22 October 2015

TBT: Zion 100, April 2014

In just 10 days, I run my second-ever 100-mile race. I am nervous and excited, and the only thing that is certain to me is that it's going to be another hell of an adventure. I can't help but look back at my experience at the Zion 100 eighteen months ago. Shall we?
I'm frying up hash browns and runny eggs at 4am in the kitchen of our cozy airbnb rental. I'm trying to keep the noise to a minimum so as to not wake up my crew. There are seven of them, and they've come to Virgin, Utah from as far away as Alaska to support me in my first-ever 100. I smile at the peacefulness of the house, how grateful I am to all of them, and how it's good they're all getting their rest right now. I think, "This will be a big day for all of us." 
The best crew ever (not pictured: Jon Jon and Brea!)
Only the beginning

The first sunrise is nice.  We are only half an hour in, everyone talking and laughing as we walk together up the Flying Monkey Trail (where they actually launched monkeys off the sandstone cliffs in the name of aeronautical science).  I am content to listen to the stories around me and fight the urge inside of me to move faster.  "This should be the slowest run you do all year," I think to myself. What irony - every other race I've ever run has been the fastest possible pace, far faster than training speed.  At mile 15 on the JEM trail, the single track is buttery and beautiful, and I have to reel myself in to keep from opening up and letting loose.  I catch sight of two of my crew, out on course taking pictures and cheering. I say to Kevin, "I can't possibly run any slower."  I feel great.
As I approach the Virgin Dam Aid Station at mile 23, Darren calls me by his nickname for me: "Yeah, Coach!" 
A nearby runner turns to me and says, "You're a coach?  Oh, good.  Maybe you can tell me what I'm doing wrong."
"Running 100 miles," I reply. 
Buttery. So buttery. JEM trail along Virgin River.
Rhythm and blues

After winding in and around a series of desert plateaus and washes on some lovely double-track, we reached the most fearsome climb of the course: the "Goosebump." This moment has been built up in my head for months, based on the description on the website: "It is hard to overstate the steepness of this climb." It is 1200 feet of elevation gain in less than a mile. In scoping it out from the top the day before, it is, indeed, intimidating. Just before the climb, I fall into conversation with a guy I had seen earlier wearing a Blerch t-shirt. His name is Dale and he is animated and bubbly. He tells me of his heartbreak and success at the Leadville 100, about his wife, about finishing rates for ultramarathons. He is content to talk and I am content to listen. I laugh a lot and as I get lost in his tales, we pass 10, perhaps 20, people grabbing their quads and gasping for breath. I suddenly realize that living in Yosemite and practicing regularly in vertical terrain and at elevation gives me a distinct advantage on this section.
Dale and I summit the Goosebump. That was fun!
However, that advantage disappears rather quickly as we immediately transition onto Gooseberry Mesa. Gooseberry Mesa is legendary among mountain bikers for its variety of technical terrain - ledges, bowls, cliffs, and the like. It is stunningly beautiful, offering wide panoramas toward Zion National Park and surrounding canyon country. However, as a running route, Gooseberry is a little like a leech - it's not going to kill you at first, but give it enough time to gnaw at you, and little by little, it's going to do its darndest to sap you dry. The slickrock is hard as pavement, and that variety that cyclists like so much makes getting into a rhythm really difficult. I hear later that the lead female runner slipped and broke her femur on this section. Youch!
Starting out on Gooseberry Mesa. Before the slickrock. Before the carnage.
A 100-mile race can be pretty mentally taxing because there is always something to manage while maintaining "constant forward progress" - drink water, eat more food, no, really, more food, apply sunscreen, remove layer, eat more, adjust drinking hose, stretch calf, etc. To layer another mentally taxing endeavor, like navigating the up-down-and-all-around slickrock of Gooseberry Mesa is pretty exhausting. 

Runners tend to have mental games unique to them that they play to get them through tough spots like this.  Today, mine play out like this:
That guy looks like he's tanking. At least I feel better than him.
Smooth and light and easy.  Smooth and light and easy.  (Tapped out in my head to the rhythm of my foot fall.)
Hey, once I get to my crew, it's only a 50K and a marathon left!  Wait, did I really just think that? 
Luckily, somewhere in here, I meet up again with Richard from Canada, who I had met earlier in the race. Like most ultrarunners, Richard is exceedingly modest and kind, and helps allay my fears about how the race will play out:
"You're looking great.  You've been doing it right, eating well, pacing it out.  Keep it up. Mile 60 is where it tends to fall apart, so whatever you do, make sure to push through that section. It will get better."
Eat some more.  
It doesn't always get worse.

