I’ve Got All the Excuses
Let me start by offering all the excuses to explain why I have not finished a 100-mile race in two years despite repeated efforts:
In 2016, the Bear 100 was nicknamed the Polar Bear 100. Despite it being only mid-September in Utah, the forecast called for feet of snow to drop, starting the night before the race and continuing for the first 24 hours after the start. The temperature ended up being slightly warmer than expected which caused all that snow to fall as heavy rain instead – an even worse scenario. Despite buying new rain pants and jacket, I was drenched within minutes and stayed that way. In fact, it was a record setting storm for that area. When we’d climb high on the peaks the rain would turn to snow and the wind would chill me straight through. Right before sunset a volunteer from the next aid station drove his truck up an ATV road, rolled down the window, and stuck out hot water bottle. “Ready to call it?” he yelled. I was. I was visibly shaking and knew it would only get worse as the sun set. My crew found me in the next aid station trying to get warm – naked underneath a stack of blankets.
This year I flew to British Columbia, Canada to “run” (reminder that I mean run/hike/power walk) the Fat Dog 120. Two weeks before the race, my husband of nearly 11 years asked for a divorce, which caused enough upheaval in my life to force me into an expected move and to keep me from sleeping much those two weeks. (No, this ask wasn’t completely expected but I’ll save the nitty gritty for my personal journals!) As we flew into Seattle I gawked at Mt Rainier…then it disappeared. When we landed it was nowhere to be seen. The terrible fires this summer meant that the entire region was covered in smoke. Visibility only got worse as we drove nearer to the start. The race morning the sky cleared a little, but it was scorching hot and still, there was enough in the air that my lungs burned and I felt dizzy nearly immediately. That night at dusk a guy I was running (read: power hiking) with thought he saw Mars. No, my runner friend, that was just a star reddened from the smoke. The moon turned out to be blood red, too. I ended up not being able to make up the time I lost on the first climb when the heat/smoke where the worst, and I timed out at the first cut-off. Damn.
I know what my sane friends are thinking: those are impossible complications when 100 miles is tough enough! “Who could finish that?” you might ask. Well, more than a hundred people in each race overcame and triumphed, and I watched them, flabbergasted, as they filed into the finish.
Hardy beasts, I call these superhumans.
This summer I paced for a friend at Bighorn 100. The crazy weather at that event? INCHES of mud on the trail. Trust me, I know mud. I love mud. Really, I do. This was so far beyond anything I had ever seen. The trail had turned into frothy chocolate ice cream. When I began pacing for him we had an 18-mile descent in the dark, and without poles, I fell over and over and over… He fell too, but fortunately his poles saved him a bit. By the time the sun rose he had torqued his already-injured knee, my otherwise healthy knee was swollen, and I had either sprained or strained my neck (an injury that’s still bugging me). I’m absolutely sure that if it had been me in the race, I wouldn’t have finished that one either. But he did. I’m quite proud of him and inspired by his resilience.
Part of the problem is that I am a middle-of-the-pack runner but a back-of-the-pack ultra-runner. During Fat Dog this year, even the leaders lost hours during the brutal heat and smoke, but they had more than enough cushion to make up some of that time and finish only slightly behind what they would have. We estimated that my friend probably lost three hours in the worst of the mud at Bighorn. But I finished my first and only 100 with a mere nine minutes to spare; that’s zero cushion. Part of my strategy going forward is going to be to focus on speed now that I have my body used to going so far.
Still, that’s sort of another excuse.
I have one more opportunity to finish a 100 this year. On Friday I’m flying to Virginia for Grindstone 100, the last race I can complete in order to stay qualified for the Hardrock 100 lottery in a few months.
I caught myself thinking, “I just need everything to go perfectly this time.” And that’s when I realized: 100 miles over and through scores of mountains will NEVER go perfectly. For instance, during Run Rabbit in 2015, I started dry heaving in the 50’s and hardly ate anything until the end. Major stomach problems is fairly standard for a 100. Nasty weather: also standard. Getting lost, getting injured, hallucinations…the list of challenges goes on and on.
If you want a straightforward, predictable race, you’ve got to stick to road marathons. But mountains are unpredictable and such long adventures will never go as planned.
I know what my sane friends are thinking: it’s ridiculous to put pressure on myself to finish a 100 in such extreme conditions.
Maybe you’re right. I’m not saying there isn’t a line where these races become dangerous or when you can’t safely push through a real injury. But what I’ve realized is that I run (again, “run”) these things because I live to defy excuses.
That’s. The. Whole. Point.
I’ve had a headache since I was 18. If I was going to fold, it would be because of that. But I don’t. In fact, that’s why I got this tattoo on my arm: to remind me that the impossible is possible even when I’m in pain.
Recently I accepted a ski instructor position for this winter (yay!) and for a moment, I really worried about having such an active job with chronic pain. Would it interfere? Then I remembered all the things I’ve done with this motherfucker of a headache – and I looked at this tattoo – and my confidence returned. Of course I’ll be able to teach skiing despite the pain, but only because I push myself through excuses on the regular.
The second I stop believing in the seemingly impossible, I will start living on my couch full-time on VA disability.
Two weeks ago, I finished my first ultra in a year and a half. (Not only did I DNF for those two 100’s but I also dropped from a 50 and from a 50K. DAMN I’ve gotten good at quitting.) During this race, the Silverton Double Dirty 30, we got hit with a major September blizzard. Inches of snow fell on us and some say the winds were over 40 mph. I was power hiking with another woman through the worst of it at 12,000 feet, thankfully, and it became much more of an exercise in survival than in racing. We could hardly see the trail markings as our eyes were battered with the snow. After we got on the far side of the pass, I once again found myself naked in an aid station shaking and trying to warm up. This time, instead of quitting, I found dry clothes in my drop bags and went right back out there. It helped that I only had 10 more miles instead of 60, as in Bear 100, and that the worst of the storm had passed. But still. I didn’t quit. When I finished my friend and race director Megan Finnesy said, “You’ve redefined what’s possible.” I was confused at first – this was only a 55K and I’ve gone so much further. But then I realized she was right. I hadn’t ever gone so far when I had so much reason to stop.
So far, the weather is looking great for Grindstone 100 this weekend and I’ve slept well. I don’t have a pile of excuses stacking up. But even if they do, even if things start to go away from the plan, I’ll push through.
This summer my mantra has been “joy and gratitude.” This weekend I’m shifting it to “grit and resilience.”
No more excuses. I’m going to be one of those hardy beasts I admire so much. Fake it ’till you make it, they say.