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.

From the summit of Redcloud Peak, in the San Juans, the same range where this race is held.

From the summit of Redcloud Peak, in the San Juans, the same range where this race is held. Do I want to go there next August to attempt this race? Yes, please!

 

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 have so many happy memories from a single summer of training for Run Rabbit. A thousand basins, lakes, cliffs, peaks, wild flowers I saw I wouldn't have otherwise.

I have so many happy memories from a single summer of training for Run Rabbit. A thousand basins, lakes, cliffs, peaks, wild flowers I wouldn’t have otherwise witnessed.

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.

Do you see the switchbacks above Ice Lake? That's part of the Hardrock 100 course! Yes, please!

Do you see the switchbacks above Ice Lake? That’s part of the Hardrock 100 course! Yes, please!

Onward…

**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.

 

 

Last weekend I flew to Minneapolis to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Medtronic Global Heroes program. Global Heroes are runners selected by Medtronic who have overcome major health struggles with the help of medical technology. I was chosen as a Global Hero a year ago, in 2014, and this year we were invited back to join all the Global Heroes from all ten years, including those selected for 2015.

As I thought about this blog post, I went back to read what I wrote last year after my initial weekend with the other Global Heroes. Damn! I wrote everything back then that I wanted to write today.

Let me try to phrase the same idea a different way…

Spending more time with my Global Heroes family was a jolt of inspiration. The problem is that sounds so cliché and abstract. We use that word so often – inspirational.  The reality in this case is so much bigger. There is a spirit to our group that is contagious, that rubs off and leaves me feeling unconquerable.

This year I had the opportunity to talk with them much more about the health struggles they’ve overcome. One of the cardiac patients told me what it was like to get a phone call from a nurse who told her she had aneurysm in her aorta and then what it was like to go into a surgery that would include her heart being stopped and put on ice for three hours. Another told me about going into the emergency room after having a heart attack for more than a day. One woman explained in detail what it felt like to be shocked by her ICD – implantable cardioverter defibrillator – a shock so powerful it drops her to the ground and then how scary it was to keep running even though she could be shocked again at any time. I spent time with one of the Heroes who deals with diabetes and I felt first-hand what it means to be constantly – and I mean constantly – worried about sugar levels.

Here’s the part that makes them amazing: these conversations last just long enough for there to be understanding and connection, but then the next thing I know we are back to talking about our athletic endeavors. They are all pushing for something – adventurous runs around the country and world, a first marathon, a Boston Qualifying marathon, a triathlon every year, an Ironman, an ultra-marathon, an extended backpacking trip. We talked for hours (hours!) about our hopes for the coming months and years.

It isn’t just that they are ambitious in running. It’s the way they live their whole lives. They are constantly striving to add more in all aspects of who they are, to live fully and well.

It’s easy to see someone you don’t know do something amazing and think, “that’s inspiring,” but it is something entirely different to connect on this level, to have shared understanding of the impact of traumatic medical conditions, and then feeling nudged to dream even bigger dreams. There’s energy in our gatherings, energy of support, encouragement, camaraderie, and of their indomitable spirits.

Not only did I get to connect with my brothers and sisters from the 2014 team, I also got to meet dozens others from years past and welcome 25 new Global Heroes into the family.

Many of our original Global Heroes selected in 2014 couldn’t join us this weekend, but Facebook has kept us connected, and their spirit was with us too. I trust I will see many of them in the not-to-distant future. Until then, I’ll think of them the next time I feel I’m hurting too much to go for a run; their strength will get me out the door.

Six of us together again for the first time in a year

Six of us together again for the first time in a year.

Cool Schwag, as always. We also got new racing singlets.

Cool schwag, as always. We also got new racing singlets.

 

Kimi had a broken foot and torn Achilles, so she was in a boot. Did that stop her from participating in the Medtronic Twin Cities 10 Mile race? Of course not! She was allowed to walk, so she did. It just so happened that Kristen is having troubles with a chronic blood condition so she wasn’t allowed to run either. I’m still recovering from my 100-miler. So the three of us teamed up and walked the 10 mile race. The friendship made for a fun and fast 10 miles!

Kimi had a broken foot and torn Achilles, so she was in a boot. Did that stop her from participating in the Medtronic Twin Cities 10 Mile race? Of course not! She was allowed to walk, so she did. It just so happened that Kristen is having troubles with a chronic blood condition so she wasn’t allowed to run either. I’m still recovering from my 100-miler. So the three of us teamed up and walked the 10 mile race. (Of course our mascot, the Roo, came too) The friendship made for a fun and fast 10 miles!

 

Isn't that awesome??

Isn’t that awesome??

 

Carrie and I after the Medtronic 10-mile race

Carrie and I after the Medtronic 10-mile race

 

So many laughs and so much fun

So many laughs and so much fun – always.

