out. Bells were ringing, and I could see a refuge ahead. And there was Dominic laying by the trailside again.  “Tired?” He affirmed my question. “You’re almost there!” thinking the bells were volunteers at the refuge, but I was mistaken – the bells were on the cows, and the refuge was uninhabited. My German friend and I ran awhile where the terrain flattened, and he mentioned he though we could “finish this thing before dark!” That was encouraging. I asked what time it got dark – he thought we didn’t turn lights on until 9:30 the night before. I thought back to that night and found it odd I hardly remembered that I had run through it. All I felt was compelled to keep running/hiking/moving until I reached Chamonix. We soon caught back up to my USA compadre Chris with another group, for a bit more climbing (really?) and then hit some downhill signal track. They all invited me to go first and I yelled “let’s go legs!” to their amusement. Chris ran with me awhile and then declared his legs were done. I was able to cruise for awhile and in the lowering sun light, I heard such a cacophony of cowbells I had to stop and look around. About a half a mile away I could see a large white moving mass of sheep, fluid, as if one large organism, flowing down the mountain side. I was strangely running on my own – really the first time in awhile I had been so far from anyone. I came to the aid station at Trient, welcomed again by enthusiastic volunteers and spectators.

Just two more climbs! I can do it! My German friend had fallen off the back, but I was still living off his words of hope to finish before dark. Never mind that my 10k sections were taking more than 2 hours. We were promised that the last climb and last descent were runnable, I just needed to get to Vallorcine, and try to do the last climb before dark! Pretty spread out now, I was fairly solo for this climb. And it was just as hard as the last. Up and over, 10k away, and I was running with my Spanish friend again. I let gravity pull me into the aid station at Vallorcine, and was momentarily joined by Chris Wolfe again. I had under 20k to go, and had been at it for 28 hours. Surely with the given info of the easiest descent, I could run 12 miles in 2 hours. Right? It was getting dusky, and when I entered the aid station I asked the lovely French volunteer – “How far to the finish?”  “Twenty kilometers – cinc heures.” My face fell. Five hours? He went on to describe in French and sign language the course that lay ahead. I barely heard him. Fine, I thought to myself. If it is going to take five hours, I am f-ing going to eat cheese. I absolutely took my time in this aid station. Ugh. Five more hours? Sigh. I finally left, head lamp in place, poles in hands, and started away on the grassy, flat section, and I hiked like it was Everest. Humph. It soon turned dark, and eventually I reached “the wall” – which in the daylight you can see and be intimidated by, but by the virtue of the dark, I was spared. My lights actually worked reasonably well here, due to the whiteness of the rock. A voice behind me said “so we meet again!” It was Dominic. We worked our way up the boulder face, making small talk – he’s a young desk jockey, mountaineer, who doesn’t really like running as much as hiking. He said he would stay with me, and so we worked together, passing a bloke who was sitting on a rock. I asked if he was okay –  and he gave the usual response – “I’m just really tired” but he joined the two of us. Soon Dominic tired of my slowness, and I was now with my new German friend. We talked about life, family, running, work, while picking our way up the crazy climb. Each time I thought we had summited, he looked at his GPS and remarked we hadn’t gone high enough. The stars and the headlamps were hard to separate, but finally he pulled ahead to get to the top. One more check in, where I as told we had 11km to go. Waaaah. But go, I did. This is where I believed the runnable downhill would begin. But it was not to be. Boulders, dark, dead legs, and now pathetic lights, made for a slow picking my way along, following head lamps, and being passed by men who still had some balance and strength. Finally, at La Flegere, the last aid station, I was cold and hungry, but determined to power through, until I was offered soup. I succumbed, and decided to pull my jacket and gloves back on. Now only 8km to go, I was nearly ready to go, when another female entered the tent. I realized she was in my age group, but also that she didn’t see me. I tried to sneak out unnoticed, but she was on my tail so quickly I knew I had failed. We ran together on the short down hill before a slight short climb. She said something, and all I could say was “you are a really strong hiker!” and off she went.

A bright headlamp ahead of me was stopped on the now wide gravel road. I said I wanted his light, and he shone it ahead of me so I could see. He lamented that we couldn’t just cut down to Chamonix, whose lights were now glowing a few miles below. Such a welcoming sight! The end was there!

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The lights of Chamonix!

