Fourmidable 50k was NOT on my radar, until my friend and RD of said event, Paulo Medina, was awarded the USATF National Championship status. I really believe in promoting a good relationship with USATF and the ultra running world, and I wanted to support Paulo and his business “Single Track Running”. My reason for dragging my feet up until now, was that I generally suck on climbs, and this had 4 of them, rather significant, plus a lot of lesser ones. So, after just declaring I was going to focus on races that feed to my strengths, I found myself registered for one of the hardest 50ks in the American River drainage.
Once that decision was made, I was ON! I was running up Cardiac and K2 and the Salt Creek loop at every opportunity. What just happened to me? But, as would make sense, the climbs got easier. I got up to running the entire course 2 times before the race. I was focused.
Race weekend approached, and I was happily resting up, and even more blessed by the arrival of my dear friend and our 100k Team USA manager Lin Gentling who flew out from Minnesota as the USATF official for the race. I would have been just as happy hanging out with her all day as I was racing. Like a lot of competitors, I did my homework/stalking on ultrasignup, seeing what my likely placement would be. With Yiou Wang and Addie Bracie, both crazy fast runners in the field, my next best bet for someone to race was long time friendly competitor and fine human being, Jennifer Pfeifer. We go way back to the 2008 Olympic Marathon trials in Boston. She had just had a baby and I had 3 weeks of training, coming off an injury. As the gun went off, all the girls shot off like cannons. Jen and I were like, whoa, and I said to her (as we ran with the motorcycle escorts behind us, in last place) “You know it they’ll come back. We won’t be last”. And I was right. We finished, and we were not last.
But I digress…
I felt good as I warmed up. I was excited to see how the day would play out. At 8:00 we were off, Yiou and Addie disappearing quickly. I chatted with Jen briefly before she pulled ahead on the first mild climb. I was watching my pace and heart rate closely. For 50k, a 160-165 heart rate was a goal to sustain. For my time goal of sub 5:00 I needed to average 9:40 minute miles. By the time I reached the bottom of the first climb I was at 7:30 pace. Cool! I knew, of course, it would rise and fall with each climb and descent, but this was faster than I imagined.
First climb was Cardiac. I hiked and jogged my way up, hearing buddies Lee McKinley, Bryan Twardus, and Tim Twietmeyer chatting casually right behind me, sort of surprised me. Lee and I trained together a lot, but Tim usually sandbags his running efforts, and Bryan is young but still a little less experienced. Once we summited this first of the four climbs, I stretched out and cruised along the next couple of miles to finish a loop of 5 miles. Lin was at the end of the loop, cheering me, telling me Jen wasn’t that far ahead.
On this next section, all rolling and a bit of mud, I worked hard, not too hard, keeping the heart rate in check.Bryan passed on, reminding me how I inspire him (then why are you passing me??) and Lee was close behind him. We came to a minor climb, Tim right behind me, and another runner came up beside me, breathing rather hard. I teased him “You know this isn’t the second climb, right? He slowed a bit, and asked if I was Meghan. “Yes, I am!” ‘i’m Lucas, Jenelle’s boyfriend!” Jenelle Potvin is a woman I’ve been coaching for a couple of years, so we chatted a bit, as he slowed down. The next downhill section, he pulled away, and Tim and Lee and I crossed No Hands Bridge together. I stopped at the aid station, took a long pull from a can of Coke as Tim and Lee pulled ahead.
Next climb was the formidable K2, AKA Training Hill. I had hated this climb up until I started training on it, and trying to figure out the most efficient way to get up it without shooting my legs for the rest of day. Tim and Lee were out of sight quickly, but I just kept my head down, avoiding being intimidated by the steep terrain ahead.
Finally cresting, I unfolded my legs, and worked on catching my breath, and looked ahead. There were no runners in sight. Jeez! How did they get so far ahead? Never mind, I just worked on recovering, relaxing, getting my heart rate down. I cruised, hopped, puddle jumped my way the next downhill road, and soon onto a nice single track. i caught and passed one runner, having a struggle with cramping, and continued to be surprised that I didn’t see anyone else ahead of me. I guess i was still slower than I thought on climbs to be gapped so much. I had messed my watch up at this point and lost track of my overall pace, but was locked into an effort now that I hoped to maintain.
Another short climb and I was on my way to the next aid station, as Lee and Tim were heading toward me on the short out and back. Unfortunately, there were no women in sight here – Jen was too far ahead. So that only gave me the focus of trying to stay close to Twietmeyer. After the aid station came the longest descent, which I excel at. Down, down, down, and when I was tired of down, there was more down. And then the up. Fourmidable Climb number 3. I kept my head down, but could see Twietmeyer all the way up. Always enough ahead to be out of reach, but never completely gone. When I reached the next aid station, I could see him leaving. I passed another 50+ male here, and headed down to Knickerbocker creek. The race was very spread out now, so there were many sections of solitude. After crossing I could see Tim again, and for the next 5 miles of the Olmstead loop, replete with small rollers, mud bogs (formuddable?), and some runnable terrain, I played cat and mouse with Tim and Lucas, finally passing Lucas, all the way into Cool. At this aid station, I grabbed a gel (again) and in trying to swallow it, nearly had my first ultra puke. Ack! I slowed down a bit to get it down, then, knowing I had only over 7 miles left, I was ready to go!
In a short while, I sensed that I was closing in on Tim, and soon I caught him. “Do you need me slap you on the butt?” I teased. “I could probably use it” was his response. I pulled away, with the intent of separating myself from him and maybe closing in on Jen, but of course I had no idea where she was. Once I hit the Western States course, I whooped back to Tim, and I continued to bomb down the trail, cognizant of all the roots and rocks and trip-able opportunities. Finally reaching No Hand Bridge again, I downed some Coke, then headed off for the last 4 miles. Ahead I could see Lee’s bright orange shirt, and gradually closed in on him. “Well played Meghan” were his words as I caught him. “Oh, not so sure about that. I was hoping I could race Jen, but I haven’t seen her since mile 2!” He replied that he had been seeing her, so that gave me enough fuel to keep pumping my arms, and legs, since, by the way, my pace had fallen very far from 9:40, and a sub 5 was no longer in the picture.
Churning away the next few miles, up the climb towards Robie Point, and then back down towards the river, I asked my friend Jim Kepfer, who was volunteering, how far ahead Jen was. “Oh, a good 6 minutes. You won’t catch her”. You gotta respect honesty. None-the-less, I cruised down as quick as I could, only to be stopped in my tracks when I saw a runner laying down next to the trail. “Hey! Are you okay?” “Yes, I’m just working on my tan” was his half-jovial, half-destroyed answer. I double checked with him, but he assured me he would be fine.
Another short climb, then onto the railbed, and soon I could see Bryan Twardus again. Cool! Maybe I would catch him! Around the next bend, he was no where in sight. Apparently he had seen me and put a little boost in his step. Grinding and grinding to the last of the 4 climbs, he was always out of reach. Halfway up the last crazy steep climb, I recognized that my legs were shot, and I was pleased that, even though far off my time goal, my legs had made it to within the last .25 miles of the run.
I struggled across the finish line to the wonderful welcomes and cheers of my friends. Fourth female, first 50+ female. 5:20 was 20 minutes slower than I hoped, but I am inspired by what can happen by training on these hills, and I intend to give this run another test next year.
Many thanks to Paulo for putting on a great event. His aid stations were stellar, the markings were impeccable, and the swag was great. Thanks to USATF for giving the championship to this well organized races, thanks to Altra Running for their support in shoes, to Injinji for their amazing socks, to Squirrel’s Nut Butter for keeping away the chafe, and for Nathan Hydration for all of their great water bottles and pack options!
It was to be my 8th consecutive time to represent the USA on the 100k team at the World Championships – and a lovely ride this has been. It is a far step away from the trail scene must ultra runners are familiar with – where fast roadie meets crazy ultra distance and the resulting participant number is drastically reduced. There just aren’t that many runners who would choose hard flat pavement over beautiful trail in any form of terrain, especially when the course consists of 10 x 10k loops. But the field that does amass in this championship event time and again is tough, particularly in the mental aspect, and many are freakishly fast. I am drawn to this event for a number of reasons – I love representing our country in a peaceful, friendly atmosphere that encourages camaraderie between cultures, rather than one of divisive politics. I actually love fast, rhythmic running the pavement, pushing to hold onto my speed as long as possible. And I love traveling the world to run my guts out for 8 +/- hours, in the company of my Team USA mates, with the exemplary management skills of our team handlers.
This year the race was held in the small Spanish Mediterranean coastal town of Los Alcazarez, a mostly tourist town that was pretty sleepy this last weekend in November. The few days that Mark and I arrived early we found the restaurants and pubs were often run by expats from the UK – apparently the cold winters up north finally did them in.
Being a veteran in this event has resulted in calm nerves leading up to races, and I enjoyed my time leading up to the race connecting and reconnecting with new and returning runners. Race day arrived, and the prevailing cool temperatures were welcome, perfect, for our 7:00 am start. After the jostling of start line positions, the loud announcements of time ticking down to the start by IAU pr guy Nadeem, and the well wishes of our team mates and handlers, we were off into the relative quiet of the still dark streets of Los Alcazarez. Feet barely made a sound on the paved and cobbled surface as we ebbed and flowed amongst each other, trying to gauge effort and calm the competitive flow of adrenaline. One kilometer in, and we turned onto the beach front path, the lead men already stretching out before us. For 3k, we had soft turns and a wide path, with some fans scattered along the way. With the darkness it was difficult to see my watch, so I focused on going easy, and waiting to see what the outcome would be in a few miles.
As dawn arrived, I glanced down and saw that I was running 7:20 pace by 3 miles. My heart rate was below 155, right where I wanted it to be, so I was pleasantly surprised. Based on my training, I felt confident at this effort. My goals today were 1) finish 2) break the world record for 55-59 year olds (8:41), 3) break 8 hours, 4) break my PR of 7:41.
After the stint on the beach front, the course took a 90 degree turn for our first out and back section. 4k, then a 180 degree turn, where I could see my team mates Traci Falbo and Pam Smith close behind, then the 5k mark with a chip timing mat and clock. and finally a 90 degree turn to our first team aid, where Mark and half of our team handlers were stationed. Team USA table was at the end of the nations, and Mark was at the ready, handing me my bottle of Tailwind. I was relaxed and cruising. Then another 90 degree turn, then another, and another. At 7k we had another long stretch, ending with a 180 turn, where again we could see our team mates and competition, and offer words of encouragement to each other. Each time we ran away from the sea, we were at an ever so slight incline, and as we came back, a nice gentle decline.
Two Swedish women and I were close together, taking turns leading and following. Two more sharp turns and the end of lap one was complete, in 45:30 – a good time, and my pace had dropped to 7:13. My other handler, Lin, and the other team handlers were stationed right past the end of the lap. Lin held my bottle out for me, I felt super, and extremely grateful to have my body working this well.
One of the Swedes pulled off at the portapotty, so I ran with the other, back down to the beach. We are all finding our rhythm, when a woman came sprinting by, looked back and smiled, then dove into the shrubbery to relieve herself. We finished up the beach front, turned onto the street for the out and back, where the field was really spreading out now. Our friend Jo from UK was leading the women, followed by Aussie Carol Bull, and then a tall Netherlander. Croatia, Japan, Sweden, and the woman who dove into the bushes, from Austria, and me. Running in the top ten this soon was exciting, but at the turn around it was obvious that the field was deep. There were 3 more Japanese women close by, another Aussie, a Finn, Pam and Traci.
Just when I was feeling good about things, my lower gut started complaining. This was entirely my fault. I normally take pre-emptive Imodium, but had stupidly made it unavailable to myself at the start. I had been training with Tailwind for awhile now and had such good luck with it, that I decided not to worry about it – if I had to go to the bathroom, I would use the portapotty at that time. Well, my plans before a race and what I actually do during a race quite often don’t match up. Half way through lap 2 I should have stopped, but no, I had to push it to the very last moment, somehow believing that moment would pass. But by the end of lap 2, I yelled to Lin for an Imodium, and immediately stopped at the portapotty, way too late. Going in, my pace was 7:14. Coming out, it was 7:16. Never mind, I thought, all is well now, and I’ll maintain pace. Such was not the case. Beachfront, 3k, 4k, I yelled to one of our handlers that I would need more Imodium. At 5k, I could have stopped again, but I stubbornly pushed on, got to Mark who handed me another Imodium, and I kept trucking on. By the end of lap 3, things were not better, Lin handed me another Imodium, and I stopped again. Now my pace was 7:17, which was still great, but I felt very uncomfortable. Through the remainder of loop 4, I found myself mentally begging for bushes, and made 3 more pitstops. Now at 7:20 pace through 4 laps, my gut finally relaxed. Ah, such a huge relief.
Whether or not this brought on a demise, or if I would have slowed that much is hard to say. By the end of the first half I was 7:23 pace. My split was 3:50, so my only hope for goal 4 was to not slow down. That wasn’t realistic, but I hoped to only slow down by 1 second per mile per lap for the next 5. Meanwhile, with all of my stops, I had slipped into 10th or so. Pam was slowly inching her way up, but Traci was not to be seen. There were 4 Japanese women ahead, so looked like they would be finishing gold. Jo was now in 2nd, with the Netherland woman in first. The Aussie girl was in 3rd, looking very strong, followed by the Austrian.
Meanwhile, the men’s race had opened up, with the South African team in a group of 4 blowing by before I was halfway done. What?? That was crazy fast. Eventually, my men team mates, Geoff Burns, Patrick Reagan, Chikara Omine, Zach Bitter, and Matt Flaherty caught and passed me – all of them super strong.
For awhile, temperatures were a bit warm, but some clouds moved in and let down some light rain to start with, and later, with a large clap of thunder, an actual down pour. And just when it seemed that anymore rain and cold could start to affect me, it stopped. The laps started to blend together, but by number 8 I could visualize finishing. The front woman had started to fade dramatically, but I was so far behind the leaders now that I was unsure who was up there. I was pushing harder and harder, letting my heart rate rise as well, actually surprised that I was able to achieve that. At the end of lap 8 my time was 6:15 or so – well off my dream goal, but I started doing the math for goal number 3. 1:45 to run 12.4 miles. Surely I could do that. Surely.
During lap 9 I passed the Netherlander who was now walking. Ouch. I chugged on, and made up a new game of running hard for 10 steps, easy for 10 steps, just to try and keep from falling into a complete slog. At 8 and half laps, I knew that this would be the last time I would see Mark, as he would go to the finish and wait for me there. After he gave me my fluids, I kept seeing him on different street corners all the way to the end of the lap. “Looking good Meghan! Just one more lap! Then you can have a hot shower and a cold beverage!” and all I could do was grunt in return. Pam was getting closer and closer, and I anticipated her catching me before all was said and done.
At the end of lap 9 in 7:08, I had less than 52 minutes to run my last 10k. My pace was now 7:35 or more, I wished I could just sprint for 6 miles, but all I could do was surge and relax. Lion told me that we were in Medal position, that Pam and Traci were doing well. Down on the beach front one last time, I could see Pam gaining on my steadily. I yelled back “come on Pam!!” She soon caught me, and we ran together for a bit. I told her to not wait, please go, but she hung with me, telling me to stay with her, and I reminded her that time matters, so she should go. She cruised away smoothly. With 5k to go, my time was 7:34ish, and I told myself I could run 5k in less than 25 minutes. I fought tooth and nail those last 3 miles, harder than I would have if hadn’t been so close. At 3k to go, I told myself I can run that in 15 minutes. With 1k to go I told myself I could do that in less than 5 minutes. I rounded the last corner, and plowed across the finish line in 7:58 and change, in 13th over all. I was woozy, ecstatic, and very happy to be able to stop running. Pam had finished in 7:56, for 12th, and in just 12 more minutes, Traci finished with a huge PR. We three did what we knew we had to. Finish smart and strong, and we brought home the Bronze.
