With well rested body and mind, I headed into a race I had never run. The Quicksilver 100k boasts 13,000 feet of climbing and descending, which is similar to what we have at the Waldo 100k, and based on that and how I was feeling, I set a goal of breaking 11 hours. I had done that twice at Waldo, so it seemed attainable, but not a gimme.
Joelle Vaught, Denise “Little D” Bourassa, and Darcy Piceu, were the women on my radar, although I knew there were others who could step up their game. Regardless, I only planned on what it would take to get me to the finish line strong, but spent.
With my new Petzl self adjusting headlamp, I was ready to tackle the early morning darkness. Arm warmers and a Buff were all I needed for extra warmth as the morning was mild. Race Director Rajeev gave us a pre-race briefing with the explicit instructions to not be eaten by a cougar so don’t run alone, and to follow the orange ribbons, then pink, then yellow. Or was that pink, then orange, then yellow? With blind faith that it would all be crystal clear, we took off at 4:30 am, full of enthusiasm and hope for a perfect day.
My plan was to keep my heart rate below 155 on the flat and downhill sections, and below 165 on the climbs, and to consume 200-300 calories per hour. As we climbed up out of the start area, the camaraderie was evident with greetings, introductions, catching up on each others recent races. I stayed relaxed, watched Little D pull ahead, and knowing that Darcy and Joelle were ahead, kept my eyes on my heart rate monitor, and did not worry about them. The only race won in the first mile, is a one mile race. The only race won in the first 50 miles, is a 50 mile race. It was going to be a long day and I meant to enjoy every bit of it.
Starting 30 minutes into the race, I had my first Huma gel, and would continue that throughout the race. Chloe Romero turned me onto these before Lake Sonoma, and I am forever grateful. Look ’em up! They go down like applesauce.
The course was interesting with little out and backs and lollypop loops that included historical mining artifacts, such as a short jaunt into a mine cave, and a loop around a cemetery – where I could see Joelle, then Darcy, then Little D ahead. Against the advice of Rajeev, I did find myself a bit isolated about the time I hit some dark single track. With no one around I clicked my light to the brightest setting – so bright! Until it dimmed again. Hmmm. I hit again. BRIGHT! And then it dimmed. Obviously this was going to take a deeper reading of the manual. So I kept fussing with it until I was near runners again. I reached the first aid station 2 gels in, and Mark was there ready to swap out my vest with another vest loaded with a bottle of water and 6 gels. He said Little D had just left.
I caught up and ran with buddy Jeff Kozak. The miles clicked away, as he would pull ahead on the climbs, and I would catch up on the descents. I took more gels on schedule, and with the consumption of my first one with caffeine, I felt myself come to life. At about mile 11, I started to race. I was feeling great, and ready to ramp up my game a bit. On another out and back, I saw Chikara, comfortably in the lead, then Jesse Haynes and Paul Terranova, who both took the time for trail hugs. I glided down this paved section to a parking lot AS where I had a piece of banana and coke. As I left the volunteers shouted “bring back a card from the turnaround!” Off I went, and soon met Joelle on her way out. I took a mental note of her distance, and ran with a good clip, saw Darcy and Little D coming out of the little lollypop. The runner in front of me stooped to get a card, and picked one up for me as well. I appreciated his courtesy, and later ran more with this David Sanderson of Sacramento. We deposited our cards back to the AS, and began the long stretch we had climbed, greeting runner after runner on their way out. I saw Jeff in front of me followed by Darcy. I commented to both of them that I wasn’t sure which of them had the nicest calves. Cruising on by I let gravity pull me down the long hill. Ahead was Little D, and at the bottom I caught and passed her. As the road leveled out, I put in a little more effort, and was glad to feel my legs respond – I could feel the benefits of the tempo runs I had done with Craig at Lake Natomas week after week. Every short hill, I ran, channeling my inner-Caren, dancing up as effortlessly as possible.
I found the course to be beautiful. There was not much single track but the service roads weren’t too harsh, and the lack of technical terrain made for good turnover. Giant eucalyptus trees in a mixed forest gave shade intermixed with some very exposed sections. The high fog had lingered all morning long, keeping me cool. I had the silly Uncle Kracker song “Yeah, it feels good to be me” running through my head, only occasionally exchanged with “Do you know the way to San Jose?” by Karen Carpenter. Who needs an iPod with a brain like that?