I jogged lightly down the hill until it became single track, rooty, rocky, dusty, and poor visibility. Down, turn, down, turn, down, and finally the trail widened again to gravel road. I debated checking my time, certain I was over 33 hours now, but when I saw 32:30 I was inspired to pick up the pace and try to break it. I began rolling along faster and faster, but fighting sleep and hunger. Every turn promised to be the last, and finally I hit pavement. The road felt good, smooth, fast, and I ran and ran. Looking at my time, I knew I had 10 minutes to get to the finish, but really no concept of where the finish was. Although it was after 1:00 a.m., there were spectators cheering me in. Finally, the finish line in sight, a big smile spread across my face, Amy cheering me in, I crossed it. 32:55.

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I was given the finisher’s red vest, and Amy and I walked back to our apartment. I learned that she had dropped due to medical issues, but she was upbeat and helpful getting me back to our place. We ate some left over salad, and she went to sleep while I  took my shower. It was then the hallucinations began, and as previously stated, felt it in my best interest to get some sleep.

Many races are the “hardest” races for different reasons. This one, because of my lack of training on specific terrain, and not taking such terrain seriously, not practicing enough with a pack full of the necessities, not training with good lights, was the hardest. One thing that inspires me in life are my failures. I don’t like to settle. I plan to attempt this one again. Despite my own failings, I had a wonderful experience in such beautiful mountains with so many runners who share my passion, with spectators and volunteers who understand my passion, and have their own passion for this amazing place. Heartfelt thanks again to Scott-Sports, Injinji, and Ian Torrence for getting me to the finish line with their support.

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Second breakfast post UTMB – the food doesn’t suck here!

Super star Rory receiving her award. Being on that stage makes one feel a little like Evita! I had my moment with a 2nd place age-group placing.

Super star Rory receiving her award. Being on that stage makes one feel a little like Evita! I had my moment with a 2nd place age-group placing.

Visiting Annecy, France, Monday after the race.

Visiting Annecy, France, Monday after the race.

Hanging out in Montreaux with Scott-Sports rep David - I got to spend a day at the Scott Headquarters - good people!

Hanging out in Montreaux with Scott-Sports rep David – I got to spend a day at the Scott Headquarters – good people!

The Queen and Freddy Mercury, Montreaux, Switzerland, where he spend his final days.

The Queen and Freddy Mercury, Montreaux, Switzerland, where he spend his final days.

Swans on Lake Geneva. I don't want to go home!

Swans on Lake Geneva. I don’t want to go home!

Ultraks 16k 2013

Zermatt, Switzerland, a beautiful village near the base of the infamous Matterhorn, was the setting for a new event – the Ultraks Matterhorn races of 3 distances – 46k, 30k, and 16k. Scott-Sports was a title sponsor and I was happy to be there to race under their logo. As I had UTMB 100 mile race coming up a week later, I chose to race the 16k – a little speedwork/warmup for the big one. With the 46k being a new skyrunning event as well, there were some big names coming to race – Killian Journet, Emily Forsberg, Cameron Clayton to name a few.

With staggered starts, I was able to sleep in a bit for the 9:30 start. Favorite women included French woman Laetitia Roux, Swedish woman Victoria Kreuzer. I hoped for a top 3 finish amongst these locals. The course profile on paper looked challenging – 2 major climbs, and an incredibly swift downhill back to Zermatt. I was excited to have a chance to stretch my legs and lungs after the long flight, and to see how I would fare in the high altitude after my summer of sleeping in the Hypoxico altitude tent.

Course Profile with Laetitia Roux in the background.

Course Profile with Laetitia Roux in the background.

The fanfare surrounding the three races was electrifying – music, announcers, a jumbo-tron filming the start line, interviews with the favorites – and the many enthusiastic supporters, made for an easy warmup.  I moved up to the front of the start line and at 9:30 we began running the cobblestone streets of Zermatt – a very quick start – and I was soon sitting in fifth position amongst the women as I watched four women ahead of me gradually pull away on the so far gradual climb. Keeping myself from entirely exploding, once reaching the single track, I began to hike the very steep grade. As usual, I had men knocking on my door, and one by one, I let them by. The first climb of about 4 miles was intense and my heart rate drifted up to 178 – which was a good sign of my fitness as my legs were strong at this level, but my lungs couldn’t quite go any higher.