I arrive at Grafton Mesa Aid at mile 49, starting to feel a little fatigued, but in great spirits because a) every step I take from here until the finish will be with a friend by my side, and b) every step I take from here until the finish will be one step farther than I have ever run in my life. 

Hannah is up first for pacing and we are laughing and telling stories as we wind through the dust and cacti. We haven't run together in literally years due to our geographic disjunct, so this is a true treat. Hannah tells me about the well-wishers on Facebook, which fills me a with a glow I vow to hold onto later when things get tough. We meet Ethan and Kathleen from Chicago, who are also running their first 100-miler and who also have not run past 50 miles before. They will be running Bighorn this summer - a race I've never heard of prior to this trip, but which has come up twice now. (Author note: it now makes my bucket list!) Though running with Hannah makes me realize we are really "yogging" at a quite pedestrian pace, the miles seem to fly by quickly as we catch up on life and chat with the Chicagoans about how to train for an event like this in the Midwest.
Grafton Mesa loop with Hannah (taking photo).
Back at the Grafton Mesa aid station, I grab headlamps, warm layers, and sustenance for the night ahead. Kevin jumps in for a 14 mile stint at pacing and we're off. Kevin has been one of the most influential people in my journey to becoming an ultrarunner - encouraging, nay, goading me to try one out after my first marathon, and always geeking out with me about developments in the sport. He knows about my Western States obsession aspirations (stay tuned for a future blog), and was the first of my friends to say, "I'll be there" when I told him I was running my first 100. Kevin and I bounce down the trail, marveling at the scenery, talking about the events of our day, taking photos of the incredible sunset.  
Into the dark.
Around mile 57, my immodium wears off and I need to take several bathroom breaks in the bushes to get my system in order. I also notice that I'm starting to feel pretty "meh" about gels, even the ones I typically love and have trained with all season. My tongue, for lack of a better description, feels "sweeted-out." We are walking at a moderate pace uphill toward Eagle Crags at mile 60 in the dark. This is an out-and-back segment and it feels lonely. We see surprisingly very little runners coming down, nor in front or behind us. I say, "Why does it feel like I'm in the very back of the pack?" Kevin immediately says, "No, no. That's definitely not true. It's just really spread out now. You're hours ahead of the back of the pack." 

We arrive at Eagle Crags and I am delighted to meet the one and only Turd'l. At mile 23, I had exuberantly thanked an aid station worker for some pickles, to which he had replied, "Those are Turd'l's pickles. You can thank him yourself when you get to Eagle Crags." Turd'l welcomes me whole-heartedly and asks me if I want a pancake. The truth is that I don't want anything. None of the food looks good to me and there is a warming fire here that looks way too inviting to be good for me, so I begrudgingly shove some food in my pack, nibble a bit, and leave the aid station. Here in starts a cycle that is a little like the grieving process: getting a runner to eat.
First is denial. "Ugh. Nothing looks good. I don't want to eat. I'll be fine."
Second is bargaining: "C'mon, just eat a little bit. It will make you feel better." "I'm sorry; I know I should, but I just can't do it right now. I feel so shitty." "You'll feel better if you eat this. Here, sit down on this rock for a second. I'll get it out of your vest and open it for you. You don't even have to eat the whole thing. Just two bites. You'll feel better. I promise." "Okay, fine. Just two bites."
Finally, there is acceptance. Sometimes it comes quickly.  Sometimes it does not.
Just like with grief, the stages don't always go in that order and can rear their heads multiple times over the course of a race. 
In my case, acceptance is slow.  I begin to trudge at slower than one m.p.h. for over three miles back to Grafton Mesa while my heart and respirations flutter at weird rates. Kevin pleads with me to stop and eat many, many times and gives me his jacket as I begin to freeze. I feel weird and somehow detached from my own body. I know that I am in bad shape, but all I can think about is getting back to Grafton Aid, which, in my mind, is around every corner. Kevin, for his part, keeps the mood light, even though he is undoubtedly freezing his ass off and cannot get me to do what he knows I need to do. At some point, Hannah comes bounding down the trail from the opposite direction, wondering where the hell we've been for the last three hours. I know by the look Hannah and Kevin exchange that I am in way worse shape than I think. Hannah laughs and jokes and tells me how far it is, and after an eternity, we land back at the aid station. Hannah sternly sits me down by the fire with a thick down coat and makes me change into long johns. My crew thrusts soup broth at me and says, "Take a bite." "Take another bite." They feed me Have'a'Chips with avocado, one-by-one. Any protests about having enough food go unheard. They are dogged. And they are right - I was probably somewhere in the murky land between calorie-bonking and mild hyponatremia. After a 20 minute timeout, my crew reassures me that I still have plenty of time to finish, and they send me packing. After two to three false starts (bathroom calling!), Andy and I take our first gingerly paces out of camp.