I happily had achieved 3 of the 4 goals. I was thrilled to have the new age group record, but of course want to come back and improve on that. And it bears repeating that as a team, the women did great – we had no wiggle room, no one could drop, no one could slouch, and we pulled it off. The men ran smart, bringing home a bronze as well.
Many many thanks to our team managers, Lin Gentling, Lion Caldwell, Tim Yanacheck, and my handler, er, person, Mark Laws, my sponsors Altra Running, Injinji socks, Nathan Sports, and Squirrel’s Nut Butter.
I don’t often include even more personal history, but the real icing on this trip happened a few days later on the Eiffel Tower, where I received this ring from this guy. It definitely trumps the world record.
I was eating my words. “If you’re not having fun, you’re going too hard!” Really? How could 9 minute pace be too hard? Yet there I was, feet giving way with every foot plant, to the loose sand below me, heart rate around 155 – a normally sustainable effort over 100k – and I was most decidedly not having fun. I was efforting too much, but felt like I couldn’t go slower. How arrogant of me.
Last year I ran the 50k version of this race, the inaugural event, had gone out way too hard, and struggled for the last 45k, coming in just under 5 hours. This year, with the new distance and last year’s memories, I planned on being super conservative. I was also healthier and more fit than last year, so felt comfortable with a goal of sub 11:00, and a secret goal of closer to 10. I had beverages labeled for the race organizers to place at various aid stations – chocolate milk, pepsi, Fanta, with some gels. We would be otherwise offered bottled water, bananas, and a few packaged snacks.
This was my 3rd foray into desert running. The Gobi 50k last year, the Marathon des Sables last April, and now this, the Gobi 100k. It took this long for me to conclude that I don’t like running in sand. I couldn’t find a comfortable rhythm or any place to find with a stable surface. I also felt strangely anxious running with the 20k entrants – not knowing who my competitors were was messing with me. I knew a number of the 100k women were in front of me, but how many and how far was the unknown. And it was silly of me to worry about it in the first 5 miles of a 62 mile run. And so I trudged on, focusing on footing.
For questioning minds (“why did you sign up for such a thing?”) I love adventures, I love travel, and I love being invited to races. I love running and racing. When I came to the city of Jiuquan last year, met the race organizers, made friends with them and the numerous runners from around the world, I was taken. China is a vast and interesting country, rich in history, culture and interesting and tasty food. My sister-in-law is Chinese, and I was fortunate to have her and my brother visiting Beijing at the same time I was arriving, so I was able to visit some of the amazing historical sites there the days before flying to the edge of Mongolia for the 100k.
Jiuquan has a modern feel – many shops, modern cars, lots of motor scooters – and an old, traditional feel as well, with groups of men sitting around playing chess, cards, and mah jong, groups of women meeting for dancing, tai chi, knitting, and cards. Stray dogs wandering around much like feral cats in the US. Given the city’s distance from more popular cities, we Americans, Europeans, and Australians, were given long, blank stares. Even with the giant billboard signs announcing the “Changan Ford Gobi 100k Trail Race” it was apparent that most of the citizens had no clue as to why we were there. The race itself was several kilometers from the city, with no clear access for spectators. Some of the 100k runners did have crew, but aside from the numerous generous, helpful volunteers, there were no spectators to my knowledge.
Our race host, Tao, made it possible for any of us to get out to the Great Wall – so I went with our Aussie friends, a few Europeans, and Zach Bitter. Our first encounter was very commercial, and interesting, but what really got us was when our cab drivers were supposedly taking us back to the hotel, started driving down some sketchy gravel roads, turning around and getting on another sketchy gravel road, to finally deliver us to an amazing section of The Wall – we were thrilled!!
Back to the race – Now trudging along to the 20k mark, I felt somehow relieved when at last there were just 100k runners on the course. There was a slight tailwind, but looking up, the trail markings stretched out as far as I could see, dotted with a few runners. So, I put my head down, worked my way forward, up and over the small but grinding dunes.
Temperatures were starting to rise, but my training in the California heat kept me somewhat immune. The sandy dune filled terrain kept me very engaged, but I would have liked a change in scenery and footing. Aid station after aid station, chocolate milk, water, Fanta, water, Pepsi, water, sand sand sand. I was starting to douse with 2-3 bottles of water, drinking one. With the language barrier, I had no idea what place I was in. About 35k in I caught Aussie friend Gary, who thought I was in about 11th. I was somewhat discouraged, and feeling slow, but he encouraged me, said I looked strong. Two more aid stations, and I caught the number 1 seed (incidentally I was the number 2 seed, based on 100k road times, but the sand factor was not in my favor). I encouraged her to follow me, and she rallied for a bit, then started walking again. Finally, reaching the 50k mark, strategically located away from the start/finish (so tempting to quit!), Walter, the Brit’s team manager, and my roommate Edit from Hungary, told me there were 6 ladies in front of me. Only 6? That buoyed my spirits. I downed a nice, lukewarm Pepsi, commercial style, and with new resolve set out to keep my position.
The next bit of terrain hooked us back into the original loop, and the tiny, loose dunes were taxing. I wished I could walk, but really didn’t feel like I had to. I had slowed (!) but could keep on the “Barbie Jog”. Back on the main loop, I saw two runners a few hundred yards ahead. Humans! I found some inspiration to try a little harder, and after about 10 minutes of focus, I passed a female and male runner. So, now I believed I was in 5th, much better than I had expected.
Another turn and big long stretch of more sand. Occasionally I turned around to see if anyone was there. Nope. Until, there was. My stomach was giving me a bit of grief, finally sending me off the main course. When I came back, a smiling Japanese woman caught and passed me, putting me back in 5th. She was very gracious, and I kept in tow for awhile, before she slipped away. With the dunes and grasses, I lost complete sight of her, but there was no one behind.
Why, oh why, was I so miserable at sand running? I had trained on what sand I could find above Folsom Lake, but it didn’t really seem to help. I thought, well, maybe I should try to run more up on my toes, so that my feet would have less surface area on the sand, perhaps eliminating some of the slippage. So, I went up on my toes, and at about 70k in, my calves started to make little twitches, until BOOM! Full on cramping. Yikes! I have only experienced cramping in races 2 or 3 times, but never bilateral. Knowing that salt has been excused as a reason for cramping, I decided I didn’t care. I pulled out some salt tablets provided by the race, and swallowed a few. Whether it was the break from running, or something in the tabs, or not trying to run on my toes anymore, my legs relaxed enough to let me start to slowly jogging, then back to “race pace” – not much faster.
Again, so spread out from other runners, I felt no real motivation to go harder, and I didn’t need to walk, nor did I want to – I wanted to get off this sand! My stomach was oddly queasy, so at the next aid station – 80k or so, I grabbed a few saltines, washed them down with water, and miraculously, it settled.
I gained and passed a male runner, from Mongolia, and he graciously acknowledged me. With the vastness of the sand, it isn’t like he had to “let” me pass. From the looks of it, few runners were sticking to running between the trail markers, and what was the point? It was harder to go around, adding distance, looking for that allusive hard surface, that just didn’t exist.
Finally, I reached the 95k mark. Feeling secure in my 5th place, I decided to take a glance back. That’s when I saw a bright orange jersey, and thought “Ella!” It was one of my new Aussie friends, 28 year old Ella, professional musician, running her first 100k, loping along until she glided up beside me. “How are you going?” she asked cheerfully. “Oh, okay, pretty tired! How are you? You look great!” “Oh, I started slow and seemed to find a groove that works!” And just like that she floated away, catching the Japanese woman who had passed me.
Ahead on the rolling dunes I could see Ella and the Japanese runner, and then Pamela from Germany, last year’s champion. The skies were darkening, and a few sprinkles fell. Off to my right I saw a big wall of sand building up in the air. Yikes! Surely I had plenty of time to get to the finish before it reached me. I pushed hard, and with 1k to go, I lost sight of the previously visible finish line, as the sand engulfed me. This must be something like what happened in the dust bowl! A tremendous tail wind was nearly lifting me off my feet, and finally the lights of the finish line clock shone through the murky air. As I neared the finish, several volunteers were fighting with tarps meant for the runners to run over, blocking the finish line. Two volunteers came out to me, gave me a medal and a towel, while I whined “But I need to cross the finish line!” Finally over it, in 11:18, I was practically carried to the finishers tent by helpful young girls, to see Pamela, Ella, and Gary who had dropped with an injury. I thought I was 6th, but turns out I was 7th. I was offered a “massage”, gladly accepted, and found it was a Thai massage – lots of stretching and pulling and pushing, a lot of “whoa whoa whoa!” by me, but it was greatly appreciated.
With the sand storm in full force, the race organizers decided to call it off, and drove off in the new Fords to pick up final runners, but with some calming of the wind, and the stubbornness of the runners, many were allowed to continue on for a finish.
The evening was filled with food and laughter and sharing of stories, like most ultras. Next day Zach and I did a little more exploring of Jiuquan before taking the 2 day trek back to the US.
I have a huge amount of gratitude for Changan Ford for putting this committee together and hosting us in such a generous manner, especially to Tao, who worked very hard to keep all the athletes happy. A big thanks to Altra Running, Nathan Sports, Squirrel’s Nut Butter and Injinji, for their continued support of my running.
It’s not about the buckle. It’s not about placing high, although it does play into my motivation. Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run is about adventure, desire, beauty, athleticism, history, people, shared experiences. Community, life style. Integrity. Discipline. Courage. Cougars.
My own history is current. Nine sub-24 hour finishes, 8 of them top 10, missing it my ninth, but with the policy of allowing a nine time finisher in, I was allowed to toe the line for the 2016 version.
I’m riding this wave of Old School Ultras meets New Fast Runners, fast runners with high hopes and expectations. Hopes for sponsorships, dollars, gear, notoriety. Expectations of victories, accolades, publicity. Social media definitely plays a role in this sport, but then, what doesn’t social media, good or bad, contribute to?
Strip it down though, to what this event means to me. I moved to Cool, California, 2 and a half years ago to be close to the course. El Dorado county is probably not really viewed as a panacea for a lot of folks. It is dry, hilly, no real arable soil, but it is blessed with part of the Western States course. Back in the gold rush days, it was the place to be. Now, living here often means a somewhat tedious and twisty drive across the American River canyon to get to work or Costco, lack of many conveniences, no real “town”. But I live at the end of a gravel road with 2 donkeys and 3 goats and don’t have to drive to work – pretty good set up. I’m a farm girl at heart with little need for city life, so it suits me well.
I’m not wanting to paint some romantic picture of my life, and I don’t like drama. I just want to set the stage for what my 10th Western States meant to me, and how it played out.
In 2014 and 2015 I had some good struggles. I managed to get through both years with minor injuries, that none-the-less had an impact on my finish. I was a leaner both years. Not pretty. I was fortunate to finish as well as I did. This year was different. Starting in January, I trained with a heavy pack in preparation for Marathon des Sables. I very gradually increased both mileage and the weight of the pack, peaking at 195 miles in 8 days, many of those miles with a pack of 12-17 lbs. Yeah, I was one of those folks making fun of people for training with heavy packs or dragging a tire around – until I started using a heavy pack and reaping some pretty good rewards. I got stronger and healthier all through the winter. Marathon des Sables was completed, and I had a good two months to get myself together for my favorite race. I had more time on the trails with Tim “Twiet the Grey” Tweitmeyer, and hung on his words more than once – especially these “There isn’t a prize for being the first one to Foresthill!”
My plan this year was to run like a veteran. Not try to hit splits. Not become dependent on the watch. Feed myself adequately. Stay cool. Ignore everyone else. Not rush though aid stations. Receive information on the runners ahead of me, but only to keep track of where I am. My crew was seasoned – Andrea Thorpe has crewed and paced me 3 years and my boyfriend Mark Laws has crewed 2 years and paced one. They both sacrifice a lot to bring me to my best, and I always tell them before the race “If you decide you have something better to do than hurry up and wait – I understand. If you don’t show up, I’ll be okay. This race takes care of its runners like few other races do.” But they want to be a part of my story, and I am grateful for their generosity and their belief in me.
At 5:00 am, Saturday, June 25th, I jogged out at the start with my very good friend and often times training partner, Matt “Princess” Keyes. He, too, is on the line for his 1oth finish. We have been in everyone of these races together. His words to me over the past month were often “Let’s run like we’re veterans!” And so it began.
Climbing up to the Escarpment is usually one of, if not always, the hardest parts of the race. Trudging the steep climb up to nearly 9000 feet, seeing pony tails bouncing ahead of me, and gasping for breath, I generally suffer the whole 4 miles. But this morning – I felt grand. I jogged easily, my breathing was good, and I was actually up with some of the favored women, much to my surprise. I chatted with Caroline Boller, Chaz Sheya, Nicole Kalogeropoulos and ignored my watch. Finally summiting to the cheers of the hearty fans whom had made the early morning trek, I was pleasantly surprised to be fairly isolated, enabling me to relax into the downhill single track at my own pace.
The high country is challenging at many levels. Altitude, undulating terrain, rocks and roots, streams. I ran my own pace, allowing Nicole, Caroline and Sally McRae to ease by me by mile 10. At the aid station I peeked at my watch, and wasn’t disappointed or excited. It was just a reasonable time. Craig was there – and I happily told him that I was feeling great – The best I had ever felt up here. Off I went, one step at a time, keeping my effort in check. Up, down, around, stepping carefully in the sections of loose, large rocks, with the goal of staying upright. I have a propensity for falling, and one of my lofty goals was to not fall down. Just in case, I slapped some K-tape over my knees pre-race, as an extra layer of skin.
Somewhere around mile 13, I caught up to a walking runner, holding her hydration pack in a dejected manner. It was Magda Boulet, my favorite for the win going in. I stopped, asked her what was going on. Sadly, she was fighting a fever and some dizziness. She had been sick the week before and unable to shake it off, was calling it a day. If I’ve learned anything about racing, it is that no matter who shows up at a race, no matter what their race season has been, their Strava times, and popular polls, anything can and usually does happen. I was very sad for Magda as she is a gracious and talented competitor.
Arriving into Red Star Ridge aid station I grabbed 2 gels, filled bottles, and hustled out. Again, my split was fine – not stellar, but not far off my best. As I ran out I met and ran with a man from Minnesota who’s mother had run in the race back in the 80s – sadly she had passed from ALS, but he was carrying the tradition on.
We ran together all the way into Duncan aid station where I was greeted by Andrea, ready with a cold bandana, chocolate milk, and a fresh vest with gels and beverages. She updated me with the race – Andrew Miller, a 20 year old young man I have known since he began running ultras in Corvallis more than 5 years ago – was in 5th place. Wow! I thought he would be in the top 10 by the end of the day, but not this high up so soon. She thought I was in 15th place for the women, which was higher than I expected, so with those positive bits of info, I hit the trail to Duncan Canyon, feeling light and strong. My Minnesota friend was right behind me, and as I cruised down to Duncan Creek, it happened – I caught a toe and nearly splayed out, but luckily, scraped my hands and my taped up knees only. As soon as I got to the creek I did my best to wash off any blood. I would soon be seeing Mark and I didn’t want him to worry about me if I was all battered up. The water was refreshing and I found myself climbing out and up toward Robinson Flat, mile 30, with good energy and lots of joy. Near the top, I caught and passed Sally, and we chatted briefly about how long the climb was.