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Nice view of the Matterhorn, which I completely ignored, for fear of falling. Photo by Cyril Bussat

Finally cresting, high above Zermatt at Sunnega (2200 m), the course descended, and I spent the next mile passing a few that had earlier passed me. Above tree line where I’m sure the views were spectacular, I could only focus on the ground before me.  I was seemingly not affected by the altitude, only the grade of the climb was unfamiliar to me leading to what seemed an insurmountable distance between myself and the women ahead, as I had no sight of them at all.

The short descent ended at about mile 5 and once more, we began to climb up. I hiked hard, trying to not hold anyone up, and for the most part I held my ground to the next peak of Riffelalpe (2200 m) and aid station at mile 6. I let myself unreel down the steep single track, closing gaps on the men in front of me. We ran through little settlements high on the Alps, through cafe yards with cheering customers. At the last aid station, I blew through, hoping to shorten the gap between myself and the ladies ahead. A man in blue that had passed me on the climb, made his way to the side and let me by on a switchback, and he quickly rode my heels down the sweet, steep, rocky, but runnable descent. Then he strode past me for awhile, and I rode his heels. Down and down, the single track sometimes became double track and I went around, then he went around – like carefree children cavorting down the steep Alpine terrain – sometimes either of us taking cut-through trails, but always staying close together.

Just a little chalet up in the mountains! Photo by Cyril Bussat

Just a little chalet up in the mountains! Photo by Cyril Bussat

Dirt single track became paved bike path into Zermatt. I passed my downhill comrade and in doing so owned that I would try to stay ahead. Spectators were thickening along the river through the village, I pushed here against the will of my physical self. Happily my heart rate was again up to 178 and my pace was dropping down to the 6:20s. My Garmin read over 10 miles now, and I was straining my eyes and ears for the finish. A cobble-stoned uphill narrow alley nearly had me crawling, but the turn from there illuminated the finish line and I was damned if I would crawl at this point. At 1:56, I crossed the finish line, still in 5th place. Laetitia and Victoria had finished 1st and 2nd only 15 seconds apart, and 11 minutes ahead of me. My blue-shirted friend crossed, and we shook hands and he hugged me so tight I thought I might break.

Finish line in sight. Photo by Cyril Bussat

Finish line in sight. Photo by Cyril Bussat

Now we waited while 30k and 46k runners began to filter in. Cameras placed high on the course allowed townsfolk to watch the progress on the jumbo-tron. I had the pleasure of watching Killian Journet and Emily Forsberg each win the 46k. As the afternoon wore on  the clouds moved in, and then the rain began. I enjoyed post race food of raclette and then pasta. Finally the awards ceremony started, and despite the rain, the number of spectators, family, and friends that attended was remarkable. Every race had 3 podium finishers, plus places 4-10 were listed on the jumbo-tron.

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Zermatt is most enjoyable – so many outdoor enthusiasts, in thru-hikers and residence alike. Even more special was meeting my Scott -Sports reps and hanging out with them during the weekend. They are very dedicated and serious about their products and their work, and very supportive of their athletes. As always, I extend my thanks to them as well as Injinji socks and my coach, Ian Torrence.

White River 50

With Western States and my pacing duties at Hardrock fresh in my memory, I headed up to Washington’s Mt Rainier for Scott McCoubrey’s beautiful singletrack 50 mile race. It was my fourth time here, and I was feeling ready to go after the elusive sub-8:00 finish, having gotten as close as 8:10 three years before. I wasn’t sure if I was completely recovered, but didn’t feel particularly tired. At not-precisely 7:00 (Scott graciously waited for the last person to exit the porta-johns to set us off) the field of 200+ runners were on their way towards the first long ascent. I fell in behind Phil Kochik and Amy Sproston for the first mile of twisty single track, and eventually was nipping their heels. Only a couple of miles into the race, I went around Amy, feeling spry along the mostly flat section through the first aid station.