Enough time has passed since Run Rabbit Run 100 I can walk up – and down! – stairs without bracing my arms against the railings. I can sleep without shooting pains in the bottom of my feet waking me up. My appetite hasn’t returned yet, but it will, and then at some point I’m sure my partner will find me sitting on top of our kitchen counter eating brownies straight from the pan.

Almost all of Team Hall'N'It at the start.

Almost all of Team Hall’N’It (my crew and pacers) at the start.

There is a lot to process from those 35 hours, 50 minutes, and 20 seconds and so many angles from which I could write about what I experienced. What’s on my mind the most isn’t the why of it (Why I ran/hiked 100+ miles and why those miles give meaning in my life) though those questions are there. What’s on my mind is the most surprising thing about how I responded: How strongly I wanted to quit, and how early in the race those feelings hit me.

My temporary tattoo of the course profile. I wanted to quit by the backside of that first big climb.

My temporary tattoo of the course profile. I wanted to quit by the backside of that first big climb.

I’m not a quitter. I’m not a quitter to a fault. A few of my biggest regrets of my life have to do with not tapping out when a certain course of action was hurting me. The realization that sometimes it is okay to back out of a goal is something I’ve had to learn.

So when I was only five or six miles into Run Rabbit and I started having these thoughts like, “how can I get out of this?” I was shocked. Sure, I suspected I would eventually want to quit, but I was hoping that wouldn’t happen until at least the last quarter. Not in the single digits. After all, I had made it through of Never Summer 100K without once wanting to stop.

The race had started with a four mile, 3,000-foot climb up a double black diamond ski slope. By the time we dropped down the backside of the mountain, my legs had seized up. They were already tight and painful and I couldn’t help but think how they would feel after another 100 miles.  Other runners whizzed by me. I perseverated on how many miles I had left, how much climbing, how many hours. The thoughts were unstoppable and nearly impossible to cope with.

A friend had warned me this would happen. He said 100 miles is a “Jedi Mind Fuck” but in hindsight I realize I didn’t believe him.

Nearing the top of the first big climb. We'd already seen rain, sunshine, and snow.

Nearing the top of the first big climb. We’d already seen rain, sunshine, and snow.

Running through a fresh September snow. (at least it was an easy trail)

Running through a fresh September snow. (at least it was an easy trail)

Somehow I worked through the desperation of those early miles and rebounded for the teens and twenties, only to hit another bout of anguish in the thirties.

I came into the aid station at mile 42 just after sun set. I was already cold and so very tired. I couldn’t imagine I wouldn’t get to sleep that night and I still had almost another 24 hours to race. I said to my sister, Kristyn, as she helped me change into pants in the bathroom, that I wanted to quit. Nope! She said. Back outside, my entire crew worked together to get me fully dressed and prepared for the night. They stood me on my feet and sent me on my way – now with a pacer to accompany me so that I didn’t get lost – without even giving me the time to figure out how to tell them I was done.

Over the next day, here are some of the many things I said to my crew and pacers: I hate you, Why are you all ganging up on me, I can’t.

I had thought I commissioned my team to help me with the logistics of the race. To get me in and out of aid stations quickly, to feed me, to make sure I was dressed appropriately for the drastically different temperatures day to night to day. I didn’t know it but what I needed them for the most was to be a placeholder for the part of me that wanted to finish this race so badly. I needed them to be the reminder of my passion and determination.

The 106 miles pitted my body and mind against my spirit. Physically I was broken ten times over. My legs were trashed by the half way point. My heels and balls of my feet were bruised. By 24 hours a severe bout of nausea left me unable to eat. I was dizzy, weak, dehydrated, and exhausted.

Mentally, I was just as bad off. I had fought myself for so many miles (I can’t do this, I have too far to go, everyone out here is stronger/faster/tougher than me…), and the only reprieve came in the eighties when I reached an exhaustion so deep I couldn’t think anymore. I started hallucinating and dreaming while I hiked. But at least the negative thoughts slowed.

In the fog of so much discomfort, it was impossible to stay connected to the part of me that wanted to finish. But when I looked at my pacer, Anthony, leading the way in front of me on the trail, he reflected my own resolve. His fast pace matched how much he knew I wanted to be a 100-mile ultra-marathoner.

In a moment of clarity at mile 77, I had told Anthony, “I want this.” I say it was a moment of clarity because it was the first time I could hold both truths 1) finishing would be excruciating and that 2) it was still worth it to me. Saying “I want this” to him was my way of giving him permission to push, and to push hard, the next time I fell apart.

At mile 93, after following Anthony’s heels through the forest for miles and miles, we came into an aid station and I started crying, the kind of hysterical sobbing that threatens to keep you from breathing. It was 3:35 in the afternoon; I was five minutes behind pace. (I had actually made up time since the previous stop, but I was in such a negative mind space I couldn’t focus on that) I still had 13 miles to go and I would have to move even faster to come in on time.