I ambled in, and one of my coachees, Allison, was there, running along side, asking if I needed anything. I was going straight to Mark who had all I needed – a fresh pack with ice in the back, some cool water for dousing, and words of encouragement. He thought I was in 12th at this point. Cool! I ran out, following a runner eating a piece of pizza. I admired his ability to ingest something so complicated. I passed him, and was soon very much alone climbing up Little Bald Mountain. I had never been so isolated at this point, and was grateful for knowing the course.
After summiting, the descending that is trademark for this race began. My legs felt good, but my antenna for keeping upright were in full force since I had taken the one spill. “Pick up your feet! Stay focused!” went over and over in my mind. It wasn’t entirely comfortable or relaxed, but if there anything I hate more than falling, it is falling in short succession and re-wounding fresh wounds. Thankfully I made it to Miller’s Defeat aid station with no mishaps, and learned that there were 2 women not that far ahead. On I went, keeping to my own pace, and seeing no one all the way to Dusty Corners, mile 38, where Andrea was there ready with a fresh pack. I grabbed a bit of banana from the aid station, put on the new pack that had about 5 pounds of ice, made sure I was wet all over, and headed out to Pucker Point trail.
This trail is another low section for me. It is very runnable, slightly downhill at the beginning, but then rather flat. And I was so alone – no one behind, no one ahead. At times I wondered if I had passed certain landmarks and spaced them out, but then disappointedly, I hadn’t. As I finally popped off the trail, hit the road into Last Chance, I was relieved to have made it through, as if I thought it was ever really in question.
At Last Chance, Craig was there again. He asked how I was doing, and again, I happily reported that I felt great. He let me know there was some mental carnage going on not that far ahead. With that fuel, I got as wet as possible, grabbed some gels, had my bottles refilled, and headed out. Sure enough, I spotted a couple of women ahead of me, got a shot of adrenaline, and began reeling them in. There was a particular descent – The Precipitous Trail – coming up that I love to sail down, and I wanted to have a clear run at it. On my way I caught a headphone wearing male, who once he was aware of me, picked up his pace. Soon he and I passed the first female, then got right on the heels of Amanda Basham, at the top of the narrow trail. We were undoubtedly annoyingly close to her, when I finally said “I know it isn’t convenient, but when there is an opportunity I would like to pass.” At the next sharp switch back, she pulled over, and we passed by. I quickly opened up my stride, and at the same time, stayed vigilant, avoiding tripping and falling best I could. Reaching the Swinging Bridge intact was a small victory. Climbing up to the Devil’s Thumb aid station was my next challenge. It is the steepest climb we face, so I relaxed, found myself alone on the nearly 2 mile hike, and was greeted by friends who volunteer at the aid station. I was taken care of quickly and well, with calories and fluids, and good dousing with a sponge. I came in at 10th, and left in 9th, as Jodee Adams-Moore was trying to get cooled down.
Next up was my favorite descent – the long, runnable descent to El Dorado Creek. With my antenna up for any tripping rocks and roots, I was more tentative than I liked. A bit herky-jerky. My legs felt a bit used from the overly aggressive descent to Swinging Bridge. About half way down, a heard steps behind. I made a move to let her by, but she insisted that she needed to slow down. It was Jodee. She was still struggling with the heat, and upon reaching the El Dorado Creek aid station she asked if she could go below the bridge and get in. I was keeping cool with dousing my arms, head, neck, at the first hint of overheating. Volunteers put more ice in my pack, and after a big drink of Coke, I was on my way to Michigan Bluff.
Surprisingly, my legs were feeling good on the climb. In a bit, another set of footsteps, belonging to Amanda, came up behind me. “Well done! Good recovery!” We conversed for a bit – she wasn’t expecting such long climbs and descents, and was trying to stay in control and not get carried away with the runners ahead. I let her go around me and watched her strongly pull away. I didn’t try to stay with her, as I knew how much distance and time was left, but as we got closer to the top, I had closed the gap. We ran into Michigan Bluff, passing a fading Aliza LaPierre. Mark was near the aid station, flagging me down. He encouraged me to get sponged off, then jogged me over to where he had my fresh bottles, some chocolate milk, an Aleve, and told me he thought I was in 7th place. I liked the sound of that! I quickly moved on, alone again on my way to Foresthill. When I reached Volcano Canyon, one of the steepest that feels even steeper with 50+ miles on one’s legs, I was surprised that my legs had recovered from my earlier burst, and aside from letting one man pass me, I fairly flew down to Volcano Creek, waded across, enjoying the cool water on my legs. Climbing out, legs still felt strong. Emerging onto the smooth pavement of Bath Road, I was greeted by Andrea who handed me a chocolate milk. We began the slow jog up, and with her story telling of all the runners ahead, we came to the top sooner than I expected.
Cruising into Foresthill aid station is very exciting. Fans and crews cheering everyone in, the loud speaker announcing each runner. Mark’s parents waved as I went by. Andrea requested some soup for me, which I drank, then headed out to find Mark and my Dad just outside the aid station. Dad teased me “Did you break a toe?” referring to my last year’s debacle. I assured him I had not, and was feeling great. I took two fresh bottles from Mark, and Andrea and I were quickly on our way. Running down towards California Street surely elevates any runner’s spirits, no matter how tired, how sore, how dejected, or as in my case today, buoyed my already happy self even more.
Out of the hubbub and onto the quiet peacefulness of the trail, Andrea and I cruised along, chatting happily. This year, there would be no trying to push me on the climbs. I know better. There were still nearly 40 miles to go. At Cal 1 aid station, I only needed to cool off and grab a gel. I told Andrea that I was doing a good job of taking them in without looking at my watch, but she kept tabs on when they were at least being opened. Before Cal 2 aid station, we spotted a female runner – it was Nicole. She was having a pretty rough time for the moment. I gave her a quick hug as we went by, and we were soon in and out at Cal 2.
Between Cal 2 and Cal 3 aid stations starts with a steep and fast descent, with multiple switchbacks. We flew along until we hit the “7 minute hill” or “6 minute hill” or “12 minute hill” all depending on what kind of shape you’re in when you get there. It is a good long trudge that can break your heart if you don’t know what to expect. Up to here, the descent had brought us all the way down to the river, and now, we had to leave it. We did make it up in seven, then unleashed on the next couple of downhills that brought us to Cal 3.
I asked how far the next women were ahead. There were a couple that weren’t that many minutes. We got what we needed and continued on. From Cal 3 to the river crossing had several teaser climbs and descents, but eventually we made it, and in less than 3 hours from Foresthill, we were donning life vests, and hand over hand to the guidance of the volunteers in the water, we made our way to the other side. Chris Thornley was in his raft, overseeing the operation, keeping the volunteers and runners safe.
Safely on solid ground, and cooled off legs, we began the 2 mile slog up to Green Gate, where Mark would be waiting to crew and to begin his pacing duties. Jog, hike, jog, hike, take another gel, ewwwww, it was starting to get a bit nasty. Finally at the top, Mark waved us over. I took a detour into the aid station, where Allison Hernandez was pulling her second shift of the day – another testament to the devotion the volunteers have to this race. She asked me what I needed, and got me some much appreciated soup. Carrying it over to Mark, I let him switch out my bottles, put my headlamp on my head, offer me chocolate milk. Brent Hollowell of Nathan Sports was there, waiting for Maggie Guteri, so I was able to thank him for the many packs he had supplied me with for Marathon des Sables as well as Western States. And just as Mark and I were ready to depart, Monkey Boy ran in on his way to meet his runner and said “In case you want a little good news – Andrew Miller just won Western States.” Oh. My. God.
Andrew Miller. A young man whom I’ve had the privilege of running with, hopefully mentoring to some degree, and watching gradually work his way up the ranks. No meteoric rising – but a gentle and sustainable approach to the sport. I watched him run his first 50k with his mom when he was but 14 or 15 years old. I watched him win a 50 miler at the age of 16, with a bit of competition. I saw him come in 5th at Waldo when he was 17, and then win it the next year at the age of 18. He had raced his way into Western States by winning the Georgia Death Race 100 Miler, and I figured at the very least, he would be in the top 10. He comes from a good, supportive family, and I was so pleased that he won this race, and it really did buoy my spirits.
I flipped on my light, although it wasn’t needed yet. Having already fallen once, I had no pride or ego to stop me from keeping that path as visible as possible. This year, Mark actually got to see me “run” as opposed to 2 years ago when I was already leaning to the left, and his goal was to keep me from falling down for 20 miles. But it was all for naught – as suddenly BAM, I was on the ground. “Oh Meghan! Are you okay?” I bounced up and kept running. “I’m fine” I assured Mark. And the BAM! This time it was Mark on the ground. I turned around. “Are you okay?” He slowly got himself up. “I broke my light, but I’m okay!” I said “I need to keep going.. are you sure?” He assured me he would catch up. Sure enough, he was on my heels in moments, and then BAM! He went down again. “Mark – are you okay?” “Yep, I’m fine! Keep going!” What a trooper! We kept a good clip into ALT aid station where I made myself stop long enough for a good cup of soup with noodles. The gels were quite unpalatable at this point, but I knew I needed to eat. Finally, we left, and began that “short” 4.5 miles to Browns Bar. I don’t know why that section takes forever, but I tried to just keep running in limbo, never expecting to get there. About a mile in, we were passed again by Amanda, being paced by Zach Miller. We encouraged each other, and I accepted that I was in 7th place now, but hey, that is still top 10! Another mile or so and we caught up to my good friend Mark Richtman and his pacer, Wim. Mark is a stellar runner, and not only that, he is 60+ years old! He had his eye on the age group record, and was still in reach, but had taken a good tumble earlier. Right on their heels, Richtman teased back to my Mark “You said she wouldn’t catch me!” We hung together for awhile and finally I said “You’re going to have to let me by, as I am hoping I don’t get caught by another woman!” After passing them we caught Caroline Boller, who had begun to struggle since the river crossing. She was gracious and courteous as we passed. Then we caught Amanda again to put me into 5th place, and as we FINALLY reached Browns Bar, we caught one of my Auburn running buddies Dan Barger and his pacer/wife Kim. The crew at the aid station consists of many good Ashland friends, and they had me fed and watered and out in record time. I left before Dan, and with Mark on my heels, and then, yes, one more time, Mark went down, bounced up, and kept right behind me. Somehow I made it down to the Quarry road without falling.
On the wide gravel road now, we jogged along – hiking the climbs, running the flats and downs. Lights ahead, we eventually caught up to Katie DeSplinter who was pacing a male runner. At Quarry trail, we passed them, and at this point I began to feel my legs quiver a bit. Oh boy. Less than 10 miles to go, it was heel to toe now. Loose, rocky, unstable and steep, I was beginning to wobble a bit. Mark was great at keeping me going, encouraging me, complimenting me. We finally reached the top and headed into the highway 49 crossing. Andrea was there, ready with a cold chocolate milk. Oh, my, that was delicious!! Just what I needed. Meanwhile, Dan and Kim had made up the difference, and breezed in and out of the aid station before us.
Climbing out from here is treacherous, especially after 93 miles. After a stumbly and slow climb, we began to run again. The dust from the trail was remarkable, and given our cumulative falling, we began yelling back and forth to each other “rock!” “rock!” “rock!” all the while lifting our feet as high as possible, and going fairly slow so as not to fall, again.
Footsteps were approaching from behind and I thought…. could be Amanda… and sure enough, she had rallied one more time with Zach, and they flew by. Mark and I continued our tentative foot placement all the way to No Hands Bridge aid station. I needed nothing but to get across the bridge, and had Mark check back now and then to see if any headlamps were coming. Thankfully we were in the clear as we made our way up the climb to Robie Point. Andrea was there to run us in – she let us know that the next woman was only 3 minutes ahead – but 3 minutes with 1.7 miles to go might as well be 30 minutes. It seemed that 6th place was in the bag, and frankly the difference between 5th and 6th pales to the difference between 10th and 11th. It looked like a top 10 was in the works, so I didn’t go crazy. I jogged and walked up the last climb, then ran nicely down past friend Jaime who was waiting outside her house to see me go by, and finally, down onto the track, where John “Tropical John” Medinger announced “Royalty has entered the track. The Queen is in the House!” He mentioned my lovely pacers and crew, and I rounded the track to finish in 20:30 – my 3rd best time on the full course.
For the women – Kaci Licktieg had a wonderful day and win. Amy Sproston ran a stellar 2nd place, and was still on the field to congratulate me at my finish. Devon Yanko also rallied after some bad spells for a 3rd. Amanda crushed me and Canadian Alissa St Laurent to come in 4th. Following me, Bethany Patterson (7th) and Maggie Guteri (8th) ran smart all day, then Jodee, recovering from the heat came in 9th, followed by my dear friend Erika Lindland, who’s wisdom served me well, came in 10th.
I’ve claimed on numerous occasions, that I am a late bloomer. It seems to be true. Some of it athletic, some academic, some just plain old figuring life out. But I’m okay with being naive and gullible, as it appears to grant me some bonus youthfulness. Being 55 years old doesn’t seem to really mean anything, best I can tell. I do know that I will be back next year, and hope to hang on to the wisdom I’ve finally acquired, after all these years.
Many, many thanks are in order. FIRST and most important is to my person, Mark Laws. He has supported me through my training in countless ways, and did a stellar job pacing and crewing me. His dislocated rib from the first fall was a mere distraction while getting me to the finish line, and a major pain when it was over. Andrea Thorpe, for her 4th time on Cal Street, coming to the conclusion with me, that pushing me is no fun. Just run within myself, tell stories, keep some semblance of focus, and we will do just fine. Western States Endurance Run organization and volunteers – RD Craig Thornley who is my good friend and mentor, his amazing staff, and the over 1000 volunteers – make the suffering palatable. Altra running – the shoes are amazing, as well as their support of my endeavors. Injinji socks – 1 blister! Just one! And it wasn’t between my toes. Nathan – wow – so many products they have sent me to find the perfect pack for each race. UVU Racing for providing me with the awesome long sleeve shirt that kept me cool throughout the event.
I have a beautiful 10 year buckle, and now, the opportunity to run my 11th. I will be there! #seeyouinsquaw!
Years ago, as I got interested and began running ultras, I heard about the Badwater Ultra, which crosses Death Valley. I was very intrigued, and watched a documentary from one of the years. Seeing the amount of support needed by crew, and cars driving along the course, as well as shoes melting on the pavement, I lost interest. “If I’m going to run across a desert, I want to run across the Sahara desert!” I had no idea at the time, that the Marathon des Sables even existed. But once I learned about it, it was something I wanted to do, and thanks to opportunities provided through the Ultra Trail World Tour (UTWT) I was awarded a spot in the race as well as the travel involved. I eagerly accepted the offer and began doing my homework and training in the winter months leading up to the April race.
I arrived in Ouarzazate, Morocco April 6th, with several other Marathon des Sables entrants from the US, France and Great Britain. Elaine, whom I had met on the last flight, and I checked into our hotel, then walked the streets nearby, looking for my friend and would be roommate/tent mate/comrade for the next week, Team Red White and Blue (RWB) Camp director, Liza Howard. What I hoped was that by walking around I would hear here voice out of the blue “Meghan! Meghan! Over here!” That is exactly what happened. She was with Ricky Haro, another Team RWB mentor. They were enjoying the shady front patio of a cafe that had traditional Moroccan dishes as well as pizza. We greeted each other excitedly, and I had my first tagine since my half day visit to Tangiers 6 years ago. We caught up with each other and then proceeded to talk about our plans for the next day, last minute items to get or how to repack our backpacks that we needed to lug across the desert, when Jay Batchen, organizer of most of the Americans who were on the trip, and ready to start his 12th MDS, showed up and I was able to finally meet him in person.
After our meal, I did a little gift shopping in the small shops, preferring the little old toothless man and his non-persuasive tactics over the man who tried to sell me more than I wanted, but I was pleased with my purchases.
