Warning: I can’t help but use all capital letters a bit too often in this post! Oh, and you know they’ll be way too many exclamation points too.
I wait all winter for this moment, the eve of July. The snow has almost melted! There is no longer such a thing as avalanches or breaking trail or post-holing! The wild flowers are in bloom! I’m freed from the banal repetition of running the same Boulder trails over and over. Mountain running season is in full-swing, and I have a little more than six weeks remaining to train for my big race of the year, Fat Dog 120. GAME ON.
In order to train (and just because I want to), this year I have planned what will be my most exciting and also my toughest non-race trail run yet: Softrock. In case you haven’t been victim to my endless rambling about this little endeavor, let me explain.
My pie-in-the-sky 100-mile race is the Hardrock 100. Everything I do as a trail runner, I do to try to gain entry into this race (Because it’s all stuff I love doing anyway). It’s a bit of a game: in order to apply, you must finish one of their approved 100-mile qualifying races at least every two years. The qualifiers are all tough, mountainous 100’s (yay, MOUNTAINS). Each year you are qualified, and you put your name in the lottery, you gain more lottery tickets. For the nerds: the formula is logarithmic. So for 2018, I’ll have double the chance I had in 2017. Still, there are so many runners vying to get into Hardrock, it takes years, sometimes even a half dozen or more. So far, I’ve been qualified to put my name in twice.
Enter: SOFTROCK. It’s the unofficial version of the awesome Hardrock. Every year a bunch of people wanting to test themselves against the race course, casually hike/run the whole route. But instead of doing it in one push (48 hours cut-off, usually without sleeping), they do it in four days. Hence, the “soft” part of the name.
I’m driving out on Wednesday, and starting Softrock on Thursday. We’ll finish late Sunday night. We won’t have crew, aid stations, or course markings (Hardrock isn’t for two more weeks), which means we’ll need to carry a lot more on our backs than we normally would, and that it’ll also be a bit of an orienteering test as well. Not to worry though – I’ve spent weeks studying the maps and the recently available Google street view of the course! (I’m amazed by whoever carried the heavy equipment on those trails last summer.) You can click through the course here!
The up-side is that at night, we’ll stop and rest in a hotel or hostel. The schedule works out perfectly that we’ll end up in a town at the end of each leg.
Here’s the schedule:
Thursday: Lake City to Ouray – 26 miles and 7,500 feet of vertical gain over two major climbs
Friday: Ouray to Telluride – 16 miles and 6,000 feet of vertical gain over one major climb
Saturday: Telluride to Silverton – 29 miles and 10,000 feet of vertical gain over three major climbs
Sunday: Silverton to Lake City – 29 miles and 10,000 feet of vertical gain over three major climbs
The awesome thing about Hardrock is that each of those “major climbs” I listed above carry the runners to a magical alpine basin, peak, or pass. This isn’t one of those races where you end up running for miles and then every once-in-a-while find yourself some place awesome. ALL of Hardrock is awesome. The average altitude is just over 11,000 feet; in other words, for almost half of the race you are above tree line.
They’ll still be snow on many of those 13,000-foot passes, so I’m most likely going to be carrying microspikes (foot traction) as well as an ice axe. I know, I know! Most trail “runs” don’t involve ice axes. Think of this as part trail run, part fast pack, part mountain climb. In other words, my favorite mix of mountain adventure.
I’m confident I can get through Thursday and Friday without too much turmoil, but I’m pretty sure life is going to happen sometime on Saturday. And Sunday? Let’s not talk about Sunday yet. At that point, it’s just going to be about getting back to the car and saving myself.
As always, I’m sure this is the point where you, dear reader, start to wonder about my mental health. By means of explaining, let me leave you with this anecdote:
A few weeks ago, I paced for a friend at the Bighorn 100. I picked him up at mile 48, the course high point. It was one am, and had been raining for hours. The already-saturated ground had turned to inches of pure mud. To get to the next aid station, we had 18 miles to descend. Ordinarily we would have been able to jog those miles, but the mud was so slick, we could hardly walk. I mean, this wasn’t just mud; it was deep, frothy chocolate ice cream. I’ve met ice that wasn’t so slippery! My runner had poles but I did not. I fell over and over and over. After each fall, I’d struggle to catch up to him – he was also slipping and hugely frustrated – and pretend I was fine and in good spirits and try to convince him that he should be too. In fact, it took us eight hours to cover those miles – in the dark and rain. I’ll be honest, I had a coming-to-Jesus moment (and by moment, I mean two or three-hour period) in which I seriously questioned my life choices.
Later in the day, after the rain had stopped and the sun had come up to dry the trail a bit, I heard another runner recount what had been on her mind all night. She said, “What’s wrong with road marathons?!”