At the mile 19 AS I took bananas and coke again and was on my way to the apex of this first giant loop, where I would see Mark. The miles continued to fly by and I reached mile 24 where he was ready with my pack. I drank an Ensure, while he told me Joelle was 11 minutes ahead. Wow! I thought it would be a bigger gap than that, so I was pretty motivated to stay on task. I still felt great. I couldn’t recall the last time I felt this good in a race. I hiked/jogged out the next long climb. David caught me on the climb and we chatted awhile, passing the time working together until the terrain separated us by our different abilities. He was stronger climbing, I, on the descending. Jeff passed me as well, commenting that he wished he was as graceful on the downhills as I was. Now began the longest, steepest ascent – fondly referred to as “Dog Meat”. Looking up, I could see bits of the road stretching high above, but it didn’t phase me. I just worked my way up as efficiently as possible. I wasn’t entirely sure this was the steepest section, but I couldn’t imagine there being anything more severe. Gel after gel, mile after mile, climb after climb. I hit the halfway point right at 5 hours and was a bit surprised at that. I hoped my inevitable slowdown wouldn’t mean I was an hour slower in the second half, but I could see how that might happen.
As it finally leveled out, I caught The Other Brian Purcell. As we slowly picked up the pace, we caught Jeff again. I teased him with “I caught back up so you could watch me run gracefully downhill some more!” He just giggled and let us go. Brian and I clicked along quickly all the way back to Hicks AS at mile 39, where Mark was waiting again. “Joelle is 8 minutes ahead.” Wow – that surprised me. I thought with that long climb her lead would be unsurmountable. Mark Tanaka had also arrived around the same time, and hurried in and out of the porta-potty, yelling “Hand sanitizer! Hand sanitizer!” I don’t know.That is never really on my mind when running an ultra.
I left the AS on fire. Mark Tanaka was with me for awhile, then fell off the pace. He and Brian both yelled out to me “good luck Meghan!” as I wheeled on down the road. A pleasant surprise for me was to see John “TJ” Medinger on the trail. He said “she’s about 10 minutes ahead.” Well, that was consistent enough for me to keep hopeful. I hit an intersection with orange flags to the right, greenish-yellow flags to the left. No other markers and no one around to ask. I went with my gut that we were still on orange, and as I flew down the wooded descent I was mildly assured by the fact that people were hiking up and occasionally cheering me on. At last I was dumped out at the parking lot of the start area, ran to the AS where Mark was ready with my pack, and said I was now 7 minutes back. I downed another Ensure, and made my way out focused on getting the next 3 miles done where I would see Mark again.
With the appearance of the sun, the grueling nature of these three miles, and 2 Ensure consumed in fairly short order, I was feeling a bit urpie. I decided I would forego Ensure next aid. Upon arriving, I pulled my Buff off and dunked it in a bucket of ice, sponged off, and as I swapped vests, Mark informed me I was now 8 minutes behind Joelle. Ah well, if it played out with me 10 minutes behind her at the finish, I would count that as a small victory. Despite my slightly off stomach, I was still feeling great.
Out now on the second loop of the course, I was still feeing strong, energized by keeping the nutrition up. Onto some nice shaded single track, I once again ran into TJ who informed me I was now 3-4 minutes back. Wow. I didn’t expect that! I responded that I was having a great day. Eventually we hit one of the unique sections of the course, emphasizing the history of the area – a wall of mine tailings that was a bit slow and lose going up, but provided an entertaining break from the relative normalcy of an utlra.
I could hear Mark Tanaka catching back up to me, and when we reached the next aid at mile 46, we both refueled and left together. He described more of the upcoming route, and I stayed with him for a few miles. Finally, on a long single track descent, he pulled away, chatting all the while. I’m not sure when he realized I was no longer in hearing range. As the trail met a road, I saw to my left Joelle and her pacer Marc Laveson sitting at an aid station. “Yo Sistah! What’s up?” I asked. “Oh, I thought I would have a little picnic!” was Joelle’s cheerful response. I love that girl. She has never been anything less than positive and cheerful no matter the circumstances, embodying the truth that this is what we do for fun. She cheered me on, and I scooted onward to the mile 52 AS.