Back at the hotel Liza and I rested and talked about life at home, and again about what was ahead of us. Ricky and Liza had both run the race last year, Liza having a very difficult long stage involving vomiting and sleeping for 8 hours to recover and then walking the last 25 miles. This year was hopefully going to be different. Her experiences helped me tremendously in the packing of my gear, my meals, and most of all what to expect at the bivouac. We headed out to dinner again with Ricky and Jay, where I decided to have a large salad with duck on it, believing it to be my last supper of anything remotely fresh and green for the next several days.
The next morning we had our last hot breakfast, then waited patiently for the charter busses that would transport us to the start of the race. It was a large fleet, that over the course of the day and into the night would bring in over 1000 runners. When we finally departed, we were clean and rested and full of hope for things to come. The bus ride was 6 hours long, broken up by a bathroom stop – and when I say bathroom I only mean we stopped to relieve ourselves by the side of the road – girls on the left, boys on the right – and then box lunches which we ate out in the dirt and rocks that made up the majority of the landscape. There were no “rest areas” that we are so familiar with in the US, just lots of empty space that anyone could pull over and take a break for awhile.
We traveled through a few small towns, red clay buildings going up and some crumbling down, askew angles to the earth. Small shops of grocery items, narrow worn out streets, honking cars, men in turbans, women in scarves. What we might consider flea market displays, apparently the way of life for some here. Palm trees and dirt. Between the few towns were occasional herds of goats, and now and then a donkey or two burdened with a load of what man had tied to his back. I missed my own little animals.
Five hours into the bus ride, the dunes came into view. Bright yellow, standing high, reminiscent of seeing a mountain range from afar, there was a definite excitement amongst the runners. We turned off the paved highway onto a dirt road and soon came to our bivouac – we were finally here! We unloaded our bags, went through a little checkpoint, and headed to tent number 166 which was to be my home with 6 others – Liza, Ricky, Jay, Wes, Christian, and Ridouane, for the next 8 long days.
The tents were arranged in an almost complete circle, 3 rings deep. We were the last tent in the line, which was the closest to all the other non-runner tents – medical, reception/control, media, internet and satellite phone, and for the next two nights and day, an arrangement of tables and tents for the meals we would be served until our race began in two days. The tent itself was a rectangular black heavy cloth, supported by a number of large sticks. The highest point was in the middle, and the short ends came to the ground. The long sides were open, for entering and exiting. The floor was a very long Berber rug, with the ends folded over in order to fit it all in the tent. The first order of business was to roll the rugs back and remove as many rocks as we could, then lay it back out. We each chose a spot, sardine style, and sat down with our bags, and began to get our bearings. I got to know Christian and Ridouane a bit, and Wes, who was arriving much later, I knew from some races in the States. Christian was from Florida, a tall man who looked more like a rugby player than a runner, was quite new to running, as was our other camper, Ridouane “Reed”, who was Moroccan by birth, moved to France at the age of 2, and now at 40, lived in Boston. He was our entertaining, interesting, newbie and Johnie Depp look alike that would keep us all in stitches for the entirety. With his multi nationality he had several tents to choose from, but in his words – “I can stay weeth zee French or I can stay weeth the Americaanz, but zee French complain too much, so I stay weeth zee Americans. I can say that becoz I am French.”
My imagination is one of my best friends. When I learned we would have 2 nights and a day at the start line, I envisioned grassy lawns with white tables and umbrellas and large catering tents. Reality was, of course, nothing green. Just sand and dirt. The catering tents were right, and we had white tables, but they were about a foot high, and the ground was our chair. Dinner the first night was at 7:00, but we were in line by 6:30 as that is when folks begin to get a little anxious for food. Years past, dinner was catered by a French company, complete with wine, beer, and chocolate mousse – but alas, this year, good or bad, the company was Moroccan, with excellent food, but no alcohol, much to the disappointment of many. I will say that the food was amazing, and the oranges for dessert were some of the finest I have eaten.
Darkness settled shortly after 7:00, and it was time for my first night in the tent. I was the only one without a pad, not realizing ahead of time that for at least 2 nights I could be with one before sending it back with all of the rest of our superfluous gear before the self-sufficiency began. It was also the first time I had actually crawled inside of my sleeping bag, and realized that it was a bit short, as I had borrowed it from my generous friend Kim is a good 6 inches shorter than me. Well, who needs to cover their shoulders anyway, right? This first bivouac was fairly soft though, and I slept reasonably well between Liza and Ricky.
Sunrise was around 6:00, and Liza was sitting up in her sleeping bag, using a Wet One to wipe her face. Every morning a race controller (volunteer) would come by each tent with instructions for the day – and today we were told that the time of day was actually one hour early – AKA Patrick time – and would remain on that time zone throughout the race. This was not an unusual of Patrick, but we had to wait and extra hour for breakfast, and at 7:00 headed over. Coffee, pastries, jams and honey. Then the morning was spent getting ready for check in. I spent a good hour filling my gel flasks with Gu – Sea Salt Chocolate and Strawberry banana. Each flask held about 5-6 packets, and would be much easier to access than individual packets. All my other food – breakfast, recovery drinks, freeze dried meals, nuts, dates – I had packaged before leaving home. When all was packed in, I went in line, plus took my bag of everything that would not accompany me on my trek for the race organization to return to me back in Ouarzazate at the end of the race.
The minimum weight of a runner’s pack was to be 6.5 kg – a little over 14 lbs. Mine weighed in at 7.3 kg, around 15 lbs, which was good in my mind. I had trained plenty with that amount. A GPS Spot checker was zip tied and taped to our packs, so if we got lost, we WOULD be found. Back at the tent, there was little to do but rearrange items with the pack. Ridouane’s pack was quite heavy, so Liza and Ricky went through the whole thing with him, eliminating many unnecessary and redundant items, making him very delighted with the change the couple of pounds made. Watching them made me take everything from my pack and cut out some extra weight by removing all excess pockets.
Now with only what I needed for the next 7 days, I pulled out my TyVek suit to wear over my race outfit. It was white and billowy, and quite cozy, keeping the wind out. We had our last supper, and at 9:00 or so, the camp became quiet as we nestled down for the last night before the run.
Stage 1 23 Miles
Awake again at day break, huddled in our bags, our tent gradually awoke. I ate a ProBar, and mixed my powdered coffee and chocolate recovery drink, took my vitamins, and at 6:30 went to pick up my two bottles of water. Every bottle of water for each racer was pre-determined in amount, and we each had a punch card that kept accurate account of what we had picked up – and if you didn’t pick up your water, a time penalty was incurred. Most mornings were 3 liters, and each checkpoint along the way had either 1.5 liters or 3 liters, and at the end of each stage, 4.5 liters, that would see us through the night. We all put our sleeping bags into our packs, as well as any extra clothing, pulled on shoes and gators, and made our way to the start line.
Patrick climbed on top of the vehicle he would ride in, and playing music that would either inspire or strike fear in our hearts, danced happily until the 1000+ plus of us had gathered. Then through an interpreter, he reviewed the day’s stage, recognized some of the special runners (an 83 year old man, and a double amputee), and finally we were off across the desert!
The first mile or so was flat, hard sand, with some gravel and then we hit the beautiful sandy dunes. I watched Liza slowly and gracefully put space between us, and I kept relaxed, testing the surface for sinking and sliding. There were times we ran single file along the crest of a dune, then spread out over some steep surfaces, either stepping into previous prints if the sand allowed, or on unbroken sand if it withheld one’s weight. There was little talking, just forward motion. I kept going easy, thinking about the next few days, and keeping my blinders on so as not to get caught up in a competitive mode. We came out of the dunes to check point 1, I got my water, refilled my bottles, and was greeted by RD Patrick, who kissed me and exclaimed “Meghan!” While I was somewhat flattered, I’m thinking that he thought I was Meghan Hicks, who is quite popular here from her 5 previous finishes.
The checkpoints are worth describing, as they were incredibly predictable, and very different from the aid stations we are accustomed to, and dare I say spoiled by, in more traditional ultras. There were usually 4 or 5 stations, all organized by bib numbers. Each runner ran to their designated chute, while one volunteer punched our card for how many liters we took, another volunteer checked off our number, and another volunteer wrote our bib number on the bottle and on the bottle cap. There were penalties for littering, and if you bottle cap was found on the ground you could be docked with some time penalties. Once we got our bottles we could fill our own water bottles, drink some, douse with any extra, and carry any if there was some left. When the extra bottles were empty, you were still required to carry the empty until there was a trash receptacle to place it.
The next section was flat, which was welcome, but there was an incredible head wind, and the ground was still soft. I tucked in and just moved slowly for the next few miles, to the next checkpoint, muttering “terra firma” over and over to myself. I passed Sophie, a French gal with rather wild tights and pink socks, and fashionable sunglasses. I caught up with a couple of Brit men and we went back and forth as they broke up their running with some walking. Finally, the course went through a small valley, then more dunes, until finally the finish line arch was ahead, and stage one was done. We were given 4.5 liters of water, and I was told I came in top 10 female. The bivouac looked just the same as where we left. I was somehow hoping that perhaps there would be an oasis, or at least a tree. I made my way to the tent, where Liza was curled up in a ball. I was able to get my recovery drink down, and get my dehydrated meal “cooking” in the hot sun. We spent the next few hours greeting our tent mates, sending an email (which was the only time we had access to chairs), and getting some food down. Jay concurred that it was indeed a very difficult stage one, which made us all feel better. Some sleep was had, and after a long night it was time to get ready for stage 2.
Stage 2 26 Miles
Feeling pretty stoked about my 7th place finish, I was looking forward to perhaps moving up in the field today. After all, I had been conservative the day before, and I had all the confidence in the world in my fitness. The months leading up to this race culminated in a 195 miles in 8 days carrying a pack that weighed between 12-17 lbs. We had the same morning routine – picking up our water, repacking our packs, and getting to the start line for any last minute instructions, plus the obligatory recording of “Happy Birthday” for those who were celebrating another orbit of the planet. At go time, I trotted out, and again watched Liza gracefully pull ahead.
Fairly quickly we were facing a stiff wind again. This time I was lucky enough to be behind a few men and was able to tuck in behind. It was amazingly easy to run behind them, and I hung with them all the way to checkpoint 1. After getting my water, I started off again, this time with a tail wind. I felt amazing! We passed near a village where young children and mothers were out to observe our madness. I caught up to Sophie again, passed her, and hung onto the coattails of an Italian runner, as we hit the headwind once again. The ground was terribly uneven and I was putting in a lot of effort to find good footing. I didn’t want to lose my windshield, and so I stayed close. A few other men joined in, and the pace quickened. Ahead, I spied that Moroccan girl, Azizi, and thought “I’ll wait until I pass her before I check my watch for distance.” Closer and closer we got, and the pace was stiff. Suddenly, BAM! I was cooked. I fell off the wagon, jogged slowly, and tried to regroup. The heat was now full bore, and I was faced with several “dunettes” – small sand dunes, but taxing none-the-less. I watched as the group fell apart and I tried to keep the final stragglers in view. It was very slow going to the next checkpoint. I refilled my water and ambled out onto the flat rocky windy terrain. I kept nibbling at my Gu, sipping water, dousing occasionally. At some point, I tripped and fell, sat on the ground for a moment, and a French runner came up to inquire if I was okay “Ca va?” “Ca va” I answered, with the added remark – “It’s what I do.” I got up, walked and jogged, and finally could run again toward what looked like an oasis – palm trees and other greenery. I thought maybe the next checkpoint was there, but alas, it was further on. There were native Moroccans in the area, including some very excited young boys, who encouraged me to run, and ran with me a bit. Slogging on, I finally made it to the final check point, where another woman competitor caught me. I had no desire to try and stay with her over the very steep dune coming out. My legs actually felt okay, but my respiration and heat management were limiting me.
Over that big dune and then down into a dry, loose, sandy river bed we went. I had to use the bushes once, then kept on moving. I could hear the voice of another woman behind me, which inspired me to jog when I could. I meandered from one side of the river bed to the other, trying to find solid ground, but mainly wasted energy in the process. Rosemary finally caught me with about a mile to go, and then Selena did right near the finish, so we finished together, and she asked me to hold one end of her banner up which was a Solidarity for Women organization. I was honored to be able to help her out. I was a full hour slower than day 1, and 10th place.
Not sure why, but I somehow expected something different at the bivouac. Not sure what, but something. But, no, same old flat expanse, same tent, same curled up Liza on the tent floor. We managed our recovery drink, and offered encouragement to the finishers that stumbled by. We added water to our dehydrated meals, ever so conscious that spilling it meant no dinner, no going to the store for backup, no begging a meal off of another hungry runner. Then the much anticipated emails from home – an amazing buoy to the spirit. Eventually our tent mates finished up, shaking their heads at the ridiculous difficulty the wind and heat had added.
Stage 3 23 Miles
Day 3, Groundhog day 3. Sitting in my sleeping bag, eating a ProBar, drinking my Starbucks via Iced Coffee mixed with Gu chocolate recovery drink. It was unbelievable to me how long it took to get ready for the run – dressing and packing my pack, when there were no decisions to make, nothing to leave behind. My goal for this run was to run very conservatively, more than ever, to save my strength and recover from the previous day’s mistake, so I could potentially rally for the long day of 50 miles that we were facing for the next day. We had the usual picking up of 3 liters of water, then ambling to the blow up arch start line to hear Patrick and his translator, Marie, give us the pre-race instructions, then the requisite “Happy Birthday” song, followed by “Highway to Hell”, and finally, we were off for another 23 mile adventure through the Sahara. Keeping my head down, I just took it one step at a time, disregarding the females in the field.
Looking ahead, I realized we were heading toward a more substantial land mass than the typical large dunes – the exact range I had stared at earlier, pointing out to a tent mate “At least Patrick hasn’t made us run over one of those.” Famous last words. We headed out on the flat, relatively hard surface, again, Liza pulling away, and me, focusing on recovering from yesterday, and deciding to NOT pass anyone all day. After a couple of miles, we were heading up a Jebel – a mountain range – and I eased off even more, as I felt tired and was having heart palpitations – nothing to really be too concerned about, as I knew they were caused by any one of 3 issues – fatigue, caffeine, and dehydration – all of which I was experiencing. Ricky caught and passed me, and fairly soon, Wes did as well. He showed concern for me, and I assured him I was fine, just needed to go slow. I was passed by a myriad of runners, but eventually peaked, only to look down on the vast valley floor below, of, wait for it…. more desert.
I wasn’t eating much, as the Gu just didn’t sound good in the heat. We hit some more dunes, and passed a group of young Moroccans sitting on the top of one, surely wondering what on earth were we doing out here, running across the desert – were we completely out of our minds? The day and route continued to drag on. I was getting passed by more and more runners, some of them pretty soft and heavy, causing me to wonder what was wrong with me – and at the same time not letting myself do something stupid. At the final checkpoint, 3 miles out from the finish, I met up with Ricky. I asked him if he wanted to just walk it in. And that’s what we did. It was one of those nice hour long hikes of getting to know each other better, while allowing others to keep passing.
When we finally crossed the finish, yet another hour slower than the day before, we had the opportunity to “shower” off in a makeshift frame of pipes and spritzers. The water felt glorious. And back at the tent, we learned that our own Ridouane had decided to run a bit quicker that day, coming in ahead of all of us, and also ahead of last year’s female winner Elisabet Barnes. Jay and Christian finished shortly thereafter, and we all sent another email, ate another freeze dried meal, read the incoming emails. Reality was setting in. This was the most “living in the moment” I had every experienced. I felt so far removed from my normal reality, but I felt very alive at the same time. I had no normal distractions – cooking, cleaning, coaching, animals, family – just heat, sand, warm water, zombie like runners, and the feeling that I was trapped here forever, however irrational that was. I still remember seeing Jay staring out of the tent, tears rolling down his face, and thinking that if anyone knew what was ahead, it was him, and it was causing him just a bit of despair. I was giving more thought to all of the reasons I was struggling – and I realized that in that kind of heat, electrolytes were likely affected, and I hadn’t taken any other than in the Gu, which I was barely consuming. Christian had extra Salt Stick tabs, and I happily accepted them, even putting some in my dinner.