Her rhetorical question put it all in perspective for me. I wouldn’t trade a single mile of what I do in the mountains for a road marathon. I hate the grind of road running, the pounding on the cement, the expectation to run – and to run fast – every foot of the race. For me at least, road marathons tend to lead to a dissociative-type state of running which doesn’t usually teach me anything new about myself. Road marathons don’t bring me closer to anything.
I like the kind of HARD which comes from major complications presented to you by the wilderness. Ie mud or snow or extreme temperature variations, or even getting lost AF on occasion. The truth is, if the goal wasn’t tough, I wouldn’t have motivation to do.
I also hate that road marathons don’t take you anywhere a car can’t go. And that’s why I’m so excited for Softrock. My heart is in the San Juan Mountains, and I feel so grateful to have the opportunity to witness 100 miles of their majesty in only four short days.
I’ll have reception at the end of each day, and, as always, I’ll post on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. I’d be so honored if you followed along.
PS If you have seven and a half minutes, check out this Salomon TV video about the aid station perched on Virginius Pass every year. It gives you a great sense for the feel of the race and these precious mountains. (It even features a few of my friends!)
My first trail race of the season – Dirty 30 50K – is only one week away! I’m particularly excited for the Dirty 30 this year because it will be my fifth year finishing, and the race director (Megan Finnesy) presents five-year finishers with cool jackets. Obviously ultras are all about the badass apparel.
Of the four years I’ve finished Dirty 30, I had a migraine for two of them. In the few weeks leading up to last year’s race, I had a migraine more than fifty percent of the time, and the night before, I was up nearly all night with the pain. The stabbing and pounding was that kind that’s so intense it renders you incapable of doing anything other than breathing in and out, and even that was a stretch. How I even started the race is sort of unbelievable even to me; I clearly should have bailed. But at the time I was pissed that I was in an awful migraine stretch, and not starting what had become an annual race for me would have made me that much more furious and resentful.
I started puking by about half way through last year’s race. The one thing that helped was running with my sister-in-law (my usual partner in crime) so quitting was much less of an option. Somehow, we made it in.
Of course, crossing the finish line didn’t make the migraine better. On the car ride home, I was retching uncontrollably and found myself in this battle between asking her to pull over so I could puke on the side of the road versus telling her to just get back into town – quickly. (Can you believe she still hangs out with me?)
I’m in a completely different place this year. I don’t want to jinx anything though! My migraine has been so well behaved that I’ve even been eating some wheat; I should probably reign that in and play by my headache rules a little better if I don’t want to screw myself.
The other thing is that tapering for me is challenging. Tapering is that thing runners do when they put in fewer miles leading up to the race so they can do some good recovery. Most of us hate it. I heard a runner last week describe it as “taper tantrums.” We do this stuff because we like to run so feeling like we can’t run? Well that doesn’t go over very well.
I didn’t intend to do a huge taper but I am. As of last week, I found myself unable to stand from the sitting position without using my hands. Thank you, Crossfit for wrecking me! (Just kidding, it’s making me stronger.) Here’s the problem: if I taper too much, my endorphin doses will drop and trigger a return of the bad headaches/migraines.
Tricky. I haven’t figured out how to give my legs a rest from hard training without allowing the headache to get furious. I think that’s why I start so many of my big races with a lot of pain. Clearly this something I need to figure out.
So while I’m sitting around not running, I marked down my mantras for the summer on the toes of my trail runners:
Grit and Joy, my goals for the summer. As in, when things get intense and I’m in the full-on suffering mode, I want to be able to find the full depth of my grit and hang on to the joy of mountain running. So far, I’ve only seen glimpses of that nirvana-like state. Naturally, I continue to chase it.
Hey, I’m back on the blog! (Whaat?) It’s been a few months since the release of my memoir, and my sanity is starting to return marble by marble.
I’m sure the other reason I’m back writing here is obvious: another adventure is on the horizon! My big ultra of the year, Fat Dog 120, is now just three months away. Lots of preparation and feelings about that. Mainly I’m missing Aconcagua so very much and I’m stoked for the next adventure high.
Fat Dog details:
From Keremeos to Manning Park, British Columbia
120 miles (or maybe 122 miles? Who’s counting.)
28,000 feet of gain (just short of Everest from sea level!) and nearly that much loss
Freaking amazing alpine trails
I don’t think it’s possible to feel like I’m training adequately, but, hey, at least I am training. I’m picking up my miles, and a few months ago a certain someone I live with finally convinced me to give CrossFit a try. I was reluctant because it’s already hard to get in enough running/hiking miles, and I don’t want to be distracted, or worse – injured! But it was a really good idea. I’m the weakling of the six am crowd and it’s a bit like Basic Cadet Training all over again; I mean, please, for the life of me, can I get some pull-ups back? But it’s weird, no one yells and calls us names there, so that’s nice. I’m getting stronger every week, especially my core and upper body, and I can only imagine how much faster I might finish ultras if I keep up the CrossFitting. (Is that a verb? Can it be?)
