Mountain Lakes 100: September 27-28, 2014
It was in the dark of night that I believed. The predominant sound my foot strike on crushed rock, my headlamp illuminating shadows of the forest. Location: Lake Annette, near North Bend, WA. It was one month before Mountain Lakes 100 and we were doing a practice night run. For the night run, I was determined to run through 30 miles, a spot in races where I struggled in the past. We ran to 33 and I stopped with the feeling that I could keep running. It was the icing on the cake of months of preparation. I was at peace with my training. I was mentally ready to run and finish my first 100 mile race.
Over the next month, the sense of calm lingered. I approached my training and the race like it was a job. The time, money, and resources that go into training and prepping, not to mention the sacrifices of family and training partners, I couldn’t take it lightly. There was more discovering I had to do – about myself, about ultra-running, about what it would take to run 100 miles. And deeply ingrained since childhood, I finish what I set out to do. But I made sure to keep myself in check. Be confident but not cocky. I didn’t have all the answers. Unexpected things would happen. I was about to run 45 miles farther than I ever had before. But I knew that I had done the physical work needed and my mind was ready to do the rest. I did have a few moments thinking that I wasn’t nervous enough, but my first set of nerves hit the Thursday morning before the race as we packed the car. The good kind of nervous. The kind that makes one race ready. Plus I had my crew with me, my husband and daughter, Joe and Anika. And my running partner and pacer John Wallace III.
We were all able to sleep in Friday at the All Seasons Hotel in Detroit, OR. John and I did an easy 2 mile run to shake out the car ride and nerves. We followed that up with Eggs, Bacon, and Hashbrowns at the The Cedars Restaurant and Lounge. And then spent the rest of the afternoon, making sure the bins of fuel and clothing were organized. I had pre-measured baggies of Tailwind and had ziplocks of fuel for each aid station that I would see my crew to re-stock my pack. The pasta feed started up at the race start/finish at 4 o’clock. The race directors who had a cabin at the start were kind enough to let me boil water for my Gluten Free (GF) pasta. It was a beautiful night and I was happy to get to participate in the pasta feed. Something I’ve shied away from in the past. It felt like the right environment to be in. Eating outdoors, next to the Start line, with my family and pacer and the new family members I’d be spending the next couple of days with on the trail.
I slept roughly 5 hours, and the morning of the race I felt relieved more than anything. I was just so happy the start was near. That I could put the planning, logistics, and organization behind me and just do what I really wanted and that was to run. That was the one thing I had control of. I couldn't control the weather, technicality of the course, the aid station food or placement. But I could move my body and I could stick to my plan. To take the course aid station to aid station.
A lot of people asked what I ate on this run. I’ll go ahead and cover that now as it will make sense while I was for the most part only taking in water at the aid stations. With a GF diet, I have to pack my own food, to make sure I’m not relying on Aid Station food, which outside of Fruit and Potatoes and some candy is mostly not GF. For the first 70 miles, I rotated between Blueberry and Chocolate Coconut Rice Cakes from the Feedzone Portables Cookbook, GF Oatmeal Raisin Cookies, VFuel Gel, Honey Stinger Chews, and Tailwind Liquid Nutrition in my hydration pack. I was getting about 100 calories from the Tailwind and 200 calories from food, for a total of 300 calories/hour. I knew I would want more substantial calories and had packed some GF Annie’s Mac and Cheese to have at Miles 55 or 71. I write later about what went wrong with the timing of the Mac and Cheese and what I fueled with the last 30 miles. We are unique when it comes to nutrition and I would say that it’s going to take continual practice to find the exact combination that works for me, but for my first time attempting this distance, I feel good about the nutrition plan I went in with.
The course started at the Olallie Lake Cabins and headed south along the lake before connecting to steep jeep roads. The first hour of darkness was peaceful and a non-technical section. I saw plenty of headlamps run away from me but I was able to stay within myself. This was my first 100 miler. The only person I truly had anything to prove to was myself. Of course, I didn’t want to let my family and pacer down, but I knew they would support me no matter what happened out there. The voices of seasoned ultra-runners rang in my head. Conserve. Conserve. Especially in the first 50. The sunrise was uneventful as I was still on fire road. In retrospect I think about how it was the first sunrise of the run. At the time it was just a sunrise and the time I put my headlamp and flashlight away. Just prior to the first aid station I had some chatty guys behind me and I was feeling the pace pressure. In the past I've made the mistake of wasting time and energy stepping to the side. This day I trusted that if someone wanted to pass they would ask me to allow them to. We all floated through the first aid station (outside of grabbing water) at mile 5.3 the friends naturally passed me and it was the first long stretch that I was alone as I headed to the next aid station at Mile 11.4.