While hanging out waiting for night to arrive, one of the jeeps came speeding up to one of the tents with US runners. Two Doc Trotters (race doctors) jumped out and soon emerged from the tent, carrying a very limp woman, Kim, a normally scrappy, lively 50+ year old, plopped her into the jeep and sped away. Holy Crap! I thought that looked pretty serious. It turned out she had some complication due to some medications, and they were able to sort her out, and by next day, she was recovered and ready to go. She had come to this run for the second time, this time with her 20-something year old son, Wyatt.
The medical team here was amazing. Everyday, the line of blistered victims sitting on chairs grew outside of the medical tent, and the number of battered and beaten down blistered runners limping around with protective booties grew as well. I counted my blessings – I was having virtually no feet issues, or any other physical issues. What was amazing was the drop rate was relatively low – the organization really wanted everyone to finish, and the cut off times were definitely designed so that one could walk the entire race.
Stage 4 50 Miles
Stage 4 was finally here – the long day, which I was banking on to hold my place or move up. Liza asked each of us “why are you running 50 miles today?” in her impish, playful way. My answer- “Because I want to go home and this is the only way to get there!” I didn’t feel that great, kinda funky, but once the race started, my legs actually felt pretty good. I caught up to Liza, and said I was going to run as long as I felt this good. At the first checkpoint, I took the water, filled my bottles, left the rest as it was not yet hot. I ran for awhile with a man from Belgium, talking about ultra running there, and then we hit the steep climb up another Jebel – a bit like the climb from Swinging Bridge to Devil’s Thumb in the Western States course, only not a lick of shade. Near the top, the pitch was steeper, so a rope was in place for the runners to pull themselves up and up and finally to the summit of the jebel. And as usual, the other side was more desolation. We did get to run through a slot canyon on the way down to the vast, flat valley floor, and the technical running kept me engaged and was somewhat fun. When we finally dumped onto the valley floor, the temps were starting to rise, and my bowels were beginning to complain. That was unfortunate, as there was no place hide. I held on as long as possible, but finally found myself veering off the main course to squat and relieve myself. I faced the runners, averting eye contact, and was back up shortly, joining back in the few runners, and waiting for my stomach to feel better. Alas, it was not to be. I kept jogging and walking to the checkpoint, got my water, and headed back out. The two British women I had met in stage 2 joined me for a bit, but I was unable to run with my intestines cramping, so I walked until it stopped, then would jog until it cramped again. As the heat increased, the amount of jogging decreased.
The course had all kinds of elements. Big dunes. Little dunes. Jebels. Flat expanses with runners strung out like ants. Intensified heat kept me slowing. At the checkpoints I took my time, filling my bottles first, dousing with some, and then carrying the rest with me in the 1.5 liter bottle, and dousing my arms, head, neck, and belly, a little bit at a time, keeping my eye on my GPS, so I could space out the dousing to every mile. By the end of the bottle, it was like tepid tea, but it was still wet.
At times there were interesting signs of human life out there. A single family home with a father and child standing on the stoop, with a bottle of orange soda and a bottle of cola at their feet, which they were apparently attempting to sell. I would have loved it, but wasn’t tempted as 1- it was against regulations, and 2 – it was not in alignment with the spirit of the race. But, oh my, it did look good!
Shortly down the way from there the road went through a fenced area, and we encountered a few European/British spectators, right outside of a real live oasis. I was confused by their presence, wondering how in the world did they get there, it seemed so out of place. Apparently this oasis was an auberge, which is basically French for Inn. We ran past the few buildings there, but what I really noticed was the plant life – greens, and red flowers, and I swear I could smell the chlorophyll.
At some point Wes caught up to me, and we trudged on together for a few miles. At the next checkpoint, I had to attend my complaining bowels once more, and he pulled ahead with Ridouane, who we had just caught. I left the checkpoint slowly, hoping to catch up to them so we could “run” together, but they had pulled out of sight. I eventually caught back up to Rid, just in time for the lead men to pass us. The top 5 women and the top 50 men had started 3 hours later than us. Ridouane was very excited, as they were his Moroccan friends, so he ran with them for a bit, pulling out his camera and selfie stick to catch some action. At some point, fellow Altra runners Jason Schlarb and Sondre Amdahl passed me as well.
On and on, up and down, with no rewarding view. I looked forward to 3:00 PM when I thought the temps should start to drop a little. Every turn of the course, was always a volunteer, keeping an eye on all the runners, keeping us safe. Finally I started to run again, legs feeling fresh, and I began to pull some runners back in. And then, as a cruel joke, I found myself squatting in the sand once more. I gave up eating miles ago, but stayed hydrated. Finally, the temps really did drop, and I picked up the pace more and more. Shadows were getting long, and I heard steps approaching. It was Natalie Mauclair from France, who was in 2nd overall for the women. I cheered her on, and very soon after, Natalia, who was in first, from Russia came, nipping at her heels. It was amazing, knowing how much more heat they had been exposed to, and yet they made up 3 hours time, and I still had several miles to go. At the next checkpoint, I was ecstatic to see some lounge chairs set out. I grabbed my water and went for a sit. Riduoan had just arrived with his friend Mohammed, and the three of us relished the moments, toasting with our large, luke warm bottles of water. I didn’t stay long, as I wanted to see how many women I might reel in from here to the finish.
By the next checkpoint it was dusk. I pulled out my headlamp, and actually felt like I was running hard across the rough terrain of sand and brush. There was no clear path, just occasional trail marks, and soon the glow sticks were making the way. The Moroccan Samir, a friend to all of us and a former winner of the race, passed me by, well off the pace of the front runners. We exchanged supportive words, and he disappeared into the engulfing darkness.
I was regretting my headlamp choice, which is a theme for me, tending to get the lightest and/or cheapest. While it was nice having something so light, it was not really that illuminating. I could see the glow sticks, so would head toward them, only to find that there was an empty and deep creek bed between me and them. I tried running parallel to the sticks on what felt like a road, and while trying to figure out the best place to run I totally biffed, sprawled out on the ground. I picked myself up and kept the glowsticks to my right and eventually I made my way onto some firm dunes that were easier to run on. I caught up and ran with Daniel from the Bay Area, trudging onward to the final checkpoint. The sky was immense with stars, truly amazing, but looking up too much made the risk of falling greater. Finally at the last aid station, I took my final bottle of water. The sand had infiltrated my meager headlamp, reducing the options to a strobe light. Great. How was I supposed to make it to the bivouac on that? I fussed and fidgeted with it, pouring water on it to rinse the sand, asked a volunteer to try and get it, and finally I gave up and started on the last 6 miles toward the finish. The bivouac was in sight, all lit up, and of course it seemed an eternity away. I kept fiddling with my light, and finally was able to override the sandiness and get a straight beam of light.
I had not consumed calories for miles, but now that it was cooler I tried once more to take just a tiny nip of gel. While it didn’t send me to the bushes, it did make my bowels cramp again. Seriously? Ugh. And in my lightheaded state, I took another digger. This time, a runner just ahead of me came back. “Are you okay?” Again, I said, “Yes, it’s what I do.” He replied “Well, let’s high five then!!” So we did, and he trotted off ahead. I wanted to walk, trying to convince myself that I didn’t care anymore, but found myself looking back, seeing headlamps, and broke into a jog to stay ahead. Low on calories, I was bobbing and weaving, and after staring at the bivouac lights for over 6 miles, I finally came across the finish line for the day. It was a bit after 9:00 PM – so 13+ hours on something I hoped I would cover in 10+.
I was given the 2 bottles of water, and made my way to my tent. Wes was the first finisher for tent #166, a few minutes ahead of me. He was trying to get the rocks out from under the Berber rug. We decided to go to the email tent and let our people at home know we were done and okay. Upon arriving, the email volunteer let us know that it was closing, but they were kind enough to let us get our message out quickly.
Back at the tent, I made a recovery drink and started sipping it cautiously. Perhaps because it was cool now, and I was so depleted, it went down okay. I got in my sleeping bag to rest while waiting for our tent mates. All day I had been waiting for Liza – my little Bandera runner – to catch and pass me, but it was not to be, so now I waited, worried, and hoped that she was safe and healthy.
I woke again at about 1:00 AM, as Ridouane came in. Then Jay. Finally at 3:00, Ricky and Liza came in. I grabbed Liza in a big squeeze, so happy she was there, and okay. Last year she had such a difficult time with the heat, vomiting, and staying in tent along the way, that it was not a small victory for her to make it in without losing her cookies. Now only Christian was still out. I passed out once more, and awoke at 6:00 or so, to see that the entire tent #166 was present and accounted for. Later, Christian would state “I could have stopped and stayed in a crappy little tent at a check point, or I could keep moving and stay in a crappy little tent here.”
Now the day that I had been waiting for from the start – the rest day after the long day – was here! Two freeze dried meals! No running! We could nap if we wanted! Reality was different. Once that sun came up, it was intensely hot. Some of us “washed” our clothes in a cut off water bottle and spread them on the top of the tent to dry. I made my first meal, and let it sit in the sun. After eating it, there was little to do except try and stay cool. No matter where I was in the tent, it was hot. I could lay flat or sit up, didn’t matter. In the afternoon, Liza and I decided to “shower” by going to some imaginary boundary with some bottled water and strip down so we could rinse off and feel somewhat clean. Then back to the tent, as there was really nothing else to do. At some point Jason Schlarb dropped in and as we all started talking about food. He said they weren’t allowed to talk about food in his tent. We talked about chips and salsa, and about how the wives of some of the runners were amazing cooks. The foods that my tent mates had brought did not go unnoticed by me. Ricky pulled out several small meals he had created on his own. He would make one, eat it, then pull out another, and do it again. Meanwhile, Wes was eating smoked salmon from a tin foil pack. Ridouan was eating the meals his wife had prepared. Jay had some snacks that looked very good. Liza seemed to have and bottomless bag of mashed potatoes.
Suffering in the tent heat, Liza pulled on her wet and freshly laundered shirt, stating that it made her feel much cooler. I finally gave in and followed suit, and had to agree with her! And as soon as that shirt was dry, it was HOT, so we got them wet again. As much as I wanted to start that second meal, I also didn’t want to eat it too many hours before bedtime, so I tried to eat a ProBar. I really love ProBars. They are tasty. But I could only get 3/4 of the way through before I completely gave up, as it was making me sick. As the day become a bit cooler, I “cooked” my second meal, and then slowly and carefully savored every last bite.
Finally night had arrived and there was nothing to do but try and get some sleep on the cement like ground. Tomorrow was going to be only a marathon, a distance I know so well. After much tossing, turning, dreaming, it was finally morning. I couldn’t face another bar, or my morning drink. My lower intestines were actually sore from the cramping.
Stage 5 26.2 Miles
This stage had an interesting element of having the top 100 runners starting an hour later than everyone else. Plus, this was a place were families could actually come out and see their runners. Wes and I wandered over to the start area, observing families reuniting. We simultaneously expressed that we would do anything to see our partners right then. The first wave started off, and it was rather inspiring to see everyone run off. Just one more hour in the hot sun, and we were off too. I was sure my stomach was all on board now, and I ran and chatted with Liza for the first few miles, and then feeling good, I began to pull away. Yes – I was going to have a good day, and then, No – my bowels were still unhappy. Off I went, into the wide open space to relieve myself. Ugh. I joined back into the conga line, Liza having passed me back. At the first checkpoint I was giddy when handed 2 bottles of COLD water! It was like heaven. I refilled my bottles, and doused with the rest. Feeling like I was better now, I picked up the pace, only to find myself off the trail squatting again. Oh for crying out loud, when would this end. Finally, I decided I need to find “The Pace At Which My Bowels Do Not Cramp” and thus began very slowly, with a gait that can only be described as running on eggshells with no vertical displacement. It felt somewhat contrived, but seemed to work, and as I got too exuberant, I again found myself seeking some sort of privacy.
Each checkpoint offered warmer and warmer water. Finally with about 4 miles to go, we could see the finish. I kept in control, up and over the many dunettes, and finally with out a quarter mile of very flat and hard ground, my bowels relaxed and let me RUN in. Done! Finally! The longest 6 days of my life had come to an end.
As I picked up my 3 bottles of water, I was told I was needed over at the pack check tent. Apparently I had won my age group, as well as maintained 10th place, and with that comes the check to be sure I had all the mandatory equipment so I did not accrue any time penalties. I was checked by Marie, and she was very thorough and pleasant going through my things. Thankfully, it was all there. I made my way to the tent, where most of us were now, finished at last. Our friend Harvey, winner of Badwater last year, came to visit for awhile, and mentioned that there was a shower at the finish line. What? I decided it would be worth checking out, so I made my way over. There were several tents and canopies, and I did see something that might have been a shower, but the pipes were at least 7 ft up, and there was barely any mist coming out. I wandered around behind said tent, and found a man sitting in an SUV, next to a barrel of water with a hose. I asked him about the showers, in English, and he answered in French, then followed me around and pointed to the pipes with their pathetic mist, and went back to his car. I got it – there was no running water, and it was just a misting, and it would work if you were at least 6 feet tall. I went back to the tent and hung out – and at some point Ridouane asked if anyone wanted another meal. Wes and I answered at the same time “YES!” and agreed to share it. Both of us were fairly gaunt and very hungry, and completely devoid of pride. We added water and set it out in the heat to cook.
Now that the competitive sections were done, the times could be tallied, the places announced. There was an awards ceremony planned, with a stage and lights, and in the meanwhile we were entertained by a lovely French band and singer. Where did these people come from?? As dusk approached, the final runners came in, followed by the camel sweeps. Race employees were busy trying to erect a blow up screen to show video of some of the days preceding. Finally we had the awards ceremony, where I was one of the lucky recipients of a beautiful piece of art for my age group.
Patrick said many, many words, that were translated by Marie in far fewer words, but the final words were “It’s time for a drink!” We had heard that we were going to be offered Coke and beer, but were given no further instructions. And so, like lemmings, we started moving about in the dark towards the middle of the bivouac. And then we moved back out. And then back in again. And finally a truck rolled into the darkness, and we were all offered nice cold Coke. It was heavenly, and I may have drank mine a bit fast. Back in our tent, we were able to see the movie from our “home.”
After the film, we tried to sleep. I had used ear plugs all week, but awoke in the middle of the night to some strange sounds. I pulled out the plugs and heard the wind whooshing through our tent. It was very loud and strong, and full of sand. It was only 2:00 am, and the sound was relentless. I tossed and turned with my tent mates. Finally, Jay got up to let one of the sides of the tent down to lessen the wind coming in. And after what seemed an eternity, morning finally arrived.
Stage 6 Solidarity Run 11 Miles
The wind was still strong, but we gathered our morning water, and an added treat of a new, clean T-shirt for the solidarity run. We joked about being able to run more if we had to – I said “I have more miles in my legs, but I don’t think I have anymore nights” and Christian said “I would pay twice as much money to spend half the time out here”. I expected to see a good number of civilian runners coming to join us, for all the hoopla, but saw only a few yellow shirts designating them. We had 11 miles ahead of us, and Jay, Liza, Ricky, Wes, and I were planning on running together. Riduoan was still nursing the sore hamstring, and Christian was, I believe, the most determined of all of us to get the heck out of here and onto the bus. As we gathered for the start, “Highway to Hell” began blaring again, and I was reduced to tears. I was so, so, tired. I was over it at least 3 days ago. I did not want to run on one more inch of sand. But more than that, I wanted to go home to my boyfriend, my animals, my way of living, and I still felt so disconnected from that reality. The five of us grouped up, and at the signal, were off, nice and slow.