Here’s what I’ve learned: there is something harder than running with a migraine. Yeah, CrossFit, it turns out, is way harder. At least when you are trying to run with a migraine, it’s all just a matter of left-right-suckupthepain-left-right… But with CrossFit, you have to actually think. When the coach tried to teach me about power cleans for the first time I happened to be in a killer migraine stretch (about two weeks of hell) and I couldn’t for the life of me track the movements. I’m already bad with spatial shit anyway, but this was over the top. She must think I’m an absolute moron. Oh well! I’m getting it, finally.
The good news is that I’m now in an awesome stretch headache wise. No bad days or migraines for over a month now!! Wahoo!! I’ve even been living on the edge a bit and indulging in wheat here or there and still nothing. Life is so much easier this way.
I had surgery about six weeks ago on the nerve stimulator. It was super minor but I still ended up with a big incision, and that takes time to heal. I wonder if surgery was what reset the pain cycle? Maybe I need general anesthesia more often! (No, not really.)
Or maybe it’s CrossFit that’s keeping the pain to a minimum. I’m going three or four times a week, so that’s possibly helping the endorphins stay a little more constant rather than huge ebbs and flows that the running gives me throughout the week.
I have an epic summer of training planned: Dirty 30 50K in Golden Gate park in June, pacing for a friend for Bear 100 in Wyoming, running the Elks, the San Juans, and the Grand Tetons in July…
My favorite running buddy and I kicked it off with a trip to Moab, my first big adventure of the trail running season. I’ve been working on my video compilation skills, and I hope you enjoy this silly little video we took from our long trail run there:
We made it! On January 16th, after nine days on the mountain, we summited Mt. Aconcagua. It was my first experience on any of the Seven Summits.
In lieu of a final blog post, I compiled video I took along the trip. I hadn’t ever created a video before so I promise, it’s totally amateur. Also, 87% silly. I’m posting this video at an interesting time for me, on the eve of my memoir’s publication. The thing about that book, Caged Eyes, is that it is a tough, tough story. Perhaps hard to read, it’s also critically important and unfortunately all too relevant. But that story only represents one side of me. Perhaps one of the best things about this trip – and then creating and posting this video – has been the chance to dwell in and show a completely different aspect of my life. I hope you enjoy!
Hello from Plaza de Mulas! Base camp, the “mule plaza” at 14,000 feet even. We are 5,000 feet above the trailhead and 8,800 feet below the summit.
Today is day four of the expedition, a rest day – yay!
On Sunday, day one, we trekked the whole distance from Horcones, the trailhead, to Plaza de Mulas. Traditionally that stretch is broken into two days, but, you see, Matt and I are lazy AF. So instead of hiring one mule to carry much of our gear, we hired two to carry ALL our gear and then we headed up behind them with only enough supplies for a day hike. (Otherwise we would have needed to carry a tent, a stove, etc.) We originally thought it would be 22 miles, but it turns out to be closer to 17…I think. They aren’t big on precise details here so instead the map is labeled in hours. Ummm okay! It was a tiring day for me, honestly a little to my surprise. The hardest part was the flattest section which was through sand and against a strong headwind. I was so happy when I finally saw the tents way, way, way in the distance and up a headwall and knew I was almost there. In retrospect I think I was pretty exhausted from days of travel and a very, very long day in Mendoza preparing to come up.
On Monday, day two, we rested. The idea is to let yourself acclimatize as much as possible at Plaza de Mulas before even starting up. Our only jobs were to drink fluids (no, not the whiskey….yet) and eat a lot. Check!
Tuesday was by far my favorite day so far. We took a small amount of gear – mountaineering boots, crampons, some warm clothes, a tent- and carried them up the mountain. My goal was to make it to camp one, Camp Canada, at about 16,500 feet. I went super slow to keep my breathing under control and felt great, much to my surprise. We decided it would be beneficial to cache the gear higher on the mountain, at camp Nido, Camp two, at 18,400 feet, so Matt took the supplies and forged ahead while I kept my speed easy and just went as high as I felt comfortable. Matt has far more experience on big mountains than I do, so he can push a little harder – and I’m thankful! I made it to about 17,500 before Matt met me on his way down. By then the altitude had hit pretty hard so we raced down the mountain back to Plaza de Mulas.
It was incredible to think with every step that I was going higher than I had ever been, pushing further than I thought possible.