"Wee" Hours

Andy and I start slowly at first, and I keep eating salted seaweed snacks. "These are the most delicious thing I have ever eaten!" I exclaim. We pick up the pace a touch and suddenly Andy and I are just out for a midnight run on a random dirt road in Utah and the world doesn't seem so bad any more. We are talking in animated tones and start to laugh about the last 15 miles. "Wow, that was touch and go there for a bit, wasn't it?" I say. "Yup." I would have never guessed that my highest high of the whole race would come at mile 68, and I definitely would not have thought it would come directly after the lowest low I have ever encountered in my life. But here we are. My number for the race is 180, and I decided early on that my motto would be this:
"There's always time for a 180."
I got to run this section of trail twice - once in the daylight and once in the dark.
We gossip about other people we have met through the day, about the leader on course who has probably finished by now, about when Andy is going to run his first 100Somewhere around mile 71, the following thought occurs: 
"Hmm. I feel something in my shin. That may hurt later."
Andy and I make it over to the to the top of the Goosebump, where Jon Jon is waiting to meet me. Jon Jon has been bouncing around the course all day taking freelance photos of the eventual winner, Jeff Browning, for Patagonia, so I was half-expecting him to not be there for his four-mile pacing stint. But sure enough, despite the ungodly hour and the middle-of-nowhere locale, he is there smiling and ready to run. He is surprised by how well I'm doing, considering the texts he had gotten from Hannah just a couple hours ago. He had prepared a water bottle of Perpetuem for me in case liquid calories are all I can stomach. It is kind of funny tasting, but I can tell my body is happy about it, nonetheless. As we start down the lip of the Goosebump descent, we yell, "Wheeee!  Bombs away!" I feel like I'm "bombing" down the hill, but in reality, it's probably the slowest I've ever descended in any race. No matter. The desert is ours! The section feels short, but very dark and very lonely. We pass only one soul who is without a pacer. His light is dim and he seems rather confused about whether he is in the right place. I grow a little concerned at his distant tone and vague babble. We encourage him to run with us, and he does for a few minutes, but he eventually peels off to use the restroom and tells us to go on without him. I see a glimpse of myself, just ten miles earlier, and I hope he fares okay without a crew to save the day.

We arrive back to Highway 9 at mile 78 and Adrienne and Kevin whoop out a greeting. I mow down some Girl Scout cookies and bananas and I finally feel like my stomach has sorted itself out. Kevin shows relief seeing me eat real food again. He mentions that he tried to sleep, but couldn't really because he was "too excited." (I'm pretty sure he later admitted he was nervous about me, too, after watching my meltdown.)

Adrienne has gotten a few winks of shuteye and is psyched to head out on an 18-mile stretch. We get about a half-mile in, starting to head up the dirt road to Guacamole Mesa, when I throw a salt capsule in my mouth. I struggle to get my hose attachment flowing, and I gag on the pill as it hits the back of my throat. Immediately, I am puking multiple times in the road. A nearby spectator waiting for her runner says, "Oh no! Are you okay?" "Yeah. [puke] I'm fine! [puke] No, really, I'm okay. [puke] I just choked on a salt pill!"
Dumbest puke ever.
All those nice calories down the drain. I rinse out my mouth, laugh sheepishly, apologize to Adrienne if my puke splashed onto her shoes, and try to eat again as we amble up the road. We reach the top of the mesa and there is a confusing split, with trail markers in both directions. We go 100 yards in either direction, but cannot see the next trail marker on either side. No runners come from either fork, even though this is an out-and-back section. A few more runners from behind us catch up and we all look confusedly at the markers, unable to move. We all know that a mistake could be pretty costly at this stage in the game. Or perhaps fatigue is making us indecisive. We look at each other and shrug our shoulders. Eventually, someone says, "I'm pretty sure it's this way," and we all follow like sheep.  It takes a few minutes, but we finally see a runner coming from the opposite direction. Phew.