Thankfully, these 11 miles were pretty flat. We laughed and joked, puttering along, staring ahead. There were no checkpoints, which meant no water. As we finally approached some sort of community with some palm trees and buildings, our spirits were buoyed. And like all evil race endings, we had a bit of meandering to do before we finally saw the finish line. It was replete with race organizers, all holding medals to adorn us with. I ended up getting mine, plus the kisses, from Patrick.
And just like that, it was over. Jay had arranged a private car ride back to Ouarzazate with a Moroccan friend whom had run the race before. As we climbed in, Jay asked if we could shortly stop for some food. A few villages later, we were in a town shop, buying beverages, loaves of bread, cheese, and potato chips, all for about $4. On through the desolate landscape, we drove for 4+ hours, until finally we were back at Ouarzatate. Our bags were there, and Liza and I checked into our room. It had beds and everything. We took showers, dried off and still made our towels dirty, looked at our emaciated bodies in the mirror and broke into hysterics. Soon we were at a cafe with Ricky and Jay, each of us eating an entire pizza, and then some. That was dinner number 1. Two hours later we were back at the hotel where a buffet awaited us. I dug right in. Liza, Wes, Jay, Rid, Schlarb, and Sondre, exchanged more stories all evening long.
One and done – my first race that I have had that sentiment. I gave myself some time to make that statement, but by the 3rd stage I was certain I would not do this event again. It was purgatory. It was the harshest environment I have run in. It was the hardest thing I have ever done. And I don’t regret it for a moment. I wanted to experience it, because I couldn’t have understood what it was like otherwise. Now I can draw on this experience when I’m running other events. And the friendships forged in our tent are absolutely priceless. We have a plan – first of all a hotline for anyone who is thinking about signing up for MDS again, and secondly, for a reunion in someplace lovely, like the Tetons.
I can’t necessarily recommend this experience for everyone. I can offer advice – extra toilet paper for bloody noses, less race food and more real food, a little bit of a sleeping pad, and a sense of humor. It might be good for someone who has some serious life issues to work through. Or someone who really wants to escape their daily routine in a big way. I can offer some good training tips – find some sand, lots of it, and never believe for one minute that you know how to run on it for days on it. Train with a heavy pack and lots of miles – which I did nail. I had lots of realizations – I really like some basic comforts, like a good mattress, a plate and utensils, technology, and the daily interactions with my boyfriend. I had no epiphanies or change of life moments, but some pretty incredible memories, and a whole lot of gratitude for all that is good in my life.
I owe a lot of thanks to the Ultra Trail World Tour and Marathon des Sables for financing this trip for me, to Altra for shoes that kept my feet healthy and comfortable, UVU Racing for an awesome shirt that kept me comfortable in the blaring sun and heat, Nathan Sports for working with me to come up with an incredible and well fitting pack that held my life for 8 days, Injinji socks for keeping my toes blister free, Gu Energy labs and Magda Boulet for supplying me with all the Gu I needed and then some, Meghan Hicks for answering my countless questions, to my tent mates for making the miserable more tolerable, to all of the folks who sent me emails, and most of all, to my boyfriend Mark for his daily encouragement, keeping other friends and family updated on my status, and for taking care of the goats and donkeys.
Moab 55k has been on my radar for a few years – the photos and reports were alluring. The timing was right to try a new winter race, and boyfriend Mark was on board for running the accompanying 33k. It was a good 4-day weekend get away and we looked forward to seeing parts of Nevada and Utah new to us.
We arrived in Moab Friday afternoon, picked up our numbers and joined other runners at a local pasta place. I found it interesting to see a different community of runners, recognizing no one, but recognizing why we were all here.
Saturday morning we were up early, eating breakfast with again, unknown runners, silently picking away at our breakfasts, hoping that what we ingested would serve us well. Mark and I drove to the race start early enough for good parking, then kept the car running to keep warm in the sub-40 degree weather. The start was a good 10 minute walk from the parking. We arrived early enough for the pre race briefing, hung close with Jamie Frink, and then finally shed my sweats and assigned Mark with bringing them back as his race started 30 minutes later.
I warmed up a bit out the start, and finally saw more familiar faces – Jim Walmsley, Joe Grant, and Karl Meltzer all warming up. At 8:00 we were off. Per usual, there were a lot of quick starters. I focused on staying in control, reminding myself I was going to be out there for 5 hours. At the same time I was a little concerned about the number of women who bolted ahead of me – I’ll admit I did some ultra signup stalking and found the women’s field not too deep – but now I was faced with a bunch of females ahead at the start and pulling away on the first climb. I did my best to put the blinders on and pay attention to my heart rate – until I realized I couldn’t really read it. So I just let everyone go, kept within what I thought I could maintain for 5 hours, and focused on taking care of myself. In order to break 5 hours I needed to average 8:50 pace, so I did have the running average on my watch to keep me either encouraged or discouraged.
Old acquaintance and accomplished runner Helen Cospolich caught me early on, and we chatted a bit. Back and forth we went – me pulling ahead on the downs, she on the ups, and finally she pulled away. I was still trying to find my rhythm for at least 10 miles. There was a good amount of mud and snow, making for slow progress. When I remembered to, or was encouraged to, I looked up to see the views – mostly of the La Salle mountain range – regal in snow, tall and majestic.
As we finished our first loop of 17 miles of a mix of undulating double track service road, slick rock, and snow, I began to feel my groove. I was catching a few women, feeling strong, and generally back in the game. I had felt fairly discouraged on the climbs that I wasn’t on pace to break 5, but was stunned to see that my pace was still about 8:30. At that point I thought – wow, I’m rocking it!
The terrain in the second half was different from anything I had run on – hard slick rock – aka sand stone – that was never flat. There were large boulders to jump up onto and down from, a lot of slow grinding climbs, and zig zagging route finding downhills. I ran with different groups of men, and would here comments alluding that I was in the top women’s field. Since we had joined the 33k runners on the course, I really didn’t know what my placement was, but I was genuinely having fun – especially jumping off of boulders. It had been months since I had felt this good in a race, and I attributed it to being healthy, being trained, and running for weeks with a heavy pack while training for Marathon des Sables.
We reached the second to last aid station – I figured I had moved up to 4th or 5th female. Mileage on my watch was further than than the 22 the AS reported – but I just attributed it to different measurement methods. There was still several miles of slick rock route finding, and I was in good company of runners all trying to find our way. The sun was shining, the runners were happy and encouraging, the air was crisp – life was good.
I followed runners into a narrow canyon, and was stopped by some shouts of “have you seen any markers?” I hadn’t for a bit, so turned around and soon saw that we had gone out of our way a minute or two. I shouted back to come this way, and hoped they could hear me.
According to my average pace, I was still on track to break 5 hours. I worked hard those last couple of miles, mingled in with 33k runners, and finally hitting the finish line. I saw two clocks – one said 5:21, the other 4:51. Well, I liked the 4:51 and decided that was my time, since I wasn’t quite sure what my watch said, other than my average pace. Mark greeted me with his generous smile and hug, congratulating me on my finish. I told Mark and Meghan Hicks that I ran 4:51. Meghan went looking for my place, asked me again what my time was, and finally we realized the 5:21 was my time. 4:51 was for the 33k which had started 30 minutes after the 55k. I had to laugh at myself for choosing the time I wanted. I was still confused by my watch’s average pace calculation and it took me a full day to realize that the GPS had never turned on, and was using the accelerometer to measure my distance.
It was hard knowing right away what place I came in with the 2 races going on simultaneously, but I eventually found that I had placed 4th female, and 1st master.
Many thanks to the volunteers at the pre-race, aid stations, and post race activities. It was a very festive event with good food and socializing afterward. Thanks to Altra Running and Injinji socks for supporting my endeavors!
“I just got invited to run in China!” It was the night of Waldo 100k, and while waiting for the last runners to come in, an email from IAU Honorary Member Souhei Kobayashi from Japan asked if I would interested in an all expense paid trip to China to run in the inaugural Changan Ford Gobi International 50k. I answered “yes” before I even had a chance to see where it was. I only can say that there are few places in the world I would pass up seeing, given a chance, and I had not been to China. It would be well after the World 100k Championships and I had nothing scheduled for October or November.
Starting in September, information slowly trickled in; information was passed between the organizing committee and the athletes so that tickets could be purchased, Visas acquired, and itineraries created. Mark bought me a map of China and after much difficulty I finally found the city of Jiuquan very near the border of Mongolia, in the middle of the country in terms of east and west. It appeared to be a very small town given the print size on the map. I was told that a small town in China may have 1,000,000 citizens, but in a country with more that 1 billion, that made sense. When I found information on the web, I was a little surprised to see that the greater Jiuquan area had 1 million.
Meanwhile, my training after the 100k was quite limited for 2 or 3 weeks from a minor heel injury. With 2 weeks to go I was finally up to a 20 mile long run, and one week out I did my first speed workout in the form of a fartlek run. The wheels were slowly coming back, and my heel pain was nearly gone.
My flight to Beijing from SFO was filled mostly with Chinese, so I felt I was already amid the culture. Upon arrival and standing in line for entering with our passports, looking at the massive crowd in the tight serpentine lines, I thought there is no way I am going to get out of this trip without picking up some kind of bug. I was on the ground for about an hour before I actually got my luggage and made my way out to the lobby packed with greeters. I started looking at the signs being held up for either my name or Changan Ford Gobi Ultramarathon. I spied that latter and walked up to the young woman holding the sign. “You must be Meghan” she said. “I am Chuping. Nice to meet you!” We made our way to our next flight via shuttle bus, which took 30 minutes at least which was telling of how large the airport was. Chuping got me checked in for my flight and then went back to see if my compatriot Jim Walmsley had arrived yet. I wandered to my gate, making note of the eateries, and once I was close enough I stopped for my first Chinese fast food buffet. I quickly picked 4 dishes and paid 50 Yuen – about $9. It was delicious.
At the gate I opened my laptop and attempted to get online. I was able to get a little email through my phone, but none on my computer. I gave up. I kept my eyes open for Chuping and Jim, but they were nowhere to be seen. Chuping had a difficult job, getting runners from around the world to our destination. As I settled into my seat, Jim appeared. I waved, and said “You barely made it!” He said, no, he had been there awhile, sacked out behind all the waiting passengers. Uh oh – that means Chuping probably didn’t realize where he was. It was nearly time to close the doors when a wind blown flustered Chuping boarded. I caught her eye – “Chuping, Jim is here!” She let out a huge sigh of relif. “I had called airport police to try and locate him!” We flew into Lanzhou City, gathered our bags, and took a cab to our hotel, a good 30 minutes away. By the time I got to bed it was midnight, and we were to be up at 5:00 for breakfast and then bus to the train station. At breakfast I joined a number of invited athletes, as our paths were converging. Japanese, Spanish, German, British, and Hungarian comprised the group, with the Japanese contingency being the largest.
At last, we were going to “see” China! The high-speed train was quiet and smooth. We all took multiple photos and videos through the windows as we sped through the changing landscape. There was snow on the ground for many miles, and the closer we got to our destination, the more spread out the cities were. It was becoming more agricultural, at a seemingly subsistent level in many locations. Small, tidy plots of crops, crude shelters that may have been homes to some, occasional flocks of sheep, and some yaks, spread across the floor of the valley we traversed, as mountain ranges grew on either side. It wasn’t clear to me whether the haze over the mountains was pollution or light fog, but after being there for a while, I’m guessing mostly pollution. By the time we arrived in Jiuquan the air was cleaner.
Chuping asked me to be present at the press conference and asked if I had a bio. Being unable to connect to the internet in a productive way, I gave her the link to my bio on the Altra running website. When I arrived at the conference, the race director was introduced to me, and said “My daughter asked me if I had met ‘The Queen’ yet! You are The Queen!” I was confused for quite awhile before I was told that he was Chuping’s father. I sat in the front row with 2 other runners and many dignitaries, of whom I still don’t know what most of them did. One by one we were introduced, stood up, turned around and bowed, then the dignitaries each went on stage and gave a very lengthy speech. I wasn’t sure if it was the fact that I understood zero of what they were saying, or if they really were long winded. Photographers of every caliber clicked madly on high-end cameras down to IPhones. When they were done, I thought well there isn’t time to answer questions, but organizers quickly placed 8 chairs on the stage facing the audience with each of our names on it. So, there we sat while it was open for questions. They were directed to the dignitaries, and the questions and answers again were very long. Then the “conference” was over. As soon as I got up, I was asked by Chinese runners and volunteers if they could take a picture with me, hand their phone to a friend, jump beside me, thumbs up, then say to me “Sank you”, smiling and nodding. It went on for a while, and there were double dippers. It became a theme for the rest of the trip.
Next was the pre-race meeting. The race director gave it in both Chinese and English, with very specific guidelines that indicated there were many new ultra runners. One of the key points repeated to us over and over was that we should wear long pants. “Wear Pants! Wear Pants! The thorns will cut you!” There was one section of the course from 36.5k to 40k where the course went right through thick brush called Camel thorn. The course was swath 5 meters wide carefully marked every 50 meters by large stakes. Mr. Race Director also said because the course was measure in straight lines that if we wanted to run around the dunes or around the camel thorn, it was fine because we can only make the course longer. My immediate reaction was no way would I run around a sand dune – I’m gonna conquer the sand and the camel thorn!
Following the meeting we were treated to dinner. I sat with my European friends Rainer, Garrett, Paul, Walter, and Jose, and Jim. We enjoyed trying new things, and also avoiding things that looked like they might cause an issue in tomorrow’s race. Jim said “My rule is never eat anything that looks sketch before a race. This all looks sketch” and he proceeded to eat most of it. Partway through our meal, we were provided with live entertainment, presumably local talent.
Only one athlete hadn’t arrived yet – Aussie Jodie Obourne, who was to room with me. Her first flight had been delayed, causing a chain reaction of missed flights. She was due to arrive late, so I left the hotel door open for her. She made it in sometime after 10, in good spirits, and we both managed to get a good night’s sleep. Chuping asked us to be to breakfast at 6:50, then load the busses at 7:00 to take us to the race start. When we got to the hotel lobby she said no rush, the busses are late – one of the unforeseen obstacles the race had to deal with. About an hour later, we were loading up. The race started at 9:00 and it was to take 20-30 minutes to get there, so there was plenty of time.
We arrived at a tent-clad staging area. One for the athletes, one for Ford cars, one for post race recovery, one for really important people, and a big stage for the award presentations. A lot of money had been poured into this race. There was a multitude of blue jacket clad volunteers, a large start/finish line, a man on a paraglider flying around getting video, a drum band, a police force, and of course a drone. As it approached 9:00 we gathered up, only to be told that because one of the busses had not arrived. So we ambled back to the athlete’s tent. I tried to just stay loose and warm and didn’t get uptight about the late start. Finally at 10:00 we were ready to go.
Desolate doesn’t begin to describe the landscape we were about to embark on. And no amount of information given us before the race could have prepared me for what the course entailed. On paper the words used to describe it were lost on me.