Those experiences in life are far too rare. Far too often we only do what we have done the day before and the day before that, stagnating, and we never discover how far, or in this case how high, we can go.
Today, we recover again. Eat, drink, sleep, breathe lots of O2. I might try to de-funkify myself (I reek already) and read a book. I also might try to figure out how to get a brush through my hair. Yikes.
From here we have some decisions to make. There is a good weather window to summit tomorrow, Thursday, but I know that is too soon for me. Far too many skilled climbers are rescued from the mountain for high-altitude cerebral edema or pulmonary edema. And since this is my first time above 14k, I have extra reason to ascend slowly.
I think the plan will be for me to do one more carry tomorrow, this time all the way to Camp Nido, while Matt climbs a nearby peak. That way we have moved even more necessary gear higher and I’ll have another chance to get used to that altitide. Then we’ll rest again at Plaza de Mulas and wait for another good summit window when winds will not be hurricane force.
Once we do push for the summit, it will be a three day journey: One day to Camp Nido, summit day from and then back to Nido, and one day to return to Plaza de Mulas. Some people have advised us to make it four days instead of three, and to set up one additional camp higher than Nido. The benefit would be a much shorter summit day (still long though). The drawback is the prospect of sleeping at 20k, which is almost impossible. And almost impossible to eat. So that’s one more day I’d have to go with horrible self care. Plus, long days are my forte. Then again, I’ve never climbed above 22k! We’ll see what we decide. Whatever it is, it’ll be what’s best for our personal style and strengths.
I’m thrilled and so relieved that so far I’ve only had one bad stretch of a nasty headache, and that was last night after climbing to 17,500. I already feel better this morning!
For now: Plaza de Mulas. This place is a world of contradictions. It’s remote and high, and it vascilllates between extreme temperatures quickly. Walking across the Plaza will easily wind you. And yet there are luxuries too: the company we hired for a mule service filters water for us, so we don’t even have to worry about that. (Up high we will have to melt snow.) There’s a wifi tent which is only open a few hours a day and charges a pretty American penny, but it’s wifi! The strangest part is the highest art gallery in the world. The paintings of Acon are unreal. I haven’t asked yet how you get one down the mountain if you were to purchase. I imagine: mule. The expensive guiding companies offer enormous tents to their clients, so large that Matt and I joke Trex must live in one. I bet inside one of those you could even forget you are up here. But doesn’t that get away from the point?
The most fun part is definitely all the people from all over the world who have converged here to climb. Conversations can be hilarious as people piece together Spanish, English, French, and more to communicate with one another.
The sun came up over Acon just as I’m writing this. It’s warm, sunny, and cloudless and should be a spectacular day. Even just sitting here at the base of the mountain (on a rock, of course) makes me exceedingly happy. I’m grateful to be here and grateful to all of you back home rooting me on, as always!
Hi all! I’m writing you from a hostel in Mendoza, Argentina. It’s been quite a journey to get here.
I flew out of Denver Wednesday afternoon, barely making it out before a massive snowstorm. I’m so thankful. From there my climbing partner, Matt, met me in Dallas and we boarded an overnight flight to Santiago, Argentina.
A friend back home had told me to be sure to get a seat at a window on the left side of the plane, so I splurged on the extra $60. (Thanks, Cam!) Sunrise over the Andes? Wow it was worth it. Plus, I saw our destination, Mt. Aconcagua, for the first time. I’ve literally never even seen such a tall mountain!
Matt and I were pretty nervous about the transition to bus for the last leg of our trip to Mendoza, Argentina. We only had four hours to land, get through customs, find a taxi that wouldn’t rip us off, and locate the correct bus platform. Plus, you know, eating! It turned out there was no problem at all. Plane was early, customs officer was asleep, and a great taxi driver pointed us in the correct direction. We were three hours early. Then our bus was an hour delayed. I was hesitant to go anywhere because we were each hauling small backpacks plus two large duffels per person. Between the two of us we were schlepping around 200 pounds and my arms already hurt (wah wah, right). So we sat on the crowded bus platform for four hours.
This turned out to be a huge mistake. We took turns bag sitting, and I was making sure I had a limb on each bag at all times. But after awhile we were so focused on finding the right bus, and Matt walked the platform again, and when he came back his backpack was missing. We had a moment of absolutel panic, to say the least.
One of Matt’s wallets was in the bag, plus 2,000 USD. All of his electronics including his phone, iPod, and satellite messenger device for the mountain. The absolute worst part is that Matt lost his sister in a car accident a few years ago, and there were sentimental items from her that he always carries with him.
What do you do?
We flagged down the security guard who was kind but said he couldn’t really do anything. We frantically searched the platform…as if we just dropped the bag somewhere. But no, it was gone.