The worst part was that I knew it was my last chance to drop. After the aid station we’d be heading back into the mountains without cell reception or an access point. I had seen others drop from that same aid station the last time I had been there in the middle of the night. A jeep had picked them up, and that image of them huddled together, blankets around their shoulders, hot beverages in their hands, haunted me. Those guys had quit and had found comfort and I could be one of them with a simple declaration. Out of all the damning things in my head during the race, that was the worst.

As I sobbed, an aid station volunteer led me to a chair, squatted in front of me, and began rubbing my (sweaty, disgusting) quads. Anthony was standing a few feet away, waiting to lead me up the next mountain. She asked what was going on. I’m not sure what I fully said, but it included the point that I knew her aid station was the last place I could quit. She looked at me straight in the eyes and said, “You can’t quit here.” She meant she wouldn’t let me. I wanted to yell at her “Who’s side are you on?” But I knew the answer. Anthony and the nice volunteer lady were on MY side. They were only reflecting the determination they saw within me but that I couldn’t access. I was too lost in the pain to tap into it, but they could. They once again stood me up and sent me on my way.

Out of 297 runners who began the race, 141 DNF’ed – did not finish. The race director dropped at mile 99 (yes, running his own course). Before the race, a filmmaker had interviewed 10 elite runners for a documentary but all 10 dropped.

I could have made the tally 142 DNF’s, but I didn’t. I finished with nine minutes to spare, just as the sun was setting on a second night.

Here are a few things that don’t last 36 hours: phone batteries, GPS watches, iPods, deodorant. Somehow I outlasted all those things.

106 miles (we recharged the watch at aid stations so it would last!)

106 miles (we recharged the watch at aid stations)

Of those who dropped, I’m sure many had injuries or illnesses that forced the decision. But I’m sure others were “just” exhausted, cold, and tired like I was. The only difference was that they didn’t have people to stand them up and push them out of aid stations.

Ultimately my team couldn’t make me finish. They couldn’t physically force me to hike and run all those miles. But they could hold up a mirror in front of me during the times I couldn’t feel my own resolve.

I wonder how often this process happens in non-running life. We think we want something, but when it gets tough, we get lost in the struggle. It’s too long, too hard, and we’re not good enough, we think. We quit because we forget the reasons that made us want that thing in the first place. It’s easy for so many of us to think we can get through on our own, but so often we can’t. Sometimes we all need friends to help hold us accountable to ourselves.

My crew and pacers (minus one)

My crew and pacers (minus one)

It’s been three years since I decided I wanted to complete a 100-mile ultra-marathon. It’s not so hard to dream the big dreams when the goal is so far in the future, but now said 100-mile ultra-marathon is three days away, and it is getting harder to remain quite so tenacious. Most minutes I’m excited but then a pang of terror sweeps me up. Am I really going to do this?

 

Run Rabbit Run race details:

Location: Steamboat Springs, Colorado

Distance: 104 miles (+/- 2 because no one seems to know for sure)

Elevation gain: 20,195 Feet (Plus the same amount of loss)

Average elevation: About 9,000 Feet ASL (Course high point is about 10,500 feet)

Cut-off: 36 hours (8 a.m. on Friday to 8 p.m. on Saturday)

Run Rabbit Run Elevation Profile

Run Rabbit Run Elevation Profile

 

Why I Have Reason to be Confident:

In July I completed the Never Summer 100K , my longest race and my longest training run preparing for Run Rabbit Run 100.  It was 65 miles and 13,000 feet of elevation gain with a 24-hour cut-off; so it was exactly 2/3rds as long as Run Rabbit. I gave a smart, well-paced effort. I never despaired, and I finished feeling like I could keep going. Yay!

Why I Have Reason to be Very Afraid:

104 – 65 = 39

In other words, Run Rabbit Run is about 40 miles longer than the furthest I’ve ever gone.

40!

Why I Have Reason to be Confident:

When training for a marathon, you prepare your body to go a specific distance – 26.2 miles. Ultra training takes an opposite philosophy. The goal is to train your legs to keep moving when exhausted, to push through the walls and loss of momentum. Ultramarathon training helps your body – and your mind – to continue no matter what. It isn’t about specific distance, but time on your feet. I’ve done the work and put in the mileage. I’m prepared as I could be at this time.

Why I Have Reason to be Very Afraid:

One hundred miles is about the mileage I would put in in a month of training for a road marathon. In a typical month, I get one massage and between four and eight adjustments at my chiropractor. I stretch/roll, I eat enormous amounts of protein, and I sleep – a lot. In between all those miles I have time to check-in with my body to see if it has any sore spots that could become injuries. For this 100 miles I will have very little of that. Food, yes. But no sleep, no massage therapist, no chiropractor, no time to keep a slight injury from snowballing.

Why I Have Reason to be Confident:

Ultra-marathon success comes down to the ability to take care of oneself (besides luck), and I’m pretty super at that life skill. I’ve had to learn that art masterfully in order to manage my chronic headache. In terms of running, I know what to eat and when, how to pace myself, and to understand the difference between a pain I can run through and one I can’t.