“The competition course goes over various landscapes including black Gobi, sand, reed land, Yardan landform and other terrains, which is mainly Gobi (50%), while cumulative climb and decline is 80 meters. The 50-km course is a closed circular path with the starting point located in Xintiandun Farm in the Suzhou District of Jiuquan City. Runners shall run through Huoshi Beacon Tower, Tianluo Ancient City, Jiudao Spring, Huacheng Lake and finally return to the finish line at Xintiandun.“
Yardan? Black Gobi? Other descriptions in the course directions included things like Danxia landform, desert, Yardang landform, red gravel beach, cliff canyon, hard gravel Gobi, saline and alkaline land, camel thorn, soft Gobi, gravel paved roads, soft dirt roads, asphalt. I knew what asphalt was, pretty sure I knew what gravel paved roads and soft dirt roads were, but my idea of the latter two were a little different. I pretty much ignored it all anyway, looked at the course profile and thought it was going to be like a track meet where we would be running on packed hard sand with little elevation gain, or hard ground with smooth rocks, and somehow I thought it would be mostly pavement.
Huddling at the start line, trying to stay warm, I gazed out at the course ahead. Hmmmm. It looked a bit rough at the start – just sandy terrain, rutted, loose, but surely it would get on something smooth and hard soon. I was shivering when the final countdown happened, and off we went, me gasping for breath in the 30 degree air.
The field quickly spread out, and I was right behind Jodie. I kept telling myself that once I got warmed up and we hit the road, everything would calm down. I caught back up to Jodie, and then led for a bit, then she came back, as well as Germany’s Pamela and a Chinese woman. Next a Japanese woman passed by and she and went back and forth for a bit. Finally, I realized that this terrain was not going to change in a favorable way for a while, if ever, and I backed off. I accepted that this race wasn’t about me, it was about the course, and the course was in control. I started to study the different sand formations and where best to plant my feet. The dunes required NOT stepping where someone has stepped before, but rather landing lightly and trying not to break the sand to hard. I ran straight over the first few dunes, then realized that going around them actually was a good idea, and ended up being just as fast.
When I hit the first aid station I was grateful for a chance to slow down. The four women ahead of me were not in sight – either they would come back to me or not. The issue was now just handling the effort on the sand. Now that my heart rate was more relaxed, I felt more in control. I was catching a few men, running with a few in silence at times, but we were all pretty spread out.
We ran near the Huoshi Beacon Tower – where Chinese soldiers could alert folks on the Great Wall that there were invaders. It was now a remnant of the past – a large sand colored lump off to my left. I mainly focused on footing, but remembered to look up to appreciate the vast desert around me. It was incredibly barren. I toiled on through the next few miles, always stopping at the aid stations to stand and drink water, catch my breath, thank the volunteers, and forge on.
At 16 miles, the course turned onto a gravel road. It was glorious. It took me 2:40 to get there, and I realized that 5 hours might even be out of the question. I opened up my stride, as much as my fatiguing legs would allow. Seemingly in the middle of nowhere, volunteers were standing beside the road, thumbs up, yelling ‘Ji-oh Ji-oh’ (Let’s go! Let’s go!) Another few miles passed and we went through a place called Jayuguan Caohu Lake Wetland – in the middle of the desert – which is part of the historical Northern Silk Road. It was hard to interpret while running what the surroundings meant, but I did see the ornamentations, the flags, and got to run the glorious smooth black pavement.
When that ended I was presented with an option. I run through the sharp thorny camel thorn, or stay outside the course for slightly more distance, but firmer ground and no thorns. I chose the latter. Not really because of the thorns, but because I wanted some hard ground!
Occasionally I would catch up to a struggling male runner. We would run together for a bit, and then he would surrender, setting me free. My focus remained finding firm footing, keeping an eye on the course markings, and wondering if any of the women ahead were slowing, and were any women behind gaining on me.
When my Garmin miles were at 27 I thought I was closer to 29, so I hoped it was wrong and decided to run as if it was. I pushed hard, and now back in the loose sand, was really feeling the fatigue. Already the longest I had run since the World 100k, I was definitely pleased to have some fight in me. I focused on the next tent as it came into view, thinking it was the finish area, but it soon became obvious I had at leas 5k to go. Up and over and around the dunes, still encouraged by the volunteers, I pumped my arms, lungs wheezing, feet sliding, until finally I saw the large tents of the start finish area. I glanced at my watch, reflecting on the conversation Jodie and I had had early that morning.
Me: “What are you carrying for water and food?”
Jodie: “Not much. Some gels, and I’ll drink at the aid stations.”
Me: “Me too, although I’ll carry some water in a pack.”
Jodie: “It’s not like we’ll be out there that long. Like 4 hours, right?”
Me: “That sounds about right. I mean, how hard can it be?”
Sometimes ignorance is bliss, but this time it didn’t serve us well. It looked like if I ran hard I had a chance at breaking 5 hours, so I pumped harder, wheezed louder, and kicking sand up behind me, pushed as hard as I could to the end, where a banner was held for every finisher to break through. 4:57! I was immediately grabbed on both sides by two young women volunteers who nearly carried me to the recovery tent. Jodie was there, having come in 5 minutes before. She was 4th, the Japanese woman 3rd, The Chinese woman 2nd, and Germany’s Pamela was 1st. In the men’s race, Jim came in 3rd to 2 Kenyans.
Eventually we were bussed back to the hotel, and Jodie and I cleaned up and took a short stroll in town to take pictures and maybe do some shopping. It was a busy little city, and I said I wanted to take pictures of vendors but wasn’t sure how that was looked upon. Jodie said “after all the pictures you’ve been asked to be in? I think it is okay.” Indeed it was.
That evening, the race organizers hosted a Gala Dinner – another great evening of good food and entertainment, and now we were much more relaxed having the race out of the way. Chuping and her father and the mayor of the city joined us on several occasions during the evening, both to toast us, and to ask for our input on how to make the race better. They genuinely wanted the runners to have the best experience possible. And they want all of us to come back next year! I, for one, am in!
I am very grateful to Souhei Kobayashi for inviting me to this wonderful experience, to Chuping for her incredible job at herding us “cats”, to all of the race management and their sponsors for treating us like royalty (even before they knew…). I am also very grateful to my sponsors Altra and Injinji for taking care of my feet once again. And a huge thank you to Mark for staying home and taking care of our new donkeys!
I watched Sarah pull away, gliding effortlessly through the still congested field of runners, 2 miles into the 62 miles that lay ahead. Relying on my heart rate to keep me in control, I let her go. It was my 7th time on Team USA for the World 100k championships and I felt like I was finally getting a hold of what I could sustain. I also knew that Camille was even further ahead, setting a blistering pace – but fast is fast, and I knew she was experienced enough to know what she was capable of. I kept my heart rate around 150 and was pleased to see that the pace was fast – 7:10 or so, but it felt stupidly easy.
The IAU World 100k Championship race is 2nd only to Western States 100 in terms of my priorities. While it isn’t the most pleasant of surfaces (flat and hard) and often contrived courses (loops of 5k to 20k), the gathering of nations through runners makes the world seem smaller. For me, it allows preconceived notions tied to nationality slide away, as our own humanity and interest in how others live their lives on our shared planet reveals that we are more alike than different.
In this sea of running humanity, I settled in and for the ebb and flow of the day. My Croatian friend, Marija, was running with her teammate, and Holly and Susan of the UK were tucked in behind me. The first loop of the 10k course I was relaxed while learning all the twists and turns, taking in the numerous spectators comprised of the citizens of Winschoten, The Netherlands. Streets were lined with children offering sponges, adults lounging in chairs while yelling out our names, and flags were laced high above the streets. At 6k, Mark was ready at the team table with my first bottle. I drank most of it and every bottle I received during the run, determined to keep my calories and hydration up.
At the end of the first loop I was pleased to see I was around 45 minutes, average pace around 7:12 according to my Garmin. A few sharp turns onto the bike path and I was aided by our other team table, where Lin handed me my bottle and offered shouts of encouragement. Lin (Gentling) has been one of my handlers each time I’ve been on the team, and one of our amazing team managers.
For the next 2 loops, still running a good clip, I remained tightly connected to teams Croatia and UK, plus a male runner from Europe – perhaps Germany. While running with women is legal, running with men can be perceived as being paced and grounds for disqualification – particularly if the man is from the same country, but also from any country if there is an unspoken alliance. He seemed very intent to run with me though, as he would slow up if I did, or speed back up after receiving aid. Finally I asked, “Do you speak English?”
“I need you to not run with me. I may get in trouble.” He didn’t understand so I tried again using hand gestures.
Pointing in front of me, then behind me I said “I need you to run in front of me or behind me. I could get in trouble.” This he understood and fell in behind, and eventually fell from the pace for good.
Cloudy skies and fall temperatures kept the conditions nearly perfect for an endurance event. Only the wind caused concern for me, as at times it was very stiff. One stretch of the course passed three horses standing in their field, butts to the wind to shelter themselves, which affirmed that it was not insignificant.
Beginning the 4th loop Marija came up by my side and we ran together awhile, as well as a male runner from Croatia. Finally I told Marija – “He should not be running with you – it may be seen as pacing.” She was unaware of this rule and said “It’s okay – he is not as good as me.” I knew her well enough that she only meant he isn’t as fast as she is, and I let her know that it didn’t matter – someone could file a complaint. She let him know and he fell in behind, and she slowly glided away from me.
My overall pace was slowing by 1 or 2 seconds each 10k. Of course I was thinking at some point it will stabilize. By 40k I was went through around 3:01, and the 50k mark was 3:47. My heart rate was still between 150-155, only shooting up after drinking from my bottles. My stomach was in control, as I had pre-emptively taken Imodium prior to the start.
At some point UK Susan passed me, but UK Holly was still going back and forth with me. I was uncertain where Jo Z was, their top runner. Our team managers intentionally do not let us know where we stand as a team until some point in the 2nd half, as they don’t want us to try to start racing early, risking some blow ups. Even now, I was not sure how we were doing, but I was happy to know that Camille and Sarah were ahead apparently holding their own. I had gone to and fro with two of the Japanese women, and I knew they were a force, as they placed second last year. Other teams to contend with were Russia and Sweden, but I hadn’t been around any of them that I was aware of.
Meanwhile, the men’s race was starting to happen around me. I was surprised to see young teammate Jim Winslow in first. Wow! And this was in my 6th lap. I yelled out to him some encouragement. In a matter of moments, steady Swedish runner Jonas Buud came by. Oh, man, Jonas has been 2nd at worlds time after time, but no victory. Was it his fate again? And soon afterward, my Italian friend and 100k hero Giorgio Calcaterra floated by, and gave me words of encouragement. Within another few minutes, teammate Zach Bitter passed by, maybe in 11th or 12th place, looking very good – this looked good for the US men, indeed! However, as soon as I finished the loop, I caught back up to young Jim stopped at our team table. I touched him as I passed, encouraging him to get it together. He eventually passed me back, but struggled that second half. Meanwhile, Zach had severe breathing issues that led authorities to take him to the hospital fearing heart problems. Thankfully, he was fine. The next US fella to pass me was Joe Binder, super consistent, and was our top finisher.
The course is as flat as they come – but of course there are always a few gradual inclines and descents. I learned each slow spot of the course after a few loops, so I allowed myself to ease up and not get discouraged, and as soon as it became pancake flat or slightly downhill, I recovered. The black pavement and red bike paths were the easiest on my feet and legs, but the sections of brick (not as bad as cobbles) were killing my feet. In the 6th and 7th loops I was accepting that while in training I had regained my speed just in time for this race, I was behind on the endurance. I hadn’t done any back-to-back long runs, and it was beginning to matter. My bowels started complaining, sending me into the port-a-potty. After the second time in, I knew I needed help, so at the 80k mark, I yelled ahead to Lin “Imodium!” and when I reached her, Lion, our team doctor, had a pill in a neat little package for me. I said “I can’t open that.” Even sitting down in a living room with bright lights, small packaging is not my friend. Lion desperately tried to tear it open, got it partially there, and the powder began to spill from the capsule. John, Sarah’s husband and crew immediately tried to open another. Both of them had powder to offer me, and I took it. Meanwhile Lin said “We’re in first place. We need you to….” Here she assessed my status, paused, and said “just keep doing what you’re doing and what we know you can do.” She could tell that I was in distress and didn’t want to put pressure on me. But I was totally inspired to keep on pushing as hard as I could.
By the time I got to our next team table, Mark was ready with more Imodium, all nicely laid out in his hand sans packaging. One more porta-potty stop, and now I had just 1 and half laps to go. My pace had fallen off drastically, but my heart rate was not completely tanked – in the high 140s. With less than a mile to go in my 9th lap, I could hear two motorcycle escorts, beeping their horns. It took me a second or two before I realized it HAD to be Camille! I looked over my shoulder, and there she was, just gritting it out. I pumped my fists in the air for her, and as she passed we cheered each other on. It was just now over 7 hours, and she would complete the course in 7:08, incredibly fast, only 8 minutes over Ann Trason’s long held national record.
As I completed lap 9, Bryon Powell of IRunFar.com yelled out at me – “You’re in 3rd for the team, and we’re in first. You matter.” The race is scored by the top three women’s cumulative time per team. We were up by 8 minutes. Fueled by his words, I made myself work hard for as long as could. It was a bit of fartlek running. I passed one of the Japanese women who had collapsed and was being assisted. It was getting ugly. I kept hoping that teammate Justine would catch me and catch a few of the women who had passed me in the last lap. I was pretty sure Carolyn Smith was unable to finish due to injury. But with no Justine sightings it was on me to push hard. I grunted through the tough spots I had relaxed in before. I willed my legs to ignore the fatigue, and my feet to ignore the pain. With 1 k to go, I accelerated as much as possible, and finally flew across the finish line in 8:02.
Not my best, not my worst, but I was absolutely wrecked. Timo – our 3rd team manager was at my side, wrapping me in a blanket. I sat for a while, looking for Mark. Timo got me up and helped me across the road, where Mark was looking for me. From there Mark took me inside and helped me to the locker room. It was unofficial, but it appeared that we took the Gold, by 11 minutes. Sarah had finished 4th in a crazy time of 7:29 in her first 100k! My friend Marija had made her way to 3rd, and 2nd place went to Sweden. And as this race also served as World Masters Athletics championship, I won the 50-59 age category.
I am so fortunate to be a part of this machine. I couldn’t do it without the support of my friends, family, sponsors and Team USA management. I would personally like to thank my one and only Mark Laws for his support and companionship on this self-centered journey, Lin Gentling of the Team USA management for her handling me for the 7th time, Timo, Anne Heaslett, Lion Caldwell and Susan, for their undying support of the Team, and to my sponsors Altra and Injinji for helping me take care of my feet! I also thank my awesome teammates – Carolyn Smith, Camille Heron, Justine Morrison, Sarah Bard – we really gelled!
Denial. Lying to myself. Ignoring the truth. Not breathing life into reality. Those are the tools I used going into a race when in the back of my mind I knew there were real issues that existed. This was my 9th consecutive Western States 100 (WS, or States) and I am extremely fortunate to be able to toe the line year after year. My list of issues is not unique, not special, and not meant to be excuses, because I don’t like to hear them from others, but they are pieces of the story that I aim to learn from as I go forward in this sport.Training for States had been pretty typical. I ran some early season races, got in some good high mileage weeks, had a stellar 100k in May, and then….
Left hip – something or many things in the glute – I can list all the structures, but the bottom line is – it wasn’t functioning well. This is a training error. It hurt, felt like a tight wad, and after a couple of weeks post-Quicksilver, it was clear that I should not be attempting any speedwork. “Nevermind” I told myself. “I don’t need track speed to have a good States.” Probably true, but I would say that I need to be ABLE to do speed work to have a good States.
Memorial Day weekend runs were…well, good to run those miles with friend Stephanie Howe, Matt Keyes, Zach Violett, and the Twiets, but there was more than one point during the day were my butt was burning in pain and I had to back off. Again, I told myself, doesn’t matter, I won’t be running fast on race day.