Our bus was boarding and we only had a minute to decide. Finally we just got on the bus. Staying in Santiago wouldn’t bring back the belongings.
The bus ride accross the Andes to Mendoza should have spectacular, and it was, but obviously we were too preoccupied to enjoy. We had cash concerns, logistical concerns, and Matt was devastated with the grief for his sister completly ripped open again.
Lately I’ve noticed this strange thing where everytime something shitty happens, someone else does something so incredibly kind it restores my faith in humanity. There were three American women on the bus, and one of them happened to have an extra iPhone on her just in case. When we arrived in Santiago – exhausted from traveling 30 hours straight, plus emotional from the bag ordeal – she handed the phone to Matt. It’s incredible how awesome people can be.
Mood was still low Friday morning when we woke up in the hostel. Yes, a stranger had given Matt a phone, but that didn’t bring back the thousands of dollars we had lost…or Matt’s sister. Piece by piece though, we put plans in place. Matt has been able to download his music account onto the new phone, and that means a lot to him.
We were off then into the city of Mendoza. First we had to go to a government office to apply for a climbing permit. Then, the next stop was to hire a mule from a guiding company to bring 60kg (130 pounds) of our weight to base camp for us. With proof of that transaction, we went to another government office to pay for the permit. The bad news was they didn’t accept credit card. We had been aware of this. That’s why we brought cash! …half of which was stolen. Fortunately, we barely had enough left – 1600 USD. Phew. Back to the first office and we had our permit!
We still have errands to run. We need more food and propane, plus cash for on the mountain (there are services at base camp!). We will also have to split up what we are each hauling up to base camp versus what the mule will take.
Tomorrow morning we will take a bus back to the trailhead, which we passed on our initial bus ride. It’ll take about three hours. From there we drop off our duffels with the mule service and begin trekking.
We’ll cover the 22 miles to basecamp in two days, so we plan to arrive Sunday evening. Basecamp will be a home for up to two weeks, and we will leave that initial tent with most of our gear there while we climb the remaining 8,800 feet to the summit.
It’s been quite an emotion-filled few days but spirits are high again. I’m incredibly psyched to get on the mountain and experience more of the Andes.
Plus here’s one other piece of wonderful news: 30 hours of traveling and now almost 24 hours in a hit, congested (but beautiful) city with unfamiliar to me and NO MIGRAINE. Just my usual low level throb. Frankly is a miracle which gives me some confidence I’ll be able to stress out my body and go to such a high altitude without dire consequences, headache wise.
Off we go!
I hope to post from basecamp, but we will have to see how strong the wifi is. Hopefully!
I’m back on the blog today because I’m off on an exciting trip and wanted to share the details. I’m getting ready to board a plane this afternoon to South America and attempt a climb of Mt. Aconcagua. Aconcagua is 22,841 feet, the highest peak in the western or southern hemispheres. In other words, it’s the highest outside of the Himalaya. EEKS!
While I have lots of Colorado mountaineering experience, the highest I’ve been is 14,440 feet and the longest mountaineering trip I’ve been on is three days. This will obviously be an entirely new adventure for me. I’m beyond stoked.
I’ll be climbing with a long-time friend and hiking partner. No, we aren’t going with a guide, but we will be hiring a mule to carry some of our gear to base camp.
The schedule is highly tentative, but it might look something like this
Wednesday January 4th – Fly out! Denver to Dallas to Santiago, Chile.
Thursday January 5th – From Santiago we only have a handful of hours to board a bus that will take us across the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina. This trip will be made much more enjoyable by the fact that we have front seats in the upper level of the bus! Should be awesome. I’ll start my picture taking here, don’t worry.
Friday January 6th – Errand day in Mendoza. We’ll have to apply and pay for our climbing permits, hire the mule service, and pick up last minute supplies like propane and some additional food.
Saturday January 7th– Bus to the trailhead, and then the first leg of the hike to Camp Confluencia, altitude 11,000 ft.
Sunday January 8th – Early morning for the long hike to Base Camp, Plaza de Mulas, altitude 14,000. (“Plaza de Mulas” because of the convergence of the load-carrying mules there).
Monday January 9th – Rest day at Base Camp? Plaza de Mulas has been called a city on the mountain because so many people congregate there on their climbs of Aconcagua. You can even purchase wifi, showers, and hot meals. For a premium, of course.
Tuesday January 10th – Carry gear to Camp 1, Camp Canada, approximately 16K. We’ll leave our extra tent, stove, and food here, then return to Base Camp to sleep and recover.
Wednesday January 11th – Return to Camp 1 and stay.
Thursday January 12th – Carry to High Camp, Camp Condores, approximately 18K.