What Will Motivate Me:

I saw this quote tattooed on some guy’s leg:

“Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”

That’s it. That’s why I do this. I want to live that motto in all ways.

 

What Else Will Motivate Me:

The other reason I do this is to have the strength to visit places like these.

From the summit of North Maroon (Maroon Bells), Snowmass Mountain (left) and Capitol Peak (right), Elks

From the summit of North Maroon (Maroon Bells), Snowmass Mountain (left) and Capitol Peak (right), Elks

Ice Lakes, San Juans

Ice Lakes, San Juans

Chicago Basin, San Juans

Chicago Basin, San Juans

I’ve been to all three of these places in the past few weeks alone. It doesn’t matter how many miles of trail I cover in a summer, I want more of this beauty. You know that expression, “You are what you eat?” I think we are also the places we’ve been. To be sure, these memories will be with me as I run through Steamboat.

A Big Thanks:

I have seven people coming to help me, to crew and to pace for me – yes, seven! They will meet me at the aid stations, feed me, listen to me whine, lose sleep, and lie and tell me I look strong. From mile 46 on, I will have a pacer running along with me to make sure I don’t sit down, never to stand again. This race would be impossible without them.

Plus, bonus kudos to my friend, Cathy, who made this sweet care package for me.

Cathy is my feet's new best friend.

Cathy is my feet’s new best friend.

I’m so thankful to have such wonderful supporters in my life.

 

How To Follow Me:

The race will be broadcasted 8am Friday morning at www.USL.tv. You can also track me here using my bib number #575. I’ll be posting live on Facebook too (for as long as I have cell reception and cognitive functioning).

Let the miles begin!

 

Date: July 25
Horizontal: 64.6 miles
Vertical: 13,000 feet of gain and 13,000 feet of loss
Goal: To finish within the 24 hour cut-off

Spoiler Alert: The Never Summer 100K was beyond a doubt the hardest day I’ve had in the mountains, and I’m so freaking proud of myself I can’t even hold out until the end of this post to tell you I finished. I FINISHED!

At the award ceremony with Renee, friend and pacer, and the Final Finisher Award.

At the award ceremony with Renee, friend and pacer, and the Final Finisher Award.

 

Until this race, the furthest I had ever “run” (or run-hiked, to be more accurate) was 53 miles. To put it in context, that race was so much easier it only took me 12 hours and 41 minutes. But this course had far more elevation gain, and at an average altitude of 10,000 feet, oxygen-deprivation was a factor. The terrain was even more of an issue. The trails were so technical with many, many downed trees and alpine ridge-lines that even much of the flatter and downhill stretches were next to impossible to run. Plus the mud! Miles of mud.

How did I finish? Things done right:

1) I ran a smart race starting with adequate (and time consuming!) race prep:

Organization is one of my fortes. I kept this cheat sheet in my pocket so I knew when to expect the aid stations and big climbs.

Organization is one of my fortes. I kept this cheat sheet in my pocket so I knew when to expect the aid stations and big climbs.

 

A few days before the race, I spread out the gear and food I would need and packed them in bags. Volunteers from the race distributed those “drop bags” to the corresponding aid stations, so that way I had my extra gear (warmer clothes, headlamp, etc) and food just when I needed them. Because of my dietary restrictions (partly related to what aggravates my headache), I had to rely mostly on my own food instead of food provided at the aid stations.

A few days before the race, I spread out the gear and food I would need and packed them in bags. Volunteers from the race distributed those drop bags to the corresponding aid stations, so that way I had my extra gear (warmer clothes, headlamp, etc) and food just when I needed them. Because of my dietary restrictions (partly related to what aggravates my headache), I had to rely mostly on my own food instead of food provided at the aid stations.

 

2) I made friends

In the first few miles, I happened to run alongside a friend who just completed the Hardrock 100 ultra-marathon in the San Juan Mountains. (Colorado’s hardest ultra, and yes, he was running this 100K only two weeks later.) He was nice enough to entertain me in those early miles by telling me all of his stories from that race (Thanks, Alan!) As we hit the first big climb, I let him scoot ahead of me but it didn’t take long to make more friends. It’s amazing how there is so much comradery up there no one feels like a stranger. Swapping stories about our favorite races and mountain runs kept my mind off of the mileage.

Fatigue and afternoon heat started to affect me in the 20’s, but I partnered with a woman who kept me moving at a decent pace. (Thanks, Alexis!)

Besides Alexis, whose background was fairly similar to mine, every other person I spoke with on the trail was a far more experienced ultra runner and had already completed several 100 mile races. When I asked one woman if she had ever run a 100, she said, “Oh, only six!” Another man who was 60 averaged four to six 100-mile ultras a year. Phenomenal athletes, every single one of them.

3) I looked up from my feet.

The first thirty miles in particular were spectacularly beautiful. Many times I stopped running not because the trail was too steep or technical but because I wanted to see the mountains. I loved every summit, ridge, and valley.