Tiny elves playing the xylophone

As we approach the Guacamole aid station, we come across a few other runners who have just finished the loop we're about to begin. "It sucks out there! It is so hard to follow the trail." "You're just starting that loop? Good luck," one emphasized with an ironic tone. Uh oh. I turn to one of the aid workers and innocently ask, "Any tips for not getting lost on the loop ahead?" She is clearly so tired of being berated by runners about getting lost, as she rolls her eyes and says, "Follow the course markings..." Hmm. 

Meanwhile, Adrienne has managed to score a roll of duct tape to try to help me tape my shin, which has progressively gotten more painful. At first, we stick to the end of a small pack of runners, which is to our advantage. Guacamole Mesa is a gentler version of Gooseberry - mostly rolling slickrock, but not as jarring or as irregular. However, trail-finding is difficult at night, as the route is marked only sparsely with reflective tape. Having a pack of people is useful because each time we have to stop to find the next marker, we have six or seven headlamps scanning in different directions and at different heights. When one person finds it, we all benefit. Adrienne and I hug tight to the pack for a mile or two, but then my shin starts to hurt and I stop to rip off the duct tape. The pack continues on without us.
Ambling through the dark on Guacamole. See the reflective tape?
The remaining seven miles of this loop go from bad to worse. The irregular footing of the slickrock becomes unbelievably painful on my shin, particularly when my foot is sloped at a downward angle. I begin to involuntarily whimper each time my foot is at an angle and my jogging gets slower and slower until I can only walk. I yelp and cry and it's everything I've got to keep moving. At some point, the sun comes up. I had been looking forward to this moment for months after hearing ultrarunners talk about how the sunrise is something close to enlightened bliss and how it can change a race around.  
The truth is: I couldn't care.
I couldn't care about the gorgeous red hues or the illumination of this awesome mesa. I couldn't care when the Chicagoans catch back up to me and gleefully shout, "Green shorts!" I couldn't care when Adrienne tries to get me to eat something. I couldn't care when I realized that a couple of runners are accidentally skipping at least a quarter mile of the course because they had beelined to the wrong piece of reflective tape. I couldn't care when 50K runners from the race that just started this morning begin to pass us, each offering saccharine words of encouragement. I couldn't care when we arrive back at Guacamole Aid, the last aid station of the course. I couldn't care when I can't get the porta-potty door to close all the way and an aid station worker catches a glimpse of me with my pants down. I am apathetic, exhausted, and in incredible amounts of pain. 

Constant (slow) forward progress.
There are only nine miles left and I'm not convinced I will make it before the race cut-off time. I try to do math in my head, over and over.  "If I'm going one mile per hour and there are six hours left, I won't make it. What if I go one and a quarter miles per hour? One-fourth times six...wait, do I multiply the hours or the miles?  Oh yeah, miles.  One-forth times nine is...  No, wait, times six.  No, nine."  
My brain is useless for math at mile 91.
I keep whining to Adrienne that I'm afraid I won't make the cutoff. I am seriously concerned at this point that I am doing irreparable harm to my body, and I know how heartbroken I will be if I put myself through this much pain and still don't finish. I picture myself crossing the line just minutes past the cut-off. I ask her multiple times, "Are you sure we still have enough time to finish? I don't think there's enough time." I bargain with her: If we don't make it to Darren, my last pacer, stationed at mile 97.5, by 11:30am, I'm cutting my losses. 