Friday January 13th – Summit day?
We’ll adjust this schedule base on how we are feeling, how well we are acclimatizing, and the weather forecast. A friend will be sending us forecast updates based on http://www.mountain-forecast.com/peaks/Aconcagua/ (Thanks, Peter!).
Speaking of thanks, I’m grateful in particular to Sarah Meiser who is lending me a pair of double plastic boots (read: heavy duty mountaineering boots to keep my toes from freezing in the sub zero temps). Sarah is sort of a rockstar mountaineer. And by “sort of” I mean totally and completely. For instance, a few years ago she became the fifth person – and the first woman – to climb all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks in calendar winter. I can’t even begin to explain succinctly what that entails. But the short of it is, I’ll be wearing some pretty superhero boots up there.
After January 13th, who knows what will happen. If we can summit on that schedule (unlikely) or close to it, we might return to Chile and do another climb. My return flight to Denver is on January 22nd, so we could potentially stay on the mountain as late as Friday, January 20th.
The main challenge of this climb is obviously the altitude. It’s an easy mountain, technically speaking, though we will be using crampons up high. My biggest concern is how my chronic headache and migraines will handle the altitude and being on an extended expedition.
I’ve been doing my best to pre-acclimatize (what an adventure! More on that another day), but who knows what will happen once I’m above my personal record of 14,400. I can’t wait to find out. I’m bringing the toughest version of myself, for sure.
If you want to send some well-wishes to Argentina, my key words are Grit, Stamina, Low Winds, and Feisty Red Blood Cells!
I’m spending most of today preparing for the Ouray 50 coming up this Saturday – packing clothes and gear; buying food; memorizing the course map, mileage, and cut-offs. Part of my preparation is the mental aspect, too, as I consider the difficulties of the challenge (did someone say 23,500 feet of elevation gain?!?) and recognizing that I will have to fight through what will surely be a tremendous amount of suffering. I’m asking myself if I’m prepared mentally to deal with pummeling rain, afternoon heat, or overnight cold. If I can tolerate the growing weakness in my quadriceps and calves. The hunger and then nausea.
Gearing up for the mental struggle causes me to ask myself not only if I can handle all of this (the answer is “yes”) but why I want to. I’m considering – yet again – why I’m obsessed with mountain running and putting myself through all of this.
I proclaim to be addicted because my love for the mountains is a greedy one. No matter how many valleys or summits I get to explore, I simply want more. There’s also the physiological reason: endorphins help ease my chronic headache.
But I’ve long suspected there are psychological reasons that drive me to these extreme races which run far deeper than either of those two rationales. It’s peculiar that I, someone who has had chronic pain since I was 18, obsess over a sport that could be called the epitome of suffering, isn’t it?
This morning on my last jog before the race, I thought of a game my sister and I play when we trail run together. As we run single file, one of us says, “red light,” and we slow to a walk, then a few minutes later, one of us will call out, “green light,” a challenge to run again. The game is a way for the runner in front to prepare the one in back for a change of pace, and a way for the runner in back to have control too. When we were “running” the Grand Canyon (actually a run / walk), we did this for 46 miles. She’d say “green light” and I’d curse my sister-in-law (I know, above I called her my sister, but in this context when I hate her in an all-too-real way, she’s downgraded to an in-law), and I’d hang on as long as I could until I pleaded for mercy with a call for a red light.
This game is the reason I love ultras and hate road marathons (yes, I hate road marathons, even though sometimes I run them.) When you are going 26.2 on paved streets, the expectation is that you run nearly the entire course. There aren’t any breaks. No red lights. Even though marathons are far shorter, there’s a greater commitment in its intensity, to the pounding against your joints, the burning in your lungs, and the growing fatigue in your muscles.
Ultras let me set various paces. I’ll walk up steep inclines, jog shallow ones, and run many descents. Last year when I did Run Rabbit Run, a 100 miler, I ran perhaps 30 miles total. The trail was too steep or too technical, or I walked because I fucking could. When I make that choice to let up my pace, relief spreads through my lungs and my legs. I can wiggle my toes and un-cramp my feet.
“Red light” is a release from the suffering. A break. A reminder that the quantity and quality of the pain is all under my control. The respite is therapeutic.
In other words, maybe I make myself hurt so that I have the power to make the pain stop.
Very little about my headache is under my control. I have few tricks when I feel a migraine coming on, but nevertheless bad days happen without my consent. Even on a good day, there isn’t anything I can do to make it disappear entirely.
The headache I felt waking up this morning is the exact same I felt yesterday and the day before that and even on any random morning ten years ago.