Coming off the first big climb at mile seven: running nirvana

Coming off the first big climb at mile seven: running nirvana

 

The top of another big climb at mile 14 or so.

The top of another big climb at mile 14 or so.

The steepest climb at mile 21. This was my slowest mile.

The steepest climb at mile 21. This was my slowest mile.

More ridge running around mile 23. That’s new friend Alexis behind me.

We ran this entire ridge. That’s new friend Alexis behind me.

4) I bribed friends to pace for me. (What do I owe you by the way??)

The 30’s were the roughest part of the race. Fatigue hit me hard, and the afternoon sun was scorching. My only real mistake was carrying one liter of water through that 10-mile section when I should have had much more. I was getting dehydrated and dizzy, and tired enough that I stopped and sat a few times. Plus, my headache had been as good as it gets the first half of the race, but at mile 28 or so, I ran straight into a tree trunk that had fallen across the trail. My head smacked so hard against it I had to sit.  I had been watching my feet too intently as I ran. Dumb, I know!My head started pounding after that, and it didn’t recover until much later. The only thing that kept me motivated those tough miles was that I knew I had a friend waiting for me at mile 39. From there Renee followed behind me on the trail and we had so much to discuss (as friends do!) the miles once again went by quickly. (Thank you, Renee!)

5) I packed pants.

At first the setting sun meant relief from the heat. But it didn’t take long for that relief to turn to more discomfort. The temperature plummeted and creek crossings and mud kept my feet wet. Fortunately, unlike many runners, I packed pants, a jacket, and gloves in my mile 50 drop bag. Otherwise I would have been forced to drop.

6) I got mad.

At mile 50, my husband Nick took over pacing for Renee. Up until that aid station, I had stayed just ahead of my goal time that would bring me to the finish within the cut-off. But when Nick and I set off together, I was 10 minutes behind. There was no way I wasn’t going to finish the race, and I was determined to make up those lost minutes.

At that point it was midnight. Even with a nearly full moon and our headlamps, following the pink flagging staked in the ground and tied to tree branches took both of us. By mile 56, I realized I likely wouldn’t have even an extra minute to spare. Adrenaline pushed me up that last big climb, but the terrain at the top was so tough on the other side, we weren’t moving faster even with the benefit of the downhill. The mud was deep and we were often sinking to our shins. One mile took us a full 30 minutes. That’s when I got mad. There’s no way in hell I was going to let stupid mud keep me from finishing in time.

At mile 29, I had changed into brand new running shoes to make my feet a little happier.

At mile 29, I had changed into brand new running shoes to make my feet a little happier.

 

Here’s what they looked like 36 miles later. Nearly trashed.

Here’s what they looked like 35 miles later. Nearly trashed.

Just as the sun began to lighten the sky on that second morning, I crossed the finish line in a time of 23 hours and 49 minutes. Out of the 200 runners who began the race, 25% had dropped out. I was the final finisher.

 

After almost 24 hours of running and hiking, I had only 11 minutes to spare.

After almost 24 hours of running and hiking, I had only 11 minutes to spare.

 

In the ultra-world, a community filled with respect and comradery, final finishers are often the most celebrated. (They are also called, jokingly, DFL or “dead fucking last.”) As I crossed the finish line, a crowd of other runners cheered me on. At the award ceremony later that morning, the race director presented me with a plaque carved from a cross section of a tree trunk. It’s so beautiful I may have nudged over my wedding picture a few inches on the fireplace mantle to make room for it. (Sorry, honey!)

And check it out: I made the official race recap!

 

Holy crap! (The total time is about 30 minutes short because I stopped it an aid station to charge. Otherwise the watch’s battery would have died.)

Holy crap! (The total time is about 30 minutes short because I stopped it an aid station to charge. Otherwise the watch’s battery would have died.)

How do I feel about finishing this race last? Proud. So, so proud.

 

One of the coolest things about running or mountaineering is that I am forced to challenge my perceived limitations. I look up at a mountain and think I can’t climb it. But then I do. Those accomplishments stemming from self-doubt are the ones I remember the longest and change me the most.

Several years ago – before all the running and climbing – I attended Lighthouse Writers’ Retreat in Grand Lake (a must-do for all writers!). Our cabin was near a trail called the North Inlet. It climbed into Rocky Mountain National Park, following one of Grand Lake’s tributaries. I was exhausted within a few miles of the hike. When I passed signs listing mileages to the waterfalls and lakes ahead, I was incredulous. Ten miles? To a lake? No way, I’ll never see those, I thought.

Oh, but of course I would. I remember those kinds of thoughts and eventually, I’m compelled to debunk them.

My motivation to return to the North Inlet Trail increased when I discovered how far into Rocky Mountain National Park it extends. It’s so long, in fact, ultra-runners use it and a few others to complete what they call a double traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park. They start at Bear Lake on the east, Estes Park side, ascend the Continental Divide via Flattop Mountain, drop to the West side to Grand Lake, then return. A double crossing of the National Park.