As Mark saw me approach, I tripped but avoided a face plant. He chucked “don’t fall down!” He said I was doing great, and I replied that there was still plenty of time to screw up. I had debated coming in here as to what I would do for the last 10 miles – treat it like the Ice Cream Sandwich Run and leave all supplies behind after consuming a lot of coke and sugar? I decided against that. All I needed to do was continue what I was doing, don’t go too hard and bonk or cramp, and don’t get too lazy and get re-passed. I slowly but steadily climbed out of the aid station, pleasantly surprised at my ability to keep running uphill. One final out and back section of very rocky terrain and I had less than 5 miles to the finish. Near the top, Jeff came down and as it occurred to him that I was in the lead, he gave some very enthusiastic cheers. At the top, I saw Joelle and Marc on their way down. She too, cheered wildly, then asked “do we have to go down this?” I assured her we did, indeed. Ever more cognizant of her presence, I knew I needed to stay focused. She is one speedy gal, and if she rallied I had no doubt she could hunt me down.
I tried to force one more gel down on the way to the final aid station. When my swallower refused to work, I squeezed the remaining ooze onto the ground and shoved the sticky mess into a pocket. I was easily going to make it to the finish without more calories. At the final AS with 3 miles to go, I downed some coke and headed off on the “it’s all downhill from here!” section. I was flying, until suddenly the course went up. What? Who put this uphill in the downhill? Was Joelle going to catch me here? I slogged up each of the short uphills, and hammered the downs. Finally, I could hear the finish line festivities, and seeing the banner, surged to cross. I was stunned to see my time of 10:18.
I have not had a race of such consistent energy and push for a few years, and it felt awesome. Many, many thanks to Stephanie Howe for reminding me that we need to eat 200-300 calories per hour. Thanks to my sponsors, Altra Running and Injinji Socks. The Altra Torin’s were the perfect shoe for this course with all of the service road surfaces and no mud whatsoever. Thanks to Quicksilver volunteers – super attentive and great aid stations! And finally, super duper thanks to my boyfriend Mark Laws, for his awesome crewing and supporting!
Debacles in training are gifts. But only in training, and fortunately, I had one 4 weeks prior to Lake Sonoma. I had partaken in an organized training weekend, compliments of RD Tropical John Medinger, and on day 2 of running 25 miles, I fell apart. Not in a dramatic “Oh My God, I suck, and I’m gonna cry until someone comes to get me” but more of a gradual diminishing energy that slowed my pace, step by step, so that I the last 12 miles were spent sucking every gu wrapper dry and reminding myself “I love running!” Realizing that of late, that is how I feel at the end of races and runs, I asked Stephanie Howe for some nutritional guidance. Not to dis any one nutritional program, but I went to Steph because I KNOW she fuels well in races, and I also know that she is reading all of the current literature on nutrition and would give me unbiased advice. And that she did. Bottom line – I was failing miserably in calorie intake on long runs, somehow talking myself out of keeping up, out of laziness to make a sandwich or being totally disgusted with sports gels and like products.
The weeks following said debacle and subsequent advice, I practiced eating 200-300 calories per hour on my long runs. It worked. Duh. I felt like an old dog who forgot the tricks. But with renewed commitment, I was ready to tackle race day with a plan and a pack full of gels.
Two years ago, I ran here, and underestimated the impact of all those rolling hills. I went out hard, and raced fairly decently until the final 12. They were miserable. I had gone from running all the rollers to barely walking at the end, and coming in at 8:15 – happy to finish in the top 5, but whipped before the end. “Death by a 1000 paper cuts” – Steve Itano.
This year – I had my nutrition back under control, and also had been training with Caren Spore, a 4’10” monster hill runner, who continually shames me into running hills instead of hiking, much to the chagrin of my training partners Mark, Craig and Matt, whom I now also shame into running, or else they swear at Caren as I slowly pull away. With those aspects of my training, plus some big mileage weeks, i was looking to break 8 hours this year.