And then the climbing started. So far so good, I thought. I’m working hard, but moving well enough, and running most of it. Then it occurred to me that I was beginning to accrue a bit of a train behind me. I held my own when if flattened out, but I was definitely in the way on the climbs. I stepped aside letting a group, including Amy and young Ashley Arnold pass by. My heart rate was a bit high trying to keep ahead, so I backed off the effort and let the train gap me. The climb seemed never ending, the openings out from the woods into the open views of Mt Rainier were more numerous than I remembered. I had now become isolated in the massive woods, but the solitude was convenient for jumping off the trail to answer nature’s call. Afterward, I cruised into the next water only aid station and blew through. There was no freely given data on how far ahead Amy and Ashley were, so I gathered it was more than a minute or two. There was yet more climbing before the beginning of the lollypop loop that would indicate the end of the first climb, and I was happy to at least get to this loop before I ran into the gals on their way back. I asked at the aid station volunteers how far ahead they were. To my surprise, Ashley was ahead of Amy, and Amy was only a few minutes ahead of me.

This lollypop loop was new from 3 years ago, and involved an additional 200 feet of gain – which doesn’t sound like much, but I felt it. When all the uphill finally turned to downhill, I began to unfold and cruise downhill, back to the minimal aid station, then onto the long switchback section. The field was very spread out, but I had the company of a runner, Ian from Seattle, and we chatted our way back down to the start finish area, 26 miles into the race. I was still hoping to run a sub-8:00, and continued to do math on what the odds were. Well, I was well over 4 hours, so unless I had a phenomenal second half, it didn’t seem likely. I pulled into the aid station where I was told I was second female. What?  I looked up and saw Amy standing behind the table. She was done for the day, leaving me to pursue Ashley on my own. I refueled, and scooted out, and actually was feeling pretty good.

Joining me was another 52 year old, and we chatted for quite a long time as we climbed the long, steady grind to the next aid station. We started to catch some of the young men who had been a bit ambitious in the first half, and eventually my companion also dropped off. As I got to aid station I learned that Ashley had left only 5 minutes ago and was nursing a sore ankle. Being that close to her got me out of the aid station quickly and with a bit more purpose. My eyes kept straining through the dark forest for any sign of her. Mountain bikers came toward me, one of them telling me she was just up ahead. In my eagerness, I did a nice face plant, swearing at myself for being careless.

On and on I strained, waiting for her to come back to me. I reached the last grinding climb up to Suntop, where Glenn Tachiyama was in his usual place taking pictures. I asked him how far ahead she was, and he said she had already left the aid station. Once there, I was cooled off with sponges, ate some water melon, and asked when she left. “About 8 minutes ago!” Ah – well I guessed her ankle was under control and she was still moving well. Every time I checked my watch I was further from my goal and getting out of reach of my fastest time, but with 6+ miles of gravel road, downhill, I cranked up the pace. Down, down, and down some more, still looking ahead for a sign of Ashley. At the bottom of the descent, the road continues another half mile before the last aid station. I quickly went from sub 7 minute pace to over 8 minute miles, and felt like I was running in deep sand.  I fought my way in, asked where Ashley was, and when I heard she was only 3 minutes ahead, I downed a couple of cups of coke, stated “I gotta go!” and blew out of there. I had 6 miles to try to reel her in, but my mind was way ahead of my body. There was little response from my legs, and exhaustion became the ruler of the mind. I made myself stop looking at my watch as I already knew I would be WAY over 8 hours, and I didn’t want to check so often that the Garmin distance would seem unchanged.

Only a few miles to go! Photo by Takao Suzuki.

Only a few miles to go! Photo by Takao Suzuki.

Slogging along I began to wonder if any women would catch me in this laborious section. I had to admit to myself that the previous month of racing and pacing had made its mark – since I am still unwilling to admit my age has anything to do with a slower race. Nothing really to do but keep jogging. Eventually someone’s footsteps became audible, and a male runner overtook me. We concurred that there was maybe only a half mile left, and sure enough, we were soon on the last stretch of gravel road to take us into the finish.

I crossed the finish line in 8:37 to Ashley’s 8:28 – not my slowest time, but I wasn’t too excited about it. Scott greeted me warmly, pleased with my performance, reminding me what I had done the last month. I spent the next several hours socializing, greeting other runners, and enjoying the great food and nice weather the graced us.

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Award ceremony with 3rd place Alicia Woodside, myself, Ashley Arnold, and Scott McCoubrey.

White River is a great event – well established, old school, good aid stations, awesome volunteers, amazing single track and spectacular views. Big thanks to Scott McCoubrey, Scott-sports, Injinji, and Ian Torrence for yet another rich experience!

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