I failed at my first three attempts of the Double Traverse, thanks to floods, early season snow, and torrential rains. This week was the perfect time to try again. The snow was now passable, and with my 100-mile ultra quickly approaching in two months (yikes!), it would be an ideal training run. Off I went, more than a little nervous…

 

The route highlighted in green

The route highlighted in green. I started on the left then completed the loop counter-clockwise.

Bear Lake at 5 a.m., the starting point

Bear Lake at 5 a.m., the starting point

My first ascent of Flattop Mountain. Looking south along the Continental Divide, Hallett Peak is in the front, right; Longs Peak in the back, left.

My first ascent of Flattop Mountain. Looking south along the Continental Divide, Hallett Peak is in the front, right; Longs Peak in the back, left.

Looking east from Flattop Mountain. That’s Grand Lake in the distance, the goal. Once I dropped down this west side of the Continental Divide, I would be committing to a return ascent no matter the weather or how tired I got. A little daunting! I had to summon my confidence.

Looking east from Flattop Mountain. That’s Grand Lake in the distance, the goal. Once I dropped down this west side of the Continental Divide, I would be committing to a return ascent no matter the weather or how tired I got. A little daunting! I had to summon my confidence.

4Burnt Forest

Back under tree line, now on the west side of Rocky Mountain NP. I love finding abundant life in burnt forests.

Tonahutu Creek was spectacular. This creek feeds into Grand Lake, the start of the Colorado River.

Tonahutu Creek was spectacular. This creek feeds into Grand Lake, the start of the Colorado River.

Moose!

Moose!

Grand Lake, the half-way point. The cabin on the left is Shadowcliff, where I stayed for my writers’ retreat six years earlier. I was carrying a credit card in case I was too exhausted at this half-way point to return, but I resisted the temptation to bail-out.

Grand Lake, the half-way point. The cabin on the left is Shadowcliff, where I stayed for my writers’ retreat six years earlier. I was carrying a credit card in case I was too exhausted to return, but I resisted the temptation to bail-out.

It was a long journey back from Grand Lake to Flattop Mountain. The beautiful trail and wildlife helped to distract me. Here’s girls’ night out for the elk.

It was a long journey back from Grand Lake to Flattop Mountain. The beautiful trail and wildlife helped to distract me. Here’s girls’ night out for the elk.

In the last mile to the summit, I noticed a thunderstorm about ten miles away to the north. I started counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, and realized it was quickly approaching. I had two choices: descend immediately back to the tree line even though I would be on the wrong side of the mountain from my car, or race the storm to the summit. I chose the latter and ended up tying with the storm. I had a scary few minutes as I ran the trail, lightning hitting the mountain around me. It’s humbling to realize I made the wrong choice.

In the last mile to the summit, I noticed a thunderstorm about ten miles away to the north. I started counting the seconds between lightning and thunder, realizing it was quickly approaching. I had two choices: descend immediately back to the tree line even though I would be on the opposite side of the mountain from my car or race the storm to the summit. I chose the second and ended up tying with the storm. I had a scary few minutes as I ran the trail, lightning hitting the mountain around me. My forehead tingled with current. It was a humbling incorrect choice.

Finally, the storm cleared as I descended to Bear Lake. I was soaked, cold, famished, and exhausted. But I made it.

Finally, the storm cleared as I descended to Bear Lake. I was soaked, cold, famished, and exhausted. But I made it.

 

The Double Traverse of Rocky Mountain National Park was technically a training day for my upcoming 100-miler, but really it was a journey in its own right. The route is phenomenal – one of my favorite Colorado loops, probably one I will return to again and again. Hopefully without the lightning next time.

Here are the details:

Bear Lake –Flattop Mountain Trail – Flattop Mountain – Tonahutu Creek Trail – North Inlet Trailhead – North Inlet Trail – Flattop Mountain – Bear Lake

Approximately 36 miles

Want to backpack this loop? Head to rockymountainnationalpark.com

 

My decision to register for a 100-mile ultra was hardly spontaneous. I’ve been building mileage and mentally preparing for it since 2013 when I finished my first 50-mile ultra. A few months ago I chose Run Rabbit Run, a 100+ mile race with 21,000 feet of climbing through Steamboat Springs’ surrounding mountains. I’ll have 36 hours – a day, a night, and the following day (no, I don’t plan on sleeping!). The September 18th race is now 89 days away.

It seems to me like 100-mile ultras are what people do in Colorado. I can name a dozen friends who have finished at least one. The other day I met a group of runners at Barr Camp (a cabin at 10,000 feet on the side of Pikes Peak), and all five of them were 100-mile veterans. See? I thought. Everyone is doing it! 100 miles is the new marathon! It’s not so far! It’s not so crazy!