We continue down off the mesa and the downhill slope is excruciating. I cry because I don't think I can walk down the whole thing. Then, a stroke of genius. I turn around and start walking backwards down the hill. For three miles. 
Head down. Just keep going. Backwards is forwards.
The sun continues to rise and I don't have my sunglasses, so I start to squint. As I squint, my eyes shut and I catch myself nodding off multiple times. I am a hot mess when we get to the bottom of the hill, where the crew is waiting. It is 11:27am. I tell them, "It feels like tiny elves are playing xylophone on my shinbone." They hand me a pair of trekking poles, and without saying another word, I start limp-marching ahead of Darren, using the poles like makeshift crutches to push myself along. My pace easily triples.

Beer thirty

A few minutes later, a curious thing happens. I am walking backwards down a short, steep hill, when I see a tall woman barreling down the hill toward me at top speed, whooping and carrying...a bottle of beer! She announces her joy at being almost done and I compliment her on her style. She says, "Yeah, somebody else's crew gave me the beer back there." Later I find out that the following transpired:
Darren and I hike off. Adrienne turns to Hannah with an exhausted expression that belies the 18 miles of hell she's been through, goading my crying, yelping, apathetic sack of bones through the desert in the wee hours of the morning. Hannah offers Adrienne a beer, which she accepts. Just then, the tall runner lopes by and says, "Ooh, can I have one?"
A shot from the rental house the day before the race. =)
Darren has done his homework, scouting the course earlier in the day, so he talks me through each section calmly, "Okay, coming up is a short flat section and then we'll get to the creek crossing." Wait. What?! I have pored over the race information and maps hundreds of times over the past six months. There was never any mention of a creek crossing! What a cruel trick on 98 mile legs! It is only mid-shin deep and the bottom is not very slippery, but it sure ain't easy going. I curse and thank my crew again for thinking to bring me a pair of trekking poles.
Nothing about a creek crossing in here!
We are so close - just a couple of blocks through the tiny town of Virgin. A woman I had passed at mile 23 comes flying by us. I remember her from earlier because I had heard her say she had finished something like a dozen 100-milers and I had been surprised because she was a little bit stouter than the average runner. As she rushed by me, I laughed at myself: "Silly Katie. Might be time to rethink your definition of fit."

We turn onto the grass of the finish area and Darren peels off to grab his camera and let me finish what I've started. There is a small crowd of runners and crew members and they clap and cheer. I cross the line, put my head in my hands, and cry a little. Is this a dream? A nightmare? Both? I'm not sure. I'm glad I've done it and I'm glad it's over. I pick out my belt buckle from the finish line table and sit down to drink a beer. 
Holy wow.
30 hours, 44 minutes, 52 seconds. 87th place out of 117 finishers with a 62% finishing rate. I have never been more delighted to be a back-of-the-packer.

What am I left with?  For starters: swollen feet, blisters in odd places, mental fog, chapped lips and nose, wrist tendonitis from the trekking pole "crutches," a puffy face, a bloated stomach, malaise, disinterest in food, a lost concept of time, overwhelming gratitude, pride, and a shiny new belt buckle.
Elephantitis of the shin. No, not really. But still pretty bad.
Now and then

18 months later, what still remains? I still sometimes get teary-eyed when I think about the kindness shown to me that day - of strangers and of my crew. It is so humbling to have people take care of you when you're at your most vulnerable. What my crew did for me that day felt nothing less than heroic and like the ultimate expression of love.

I'm also still struck by the thought, "When is it not worth it?" The truth is that I'm not sure. My shin turned out to be a gnarly bout of anterior tibialis tendonitis with peroneal nerve irritation that took almost eight months to heal and rehabilitate, as well as a significant chunk of my bank account for medical bills. I missed an entire summer of adventures in my beloved Sierra Nevada. Then again, if I had quit, the self-doubt and wondering "what if" could have crushed me from the inside for far longer than eight months.

One thing that still remains is a desire to give it another go. A week from today, I fly out to Arizona to try my hand at my second hundo. Who knows what will happen this time? Stay tuned...

This is the first in a series of "Throw Back Thursday" posts aimed at recapping recent (and not so recent) adventures. The posts are meant to serve as "beta" for other adventurers, stories for friends and family, and inspiration for other women to connect with the outdoors and test their potential.


  1. Yahoo!! So excited for you and can't wait to hear how it goes!

  2. Can't wait to hear how it goes! - Becca


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