Tropical John, aka TJ, does an amazing job of creating a race of the top athletes that matches if not exceeds the competitive field of Western States 100. It is a Who’s Who on ultra running, and the excitement amongst the runners, and the attention to detail of the volunteers is inspiring. Healdsburg itself is reason enough to make the trip over, but add in a high end pasta/pizza feed the night before, tamales, pulled pork, and Bear Republic beer at the finish line, plus wine tasting on Sunday – it really seems like a weekend party with a little 50 mile run thrown in.
Mark and I arrived at the race start a good hour ahead of time, giving me plenty of time to warmup and catchup with what friends I could make out in the darkness. And at 6:30, TJ had us assembled on the start line and shooed us on our way. Two and half miles of pavement feels really long when you’re eyes are peering ahead as the runners string out further and further. I had my heart rate monitor to guide my effort, the goal to stay around 150-155 on the flat (of which there was about zero) and below 165 on the climbs. That kept me in a pack of girls before the single track of Denise “Little D” Bourassa, Katie DeSplinter, Pam Smith, Newbie Ashley Erba (all of 19 years old). When we hit single track, I fell behind Pam and Ashley, and watched them pull away. I kept my blinders on, looking at the trail in front of me, and the heart rate. It was going to be a long day.
Downhill, I was letting gravity pull me down, and the many rollers in the first few miles were already making an impact on my quads. Yuck! Was I going to have the same race as 2 years ago? I was not feeling awesome. But, I took a Huma gel at 30 minutes, then 60 minutes, and sipped from my bottle of Tailwind, and around 10 miles realized I was actually starting to feel pretty good! I had been passed by a few men and women, but didn’t give chase. I arrived at the first significant creek crossing, and saw my friend Chris Jones who cheered me on, and I thanked him by giving him my trash.
At the aid station, I had my bottle topped off with water, and began the slow climb out, and thanks to my running with Caren, found myself gently running the long climb. Behind me was a silent gal, who had been following me for some miles. I finally asked if she wanted to go around, and she said no, she liked where she was and felt safe having me set the pace. Turns out it was Lydia Gaylord whom I had met last summer, and she was determined to have this 2nd attempt at Lake Sonoma go better than her first. We ran mile after mile together, eventually picking up another Bay Area runner, Burr, and the three of us worked together to Madrone Point at mile 18.
Meredith Terranova was there waiting for Paul’s return, and saw me struggling opening a pack of Tailwind to add to my water, jumped up and made it all happen, hugged and kissed me and shooed my out of there. Lydia and Burr were ready to hike out the long climb, and we kept the effort under control chatting up to the top, where another group of crew and friends shouted encouragement.
The three of us scooted downhill, Lydia falling off a bit. Burr and I soon caught and passed a very controlled Kaci Lickteig, content on keeping in control and having a decent finish. Before we hit the last long climbing section to the turn around, the lead men were coming at us – Alex Varner followed closely by Ryan Bak, then Rob Krar, youngster Jared Hazon, Jorge Maravilla, Max King – such a cast of fast boys! It was very inspiring.
Burr and I hiked and ran, keeping the effort under control, me keeping my HR under 165. As we crested, we finally were greeted by smooth moving Stephanie Howe. We greeted each other with enthusiasm and encouragement. We have a special history, Steph and I. We trained together while she was in Corvallis, working on her PhD, and she was a sponge for knowledge of ultra running, very humble, hardworking, and respectful. Watching her progress to the successful races she’s having is very exciting.
On and on, up and up. I was so pleased at feeling good and being in control, eating every 30 minutes, keeping that heart rate where it belonged. On the final loop going into the turn around, I could see Little D. She disappeared around the bends, and when I arrived at the aid station, I no longer saw her. “The Queen is in the house!” bellowed TJ. I saw Chris Jones again, and asked him to transfer my gels from my pack to the front pockets, while an aid station volunteered quickly filled my water bottle. I was quickly out, apparently ahead of Liitle D, as I never saw her ahead of me again.