If only I were as talented at endurance running as I am at magical thinking. The reality is that the enormity of 100 miles isn’t becoming any less daunting.

A wet spring made training a bit harder.

A wet spring made complicated training.

My weekly miles are accumulating and – this is going to be shocking – I’m starting to tire a bit. Climbing a single flight of stairs makes my quads ache. My feet are raw with blisters. And they’re dirty!  No matter how much I soak and scrub. My big toe nail is threatening to come loose. I have sunburns and tan lines in weird patches. I can’t keep up with the laundry. Training is taking over my social life and work. And I am all-the-time hungry.

My first trail-running fall!

My first fall trail running.

I have pairs and pairs of running shoes in various stages of ruin scattered around the house.

I have pairs and pairs of running shoes in various stages of ruin scattered around the house. (yes, all Brooks!)

I've never craved greens so much in my life. The other day I went into the store for brownies and came out with this instead!

I’ve never craved greens so much. The other day I went in to the store for brownies and came out with this instead.

On Friday as I trained I interrogated myself, trying to answer the looming question: why? Why do I feel so compelled to try 100 miles? Even after eight hours on the trail, I didn’t find the answer. I have 89 days to figure it out, I thought.

I took only one day to find the motivation. Like many of my epiphanies, the answer came with a worsened headache. Saturday night after a family wedding and probably neglecting myself too much earlier in the day, I had the most painful sort of headache. It was the kind of piercing throb that renders me immobile, that makes me wish I could stop breathing because even that much movement aggravates it. I’ve been there before. I’ve been there so many times, but still I forget how excruciating a headache can be.

Imagining Run Rabbit Run helped me get through the worsened pain. I envisioned those later miles and how badly my legs will ache, how tired I will be, how I will be acutely aware of every joint, ligament, tendon, and muscle in my body and yet how I hope I will still find the strength to keep moving. I thought if I can do it then during the race, I could do it during that worse headache. I could keep enduring.

I was hoping my decision to push for a 100-mile race had nothing to do with The Headache. Yet there it was. Perhaps I had been wishing I was simply a masochistic maniac, because maybe that’s easier to accept than the chronic pain driving me to such ends.

I’m still grappling with the implications. Are other runners’ reasons for tackling 100 miles any more or less valid? Or “crazy”? Is long-distance running any less or more emotionally healthy than other coping mechanisms for handling chronic pain?

Or maybe those answers and the why of it don’t matter. What I know is true: every time I’ve pushed my limits, I’ve learned something about myself. The mountains make me stronger, happier, better. Maybe all that matters is that I show up on the trail on September 18th, willing to experience whatever journey I was meant to.

Training is a lot easier when you live someplace so beautiful!

Training is a lot easier when you live someplace so beautiful. Thankful for Boulder trails and better weather.

Distance: 50K plus, or about 32 – 34 miles…who knows?

Vertical gain: Race profile says 7,300, but my GPS argues 8,000 feet

Goal time: 8:30

Actual finish time: 9:23

I have a confession: yesterday I was pouting hard-core as I crossed the Golden Gate Dirty 30 finish line. One of the volunteers at the timing mat said that I must not have liked that race at all, given the expression on my face. I didn’t answer him, but the truth was that I loved the run, as I have the last two years (the trail, the mountain, the views!). The reason I probably looked so down was because I was ticked off by my time.

It’s ridiculous, I know, to throw a temper tantrum (even an internal one) about finishing an ultra-marathon slower than your goal.

Last year, I registered for this race determined to better my 2013 time. Instead I was five minutes slower. Several things went wrong that day, but the most limiting factor was that I developed a wicked migraine that took most of my energy and nearly all my will. I was proud to finish anyway, but later I felt a bit robbed. There are few things I hate more than when my pain keeps me from living to the fullest. Usually ultra-running is my way of giving the ultimate “fuck you” to my chronic headache. But last year during the Dirty 30, it said, “fuck you” right back.

One of many encouraging messages on the course. (photo credit to my friend, Molly)

One of many encouraging messages on the course. (photo credit to my friend, Molly)

So that’s why this year, I was doubly determined to improve my time. Especially because since September, my headache has been mysteriously – and blessedly – far more under control. In the past nine months, I’ve rarely had bad days. I’ve been able to train harder and faster than I’ve been able to in two years.

Enter my goal of besting my time substantially. And then my frustration when instead I was only a few minutes faster. I know – I still finished! I was still faster! But yet, I was miffed.

The reason I didn’t beat my time is that I simply pushed way too hard, particular in the middle third of the race, and I didn’t save anything for the long, grueling climb up Windy Peak from miles 26 to 28. (That’s how ridiculously brutal this race is. Yes, you have to climb a mountain after 26 miles.) I slowed to shuffle. I tripped over rocks. By the time I summited and had only a few downhill miles left, I was spent. I couldn’t run, or even hike quickly. A gymnast would be able to walk on their hands faster than I moved.

Note the big climb at the end. Yikes!