The route followed a long, steady downhill dropping from 5500 ft. to 3600 ft. During this section I thought about the fact that I'd finally told my parents what I was doing. I thought about how nervous I’d been to tell them before my first 50k. And then again for my 50 milers. It just never gets easier. I never want them to worry. And I knew they probably wouldn’t understand. “Why?” My mother asks from time to time. But what I realized before I told them was that I was OK with them not understanding. They didn’t need to. And while, indeed, they told me they didn’t understand, better yet, they told me what I'd hoped for. That they would be praying for me and that they supported me.
I also spent the time mentally preparing for the next section. It’s when the longest climb of the race begins. I rarely run with music, but I planned all along to use it during this section. I’m human and it’s still easy to get too much “inside my head” and the music seems to ward that off from happening. I listened mostly to Imagine Dragons' album – Night Visions – it has some great lines directly related to my task at hand – I played “I’m on top of the world” several times. It’s exactly how I felt. The childlike sense of freedom, the connection with the dirt, the embrace of Mother Nature, both in fear of its power and in awe of my ability to move through it with strength and determination and confidence.
We ran past several small lakes and climbed just over 2600 feet towards Ollalie Lake. It was around this section that I met up with Laura Kantor. I met Laura just over 4 years prior at my first ultra – the Siskiyou Outback 50k. She was a mutual friend of my running partner at the time, Dave Bilyeu. Over the years Laura and I became Facebook friends and I felt an affinity for her through following her ultra endeavors and daily and weekly inspiration she shares in her posts. It felt nice to quietly traverse the mountain with her and have a break from the solitude of traversing alone. We eventually parted ways and I continued to climb until the quick descent down to the next aid station. The huge breakthrough I had in my attitude this year was in climbing. I no longer felt as if I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders as soon as I started to speed hike. I embraced the fact it was a part of ultra-running.
After the aid station at 20.8 we turned around to climb back up the descent and then eventually reconnect with the jeep road along Olallie Lake. It reminded me of the descent off Sun Top at the White River 50. Similar in distance and grade. And we eventually had clear views of Ollalie Lake and Olallie Butte. My legs still felt fresh. But every time I considered pushing I thought about the fact I was not even 25% of the way through the race. I anticipated mile 26.1 (the first time I would see my crew) and walking through the transition – no change of clothes, just switching out bottles, new food, and a bathroom break. Joe mentioned later that I didn’t even look like I’d been running at the 26.1 aid station. I still looked fresh, was alert and centered. During that transition, we found the replacement hydration bladder had a leak so we took the time to pour it into the new hydration bladder. Still, Joe and John were a well-oiled crew machine and I was in and out of the aid station in 8 minutes.
Finally, on the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) I was to travel just 3 miles to the next aid station. This would also be the last 3 miles of the course. I didn’t feel great on this section as it took me the full 3 miles to get back into a rhythm on the single track trail. But once I hit the Mile 29 aid station I was feeling pretty good and outside of taking in water I cruised through.
Mile 29 to 38 was the longest the race went between aid stations and it was also the most remote. It had great downhill mixed with some rocky sections before it climbed 700 feet back up. This was one of my favorite sections of the race – the lush beauty of the PCT. I thought of Cheryl Strayed in Wild and the other blogger’s stories of their time on the PCT. I thought of all the reasons why they had come to this trail. To heal, to break down, to challenge, to discover. I felt honored to be running on hallowed ground - to be creating my own story. It translated into a very blissful 9 miles. I hit the sweet spot in the run where I feel connected to my soul, where I feel more like myself than I ever have before, where I feel like I could run forever, and I want to cry because of the depths at which I feel alive.
Miles 38 to 43.9 continued in much the same fashion. I felt really good. Mostly running by myself, I tried to take in my surroundings, chat with runners when I had the opportunity and spend as little time as possible at the aid stations. I did take the time to put on my head lamp at 43.9 as I wasn’t sure if I’d make it to 49.4 by dark.
From 43.9 to 49.4, we dropped an additional 500 feet, crossing the Warm Springs River. Then ascended 900 feet. The climb is long and technical in sections, but the trail eventually flattens out. Again, I didn’t have much to do here, but get excited about seeing Joe, John, and Anika in about 5 miles at the Clackamas Aid Station (mile 55). It was dark now and my first struggle came. The trail drops over this section a total of 850 feet so it wasn’t due to climbing but something felt off. I believe now it was the first sign of nutrition challenges and the darkness. It took some time for my eyes to adjust and I slowed considerably. I remember wanting to push more but I also wanted to stay upright. I was only halfway done with this thing. Even between the headlamp and flashlight it didn’t