I plugged away on the return trip. Happily, my legs had strength, my spirit had will, and I focused on form, control, and the 30 minutes of calorie intake. I was quite liking the Huma gels, but the Powergel was getting TOO sweet. Wished all I had were Huma. It was fun seeing so many friends in this section and finally seeing Mark moving steadily to the turnaround, his usual, cheerful countenance. His words of encouragement lifted me. A bit later, I caught up to Jady Palko, who’s signature race style is go HARD at the start, hold on for dear life, and try not to suck at the end. He saw me coming and kept me at bay for another mile or so, climbing up to the campground above Madrone. The decent was wicked, and after about half a mile he slowed, saying “175 pounds on this downhill is just too much” and let me go by. I told him “I just want to break 8 hours!” At the aid station, John Catts and Karl Hoagland crewed me well, and sent me on my way.
I was still feeling pretty damn good! I was now in 6th or 7th place, and just happy to feel strong. I was with a couple of guys, and eventually heard a woman’s voice, and saw Kaci moving back up. She finally came up behind and I complimented her on her controlled effort and let her go by. She was moving effortlessly and with grace. I stayed between two men, one I almost kept catching, and one that kept almost catching me, mile after mile. At mile 38 – Warm Springs aid station, I drank some ginger ale, ate a banana, and cruised out, with just one of the men behind me. We stayed connected, mile after mile, and I learned he was Jack, from Berkeley, and so we had some common friends. We chatted some, but mostly worked in gritty silence. I did eventually catch a toe, do a super woman, scrape my hand up good, and dislocate a rib (but not badly, as I wasn’t aware of it until next day). Jack asked if I was okay, and I bounced up, shook it off, and forged on. I could see a female runner ahead, who heard me and kept trying to hold her place, but eventually we caught and passed her. I resisted checking my Garmin for mileage, as it seemed to be taking a long time to get to the final aid station, so I just kept telling myself “We’ll get there when we get there”. And I was right! As I entered the trail, Kaci and Lindsey Tollefson were just leaving, looking bright and cheery, heading out on the last 4 mile stretched. I cruised in quickly, grabbed water, and said “I just want to break 8 hours!” It was 4. 7 miles and I had 45 minutes to do it. Surely, I could manage some sub-10 minute miles, right?
Back on the trail, Jack caught me again, as I was going snail’s pace on the steep climb. “I’m going to go on past you now Meghan, and see what I can do” and off he scooted up the climb. I was still feeling strong, just not as powerful. At the beginning of this race I felt like my VW Jetta – all sporty, agile, smooth, good gas mileage – but at this point I was feeling more like my 1999 Toyota Tacoma 4×4 – my engine was strong, but my gas mileage had plummeted, my struts were shot, and I was in general, pretty beat up.
Ahead of me another runner was struggling, and he gave me incentive to keep moving strong. He encouraged me as I passed and soon I heard a voice from above shouting “Way to go Meghan! You have moved up so far this half! The next gal is only 1 minute ahead!” It was Bryan Pro, and as I wound my way up and past him, he jumped on the trail behind me, giving me the lowdown on the other women ahead. Every time the trail flattened I was still able to open my stride and push. When Bryan said I only had 2 miles to go, my spirit sank a bit, as I was getting close to 8 hours. So I went for a course PR. I was grunting and groaning for the final miles, a sign that I was truly having a good race, and finally reached the only flat spot of the course, the final 50 feet to the finish line, in 8:09.
TJ greeted me again with the Queen announcement, gave me a big bear hug plus a magnum of fine wine, saying “I don’t know how to tell you this Meghan, but a man in your age-group came in about a minute ago. I’m not sure what to call that – you didn’t get chicked. I know, you got dicked!” Never a dull moment with TJ.
Mark soon arrived back at the finish line, courtesy of a wild Subaru ride from the mile 38 aid station. Making it that far on minimal training as he fought his way back from illness and various set backs was a good thing. Everyone seemed to enjoy the post race festivities of good food and good beer and good friends.
Many many thanks to TJ and Lisa, all the wonderful volunteers, to all of the fabulous athletes on the course, and the cheering spectators! A big thanks to Altra Running – love the Superiors! – and to Injinji – again, no blisters! And of course to our lovely hostess for the weekend, Mary Prchal.