But in ultra-running, the challenge constantly fluxes. To start it’s usually my lungs that burn. Later I’ll slow, and perhaps it’s hunger getting to me. When I pick up the pace, a knee might feel achy. In the afternoon I might bake, in the middle of the night, I might be shivering with cold. When I feel stronger, I push harder, when I feel weak, I take it easy.
And sometimes I do this. Just because I can.
These past few months and weeks I have rapidly descended into full-blown headache hell. After having an unbelievably fantastic year with my chronic pain, since September I’m struggling more and more each week. I’m at the point now where my headache is incapacitating at least part of every day, if not all day.
Here’s the maddening part: I could have prevented this.
Two things happened in September that led to the decline. 1) After I finished Run Rabbit Run, I developed neuropathy in my feet and could hardly tolerate wearing shoes let alone a run or even a hike, and 2) After accepting a book deal, I started working with my editor and there were many weeks I stayed at my computer the entire day. Plus other projects have kept me at my desk, too. (I realize this is status quo for most people, and I’m lucky for me it doesn’t have to be with rare exception.)
At first the headache only worsened a little. But that was enough to make going for a run that much harder, so I went even less often. The headache in turn worsened…
I went from averaging 40 – 50 miles a week to a fraction of that. Last week I logged three.
I went from a constant stream of magic, headache-curing endorphins to hardly any at all.
How many times do I have to descend into this cycle before I learn?
This week marked 14 years since I developed meningitis, the onset of this chronic headache. Last year I was doing awesome and thus the anniversary didn’t bring as many feelings as it has in the past. This year as I’m in the midst of this struggle, it’s harder not to grieve for a pain-free body. Feeling sad or sorry for myself doesn’t help.
I’ve tried all sorts of mental tricks to get myself out the door to run more. Last week I decided to register for another 100-miler next year, thinking surely that will push me to hit the trail starting immediately (I had been planning on waiting until 2017). Nope. I think somewhere deep down I know I have plenty of time to train and turn this around before next September. I’ve done a 100 miles once, and baring any injuries, I have a decent shot of doing it again without too much work until spring.
Finally yesterday I remembered there’s a race I’ve wanted to do in Ouray, in the San Juan Mountains – my favorite mountains, mountains I love like none other. It’s a viciously hard race, the hardest I’d ever attempt: 22,000 feet of vertical gain over 50 miles. To finish within the 24 hour cutoff, I will have to become far, far stronger. I only have seven months, so the works gotta start now.
Suddenly, I found the motivation I needed.
But still. Do I need to explain how hard it is to go for a run with a migraine, or a headache as bad as a migraine? Last night it felt like each individual hair was being ripped from my head. This morning was almost as bad. I made it out of bed and to the couch and planned to stay there, defeated (as if I don’t have things to do today).
A friend messaged me, “How are you feeling?” She lives in New York and though we’ve never met in person, we have a strange trans-continental connection.
“I’ll go for a run if you do,” she wrote. “I’m putting on running clothes. First step. You?”
“Fuck. Okay. Me too.”
I made it one step at a time to the gym (Find clothes. Put on shoes. Fill water bottle…) I told myself all I had to do was just get on the treadmill and go a mile, and if it was too horrendous I could quit. I turned my music up as loud as I could stand so I couldn’t hear my headache, set the treadmill to an easy jog, and fantasized about running in the San Juans. I imagined the smell of the pine trees as I climbed, the view from the summits, and the strength in my quads as I ran the descents. I could almost put myself there in the beauty of those hills and then in the triumph of the finish.
The pounding of each step hurt. Of course it did. But by the second mile the pain eased a little, and by the time I was done, a little more.
My headache still isn’t great as a write this, but it’s better than earlier. No matter what happens with it between now and tomorrow morning, I know what I need to do: I need to go for a run every day until I break this cycle. Even if it takes a few weeks. I need to get my mileage back up and I need to go for longs days in the mountains, winter or not. (At least the hills are even more beautiful snow covered.)
I’ll be holding onto my memory of the San Juan mountains and the hope that I can pull out of this in time to get stronger for that race.
It’s been five weeks since I completed the Run Rabbit Run 100+ -mile ultra-marathon. The recovery has been tough – in some ways tougher than I anticipated. I had neuropathy in my feet, and my toes have been numb until just a few days ago. I’ve been exhausted and hungry all the time. The worst part – and this I did expect – is that I’m having a lot of difficulty with my chronic headache. I went from running** 40 – 70 miles a week to a fraction of that, so I’m in endorphin withdrawal, and that makes the pain much worse. (Yes, NOT running makes the pain worse. See this post)
Now I’m feeling recovered enough that I’m wondering what’s next. (Of course I am!) The big question is if I want to do another 100. I’m asking myself why I set out to run 100 miles in the first place and how my experience of Run Rabbit differed from my expectations.