Note the big climb at the end. Oh boy, oh boy.

I didn’t make my goal time because Dirty 30 is a tough race. And because pacing is part of the challenge. Sometimes races go our way and sometimes they don’t.

But there is reason to celebrate: By mile 10, I started to get a migraine….just like last year. Only yesterday, I was able to fight it off by tweaking my balance of salt/water/sugar/caffeine (The art of taking care of yourself is truly one of the biggest challenges of ultra-running, even when you aren’t migraine-prone.) By mile 15, the worsened pain was gone and I was fine. Managing a migraine is tough business even from your couch at home. Managing it during hours and hours of exertion is even harder. But somehow I did it. That’s part luck. But also part listening to my body and giving it what it needs, which I’m getting better and better at.

Hooray, right? My success in managing the headache is worth celebrating. And that’s the point I need to be focusing on when I reflect on this experience.

But that doesn’t mean next year I won’t be gunning for that faster time. Trust me, I will be.

This Dirty 30 course was even dirtier than usual, thanks to Muddy May. After a soak and a scrub, my toes still aren't clean.

This Dirty 30 course was even dirtier than usual, thanks to Muddy May. After a soak and a scrub, my toes still aren’t clean.

One last thing about yesterday’s race: This year fabulous director Megan gave us slower runners the option of starting an hour earlier. That meant that all the elite runners passed us somewhere along the trail. They are incredible, so strong, and so fast. Many of them gave encouraging words as they passed, like “great job,” or “keep it up.” One of the things I love about ultras is the supportive environment. I would love to bridge that gap between their time and mine, but their comradery is one more reminder that it isn’t all about speed.

Molly - a fellow Medtronic Global Hero - and me at the finish. It was her first ultra-marathon! So proud of her.

With Molly – a fellow Medtronic Global Hero – at the finish. It was her first ultra-marathon. So proud of her!

It’s that season when we reflect on the last 12 months and set goals for the New Year. What I remember most from 2014, in addition to the people whom I have met and my relationships that have grown or strengthened, are the majestic trails I’ve hiked, run, and climbed. I’m often torn between returning to a favorite trail and exploring a new one. Either way, I reserve an entire chamber of my heart for these incredible places:

 

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White Rocks Trail – Boulder. Re-discovering a local favorite. (Photo credit: Megan Finnesy)

 

North Inlet Trail - Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park

North Inlet Trail – Grand Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park. Yes, that is a moose!

 

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The Disappointment Cleaver Route – Mt Rainier, Washington. Nearing the summit of my most technical climb to date.

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Buckskin Pass – Maroon Bells Wilderness. My favorite Colorado running trail, the “Four Pass Loop.”

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North Fork Trail – Maroon Bells Wilderness. Nearing Frigid Air Pass, the third pass of the “Four Pass Loop.”

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Barr Trail – Pikes Peak. The Pikes Peak Marathon is my favorite race every year.

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Mile 14 of “Run the Rut” 50K – Big Sky, Montana. Yes, those are people rappelling. During a race.

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Green Mountain Summit – Boulder. Two of my favorite things – Green Mountain, my local go-to for a quick, steep climb, and gummy bears, my go-to trail snack.

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Barr Trail – Pikes Peak. “Team Hall ‘N It,” a motivational message left from one of my favorite running partners.

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Mt Elbert Summit – 14,433′. My favorite 2014 summit, a celebration of Sarah Meiser who became the fifth mountaineer – and the first woman – to climb all 58 Colorado “Fourteeners” in calendar winter. The other mountaineers/ultra-runners in this picture are phenomenal; I was lucky to be a part of their celebration.

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Island in the Sky – Canyonlands, Utah. A solo trail run to celebrate my 31st birthday.

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The Needles – Canyonlands, Utah. A solo trail run to celebrate my 31st birthday.

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Downtown foot paths – Portland, Oregon. Living in the Colorado desert, all this water fascinated me! We ran over about 906 bridges.

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“Dirty 30” 50K – Golden Gate State Park. A view of a snow Mt Evans from mile 16ish.

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Mt. Belford – Oxford Saddle –  14,153′. My third trip up these beasts.

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Mt Evans Road – 14,264′. Every year the mountain goats help me train for the Mt Evans Ascent foot race.

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Crestone Needle – South Colony Lakes. My favorite Colorado basin.

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Lake Park Trail – Lost Creek Wilderness. My first run through this wilderness. I have no idea why this area is yet to gain popularity with Denver/Boulder-ites.

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Mt Democrat – 14,148′. Watching the sun rise as I climb.

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The finish line of the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon – St. Paul, Minnesota. Best for last: My favorite moment of 2014, a celebration with my Medtronic bionic family.

Looking through this year’s pictures, I feel, once again, deeply grateful that I am able to have these adventures. In the words of my favorite musical artists, One Republic, “This has gotta be the good life.”

I’m wishing a year full of blessing for you in 2015, on the trail and off.