And before time to taper, out on my last long run of 25 miles, I tripped, and rather than face plant, I used a lot of muscle to keep from falling, including said left butt, causing it to seize up, reducing me to a walk, then a slow shuffle, then a not slow shuffle back to my car. It hurt, but I just tried to stay positive. The next 3 days were spent moving my daughter to Portland, and I did not run a step. Anyway, enough of the pre-race build up.
Tapering went fine. The butt continued to hurt, I had body work done on it 3 times, and I kept the positive outlook. It really was feeling better, but still felt that a speed session would result in cramping and perhaps injury.
Race morning, I was feeling rested, positive, and ready to run to Auburn. My crew of Mark, Andrea, and Kelsie, were excited, organized, and ready to see me through the day. It was mild at the start, and with Mark’s words of “I believe in you” I was full of hope that it would all come together.
I love this race more than any other, but the first 4 miles are my LEAST favorite. It is such a grind to get to the pass, and as much as I want to follow my mantra “don’t fight the trail” it is hard to put on the blinders and just stay chill. This year, I wanted to run conservatively in the high country, disregarding my time, so that I would be able to take advantage of my strengths of downhill and flat running. I was slower to the escarpment and to Lyon Ridge than I have been in a long while, but I let it go. I met and ran several miles with Caroline Boller – her first 100 – as we had similar strengths. After Lyon Ridge, and before Redstar, I took my first spill. Ouch – my left calf cramped, but at least my butt was fine, and the scrapes were minor. As I pulled into Redstar AS, Craig and Scott were both there, and commented, “did you already fall Queen?” The dirt didn’t lie. I pulled out nice and easy, and out in the open again, I hit another loose rocky area, biffed again, hitting my forehead and chin. My right calf cramped. Chaz, another racer, turned back and asked if I was okay, said it didn’t sound very good when I landed. Embarrassed, I said I was fine, and he finally went on. When I got up, the dirt side of my big right toe was burning. OUCH! Did I break it? I gingerly ran on, never toeing off, but mid-foot planting my way forward down the trail.
All the way to Duncan AS, I managed the pain. It wasn’t that bad if I didn’t toe off, trip, or kick anything. With my conservative running, I arrived at Duncan about 30 minutes later than my fantasy time. In 24 miles, that is significant, but I aimed to make up for it when I could run fast comfortably. Mark was right there, ready to replace my pack, my bandana, and offer me an Ensure, which I downed gratefully. Greg Lanctot came over, mentioned how dirty I was, and helped clean me up a bit. Mark was unsure what place I was in, but somewhere above 15th. This sounded right for how long it was taking me to get places.
From Duncan AS to Robinson Flat, I was pleased to be able to run much of it. I worked steadily at staying cool by dousing with my water, and when I arrived at Duncan Creek I found a place to sit down and then scoop water all over my body. With that cooling, I was able to jog much of the ensuing climb up to Robinson Flat.
Arriving there in over 6 hours, I convinced myself that although it was likely the slowest I had ever taken, I was going to be able to run hard later in the game. Andrea and Kelsie were right there with my new pack, some Ensure, and tons of encouragement. Tim and Diana Fitzpatrick were there telling me how good I looked and that some of the women ahead already looked rough. With those words and the encouraging cheers of onlookers, I ran out, and up much of the climb to Little Bald Mountain.
My nutrition plan was solid – I was eating 200-300 calories per hour, mostly in the form of Huma gels, plus some Accelerade in my bladder. I felt tanked up, but the toe was definitely taking the joy out of my running. Mark Tanaka, a Bay Area runner I have run with, caught up to me and we ran pretty closely into Miller’s Defeat. I iced up there, and left before him enroute to Dusty Corners where Mark would be waiting. I passed an already over heated Jady Palko, and my toe kept me putting the brakes on all the way into the aid station. Mark was ready again. I told him “I think maybe I broke my toe” and he said, well, try and ignore it, and once I resupplied, I stopped at the sponge and mister to get good and wet before heading onto Pucker Point trail.
Pucker Point in theory could be one of the easiest sections on the course. It is pretty dang flat, not very technical. There was not a sole in sight the entire way to Last Chance, although Mark Tanaka was not far behind. At Last Chance, one of the lovely volunteers asked me how I felt. “Not great!” and she then wanted to probe deeper. I assured her I was fine, just tired for just having run 40+ miles. I was wetted down again with sponges and misters, and left the aid station to the cheers of the volunteers. As I jogged along, a raven flew overhead, making a bit of a fuss. “Grandpa!” I thought, chuckling to myself. Mark calls ravens “Grandpa” from the Native American myth that our elders come back as ravens to watch over us. I appreciated Mark’s grandpa making an appearance and telling me to just relax and keep on moving forward.
It was amazingly solitary out there. I’m usually around more runners, but not today. I cruised down the Precipitous Trail best I could, and eventually made it to Swinging Bridge. My energy was good, my legs were good, my tentativeness at an all time high to keep upright. As I crossed the bridge, I saw Denise “Little D” Bourassa heading down to the river to cool off. We exchanged encouragement, and I made my way to the spring up the trail a bit. I sat my butt down in it, right next to the rocks as the water poured over me. I filled my water bottle, drank deeply, and then filled it again. Feeling quite refreshed, I began the long grind out to Devil’s Thumb. I felt reasonably well – my butt was working pretty well, my toe wasn’t too bad on the climb. About half way up I saw 2 of my homies – Ian Torrence and Topher Gaylor sitting on the side of the trail having a moment. “You guys!” I said. “Let’s go!” They just grinned and encouraged me on.
At the top were many friends – Denis Zylof, Charles Savage, Joe Uhan, and Laura Snow. They were all so supportive, telling me how great I was doing, looking, etc. I unintentionally down played their kindness, only declaring that my toe felt broken, and that I was in 15th place and had a lot of work to do. They took great care of me, Laura walking out with me to be sure I was okay with my toe, and off I went. Ahead was the longest, sweetest downhill of the race – the descent into El Dorado canyon. I fell into the middle of a line of 3. Not sure whom I was following, but Klaus was right behind me, and the three of us cruised in silent company. My fears here were 3-fold – 1) the discomfort of the foot plant, 2) kicking a rock with my right toe and 3) falling. I was braking every step of the way.
Finally at El Dorado AS, Kevin Rumon greeted me enthusiastically, and helped me get ice water, ice for my sports bra, while Scott Vosburg helped me with coke and food. Scott said “I heard you broke your toe!” What? How could he have heard that? Apparently, Pam Smith had told him. Which she must have learned from Mac? What? It was too confusing for me. I started the climb out – the first bit being very steep was suddenly extremely tough. Once it got mellower I was able to jog some of the sections. I began to contemplate my present situation, what I was going to complain about when I got to Michigan Bluff to my crew, and I caught myself. What good would it be to complain? We all come to this on our own free will. It is the race of dreams. It is a privilege to be here. The last thing I should do is whine about how terrible my day was going. I was, after all, alive.
Arriving to Michigan Bluff, Mark was ready to crew, and Krissy Moehl and Kim Gaylord jumped into help. Mark asked how I was doing. I said “I could complain, but that would be stupid. I’m lucky to be here.” I drank Frappuccino, Krissy put ice in my bra, and I got sponged down before I gently jogged out – happy that my legs actually felt pretty good, and I was so touched by the amount of cheering that I received on the way. Alone again on the road to Foresthill, I moved along and was finally joined by a Nevada runner, Doug. We ran and hiked a couple of miles together. It was his first WS, and he was full of respect and joy to be there. He let me go before the descent into Volcano Canyon. I placed each step deliberately all the way to the creek. I waded across, and began the climb out, very excited and anxious to meet Andrea and Kelsie, where Andrea would begin her 18-mile stretch of pacing me. As they met me, they began filling me in on what was going on ahead. We were in the process of passing Carrie Wlad who was hobbling along coming off an injury. At that point I was told I was in 13th, as Anita Ortiz had dropped due to a sprained ankle. I jogged and walked while they told me about how the men and women ahead were doing and looking. I cruised into the Foresthill AS, one of the busiest and liveliest of all. I drank a bit of soda, then cruised out to Mark where he was set with my gear for Cal Street. My dad had made the trek out, asked my how my toe was. I asked Mark if he wanted to run down to Cal Street with us, and he almost did before we realized he was wearing Tevas.
Andrea and I cruised down the road to the well-wishers. In a short bit I saw Mark’s Mom and Dad who also had driven out to see all the excitement. A quick hug to Joy and we were back on track. We hit the single track, and now I wanted to attack the trail instead of not fighting it. Turns out to not have been a good idea. Andrea ran in front, pulling me along, reminding me to eat every 20 minutes, and having me run at least 10 steps up each hill before walking. I passed Michelle Yates who was looking very stoic, but obviously hurting. Andrea had me reeling in the next two, and to my pleasant surprise it was my friend Byron “Nature Boy” Pittam and his pacer. We shared a good, few miles together before he passed me back – which was really the beginning of the wheels falling off. The two steep descents, including the Elevator Shaft, were quite difficult with me protecting my toe.
At Cal 2 AS, I filled my bottle with water, and was given the update – Nikki and Joelle were not too far ahead. Nikki less than 10 minutes, Joelle about 3. I told Andrea I wanted to lead here so I could control my downhill speed and protect my toe. In less than 100 yards, I spotted Joelle and her pacer. Over the next couple of miles we slowly gained on her, down the normally free falling grade – I was having to hold back and take each sharp switchback very slowly. When we finally passed her, she was as gracious as ever, and encouraged us on. The 6 minute hill was probably more like 7 minutes, but once at the top I was able to run downhill pretty well to Cal 3. There we were told that Nikki was 5 minutes ahead. We got out quickly. Now every hill was killing my pace. The combination of climbing, and descending with the brakes on had taken its toll. And it was getting dark. I had been in denial about the impending darkness – could it be I really wouldn’t get to the river before dark? It is bad karma to run Cal Street without toting your headlamp, I guess. Through the Sandy Bottom, I kept a decent jog, and commented to Andrea that at least I wasn’t leaning yet! Dusk was upon as when we popped out onto the dirt road a mile and a half to the river crossing. At this point, Andrea pulled out her headlamp, and attempted to light the way for the both of us. With the dust hovering over the ground, it was iffy. I begged myself to not kick a rock. Three more climbs and descents, and we finally rolled into the Rucky- Chuck AS and river crossing.
We were greeted by volunteers, ready to help and was told I was 10th female. What? Hmmmm. I wasn’t going to buy it. I knew I had moved up 2 spots since Foresthill, and unless someone was sitting in a chair at an AS we passed, or someone had dropped elsewhere, I didn’t dare believe it. Kelsie had come to cheer us on, and Andrea and I made our way down to the river crossing. We were adorned with life jackets, and then instructed every step of the way for where to put our feet, given the unevenness of the boulders and different depths. The water felt good, but not as good as it does in the daylight. Chris Thornley, in charge of river crossing was paddling back and forth in a raft, keeping an eye on everyone, and gave me a shout out. Climbing out, my dear friend and next pacer, Caren Wick (nee Spore!) was waiting and ready.
Andrea, Caren and I marched out and up the road to Green Gate. Caren began getting me to run the easier sections, over and over. Sometimes I would start running before she said anything, as I could read her mind. At the top, a deep voice came to me “Is that my girlfriend?” It was Mark, ready with my fresh pack, and info on Nikki – again about 5 minutes ahead. I ate a little broth, then said goodbye to Mark and Andrea, and Caren and I were on our way to ALT. I was able to run a lot of it, and still eat every 20 minutes, but it was getting tough. Caren’s alarm would go off, and I would groan, think about it, stall, and then finally choke down more gel. I held off on one alarm waiting to get some soup at the AS. As we finally rolled in, the folks at the clipboard said “You’re 11th female.” The tired me said “But they said I was 10th at the river!” and the rational me said, “well, that is actually what I thought”. I ate a couple cups of soup, drank some ginger ale, and ambled out. We were told that Nikki and Pam Smith were both about 5 minutes ahead. Sounded as if Pam was having a rough day as well. The tiny climb from the AS was brutal – all 10 yards. I was tanking. But every now and then I found myself jogging along. Caren talked, and I didn’t say much – I told her she could talk all she wants, just don’t expect an answer.
And because things come in threes, I had one more tumble. I was going slow, so it shouldn’t have hurt, but I did happen to land on the water bottle over my chest and my rib didn’t much like that. We could hear voices ahead and voices behind. I hoped that the ones behind were men. They approached quickly, and when I turned I was ecstatic to see my friend Erika Lindland! She is a strong athlete, but lacks belief that she would ever be a top 10 runner here. She looked at me and said “Meghan?!! What is wrong with the universe?!” I was so excited for her. I could tell she would be moving up further before the night was over. In another couple 100 yards, I caught Pam and her pacer Dennis. She looked beat – probably about how I looked. We exchanged words of encouragement. Finally at Browns Bar AS, I called up my number “F8”. They yelled back “F8”. I followed up with “The Queen!” to which the response was much more lively. These folks are from Ashland and I know them well. John Price and Rob Cain were quick to find something for me to eat. Hal Koerner said “Nikki is just a couple minutes ahead of you. You are still in this!” I drank some broth and headed down the hill, doing my best to be smooth on the technical trail with Caren in tow. My toe was not happy at the end of that, so I dug out some Aleve – it had been several hours since I had taken any, and I really needed my toe to stop hurting.
Down on the Quarry road, I found myself able to run the gentle rollers, much to my surprise. I kept that up pretty well, but when I got back to the single track, I really seemed to have lost it all. Caren did her best to keep me eating and keep me moving. We ambled into the HWY 49 crossing, and my crew was there, ready to help in any way possible. I asked how far ahead Nikki was now – a good 10 minutes. I sighed. I had nothing left to try and chase anyone down. I took a new pack, and jogged slowly out. Caren kept me moving up the technical rocks, and when we hit the single track and crested, I started jogging again. It wasn’t fast, but it was faster than walking. Behind me someone was approaching, and the noises coming from him sounded like he was trying not to puke. It was young Ford Smith, with his pacer Joe Uhan. “Ford! What are you doing behind me?” He had struggled with asthma earlier and had a long break, but was now at least moving faster than I. After he passed, I started the cough he had, and realized it was largely due to the dust being kicked up.
Soon we were passed again, this time by a female. Now back in 12th place, there was no real motivation to dig even deeper. I just wanted to finish! We arrived at No Hands Bridge – all lit up in white lights, with a movie screen showing “Unbreakable”. I ate some ramen, chatted with the volunteers for a moment, and then Caren and I jogged across the bridge. On the other side, I kept jogging, and realized that Caren was actually walking as fast as my jog. Keep in mind; she is only 4’10” with relatively short legs. I chuckled and decided I might as well walk. We finally made it up to Robie Point, where Mark, Kelsie and Andrea were waiting. The pulled me along, let me know how the women’s race had panned out. I was able to run some of the last bit, and finally hit the track, waving to John Medinger in the announcer’s booth to his “The Queen is in the House” statement. I crossed the finish line to the taunts of Monkey Boy for my leaning posture (again???) and told Craig “Well, that took a little longer than I anticipated”. 22:36 – my second slowest time. But with it being my 9th finish, I was guaranteed and invitation to run next year.
My toe was gross – all blistered up, but no joint pain. If I broke it, it was just in the last phalange. All I know is that it hurt a lot.
Many thanks to my crew Mark, Andrea, Caren, and Kelsie, who made my trip from Squaw to Auburn much more enjoyable with their personal attention and care. Thanks to the Western States volunteers and RD Craig for continuing to make this event the world class race that it is. Thanks to my sponsors Injinji and Altra for putting me in quality socks and shoes!
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!