I want to be clear that I am beyond proud of myself for finishing. I set out to go 100+ miles and 21,000 feet of elevation gain in less than 36 hours and I did (even though nearly half of the field dropped out along the way). There is only one accomplishment that has ever given me reason to be more proud (my book deal with Beacon Press, of course).
The big, unexpected gift was how loved I felt during those 36 hours. Not just from the people who paced and crewed for me, who rubbed my feet and fed me, but also by the enormous crowd cheering for me virtually back home. Run Rabbit was better than 10 birthday parties. You all are so awesome – thank you a million times over.
There are two main reasons I suspect I felt compelled to run 100 miles:
- To live without limits. It’s in my DNA to challenge myself every time I think “I could never do that” and that’s exactly what I thought the first time I heard that 100-mile races were a thing.
- To increase my endurance because the more of it I have, the more mountains I get to see. No matter how far I go, I always want more.
I also suspect that a third reason has to do with my chronic headache. Probably deep down there’s a part of me who runs as a way of finding master over pain. I can’t control my chronic headache but I can control running, and if I can manage that, if I can handle that pain, then I can handle my headache too.
Are you still with me? Here’s where it gets harder to understand…
Here’s the thing: I finished the Run Rabbit despite myself. I fought myself the whole way. I’ve been saying that ultras are more mental than physical, and I really believe that. Physically your body is going to break. It’s all up to the mind to either give into that brokenness or to transcend it.
With about eight or nine miles left, Anthony, my friend and pacer said, “As soon as you let go of the pain, we’ll be able to get up this mountain.” It’s that part of transcendence he was talking about. I was clinging to the agony rather than letting it move through me.
“Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.”
It’s easy to dismiss the mantra, but it really is true. The difference is in your mind and how you experience what is going on in your body.
Anthony made a similar point about pain and suffering and how I was doing both needlessly, that I needed to learn how to separate the two. If I had had the energy to argue with him (which I did not!!) I would have. I wanted to argue because there does exist a part of me who knows this trick. It’s what I do every day. I’ve had a headache for almost 14 years now and I’ve learned to live with it – and I don’t mean that in an abstract sense. I don’t fight it every day, I don’t hold on to it, I don’t walk around with it at the forefront of my existence (though I see the irony in that statement, literally it IS in the forefront of my body). It took me years to practice this. While I have bad days during which I backslide, when I’m angry with it and miserable, more often than not, I am in pain but I’m not suffering.
(Obviously the worse my headache is in any given day, the harder it is.)
I never reached that part of the race where I was able to let go, leave behind suffering, and surrender to the pain. I didn’t transcend. In my mind, that’s the actual finish line.
I wondered before the race if I was running it in as a means of finding the strength to cope with my headache, but now what I wonder if it was the other way around. I wonder if I ran the race hoping to put to use what the headache has already taught me, what I practice and succeed at more days than not.
In that sense, I didn’t have the race I hoped for.
This thing I’m talking about – transcendence, if you will – I’ve felt it in shorter races. Marathons or even my first double-marathon that have made me hurt, hurt, hurt but in the last miles I was able to let go of the misery. Doing that same thing in a 100 mile race is even harder because the suffering is bound to be greater, but I wonder if it is still possible, and if it is, if I can get there.
I hope you hear me: my pride in myself is in no way diminished. This isn’t me being hard on myself. It’s more like acknowledging that there is an experience out there and I want to have it.
In other words, I want to run another 100-mile and I don’t want it to hurt. Crap, that’s not what I’m saying at all!
What I’m talking about is all the mental stuff. That’s what makes ultra-marathoning so great. We already know that running so far is beyond the perceived limitations of the human body. It will be taxed in every way, but what gets you the rest of the distance is the mental fortitude. Going back into another 100, it’s this mental part I want to work on. I do want to get stronger and faster, but I suspect that would be irrelevant if I can’t practice this other part.
I’m not going to run another 100 right away. In 2016 I’m going to go back to speed and mid-range distances, perhaps a 50 – 70 miler (yeah, I just called that mid-range, it’s all relative!). My ultimate goal is Hardrock 100 which is even far more elevation gain with more technical terrain and extreme conditions, truly the perfect intersection of running and mountaineering. There are so many crazies who want to run it, there is a lottery, and each year you put in your name you have a better chance of being selected. So as of this morning, my name is in the hat for 2016. Hopefully I’ll be selected in the next few years.
**When I say “run” in the context of a 100-miler, I don’t mean in the traditional sense of the verb, but rather a run-hike-shuffle which is a bit too clumsy to repeat so often. From here on, assume “run” means to move as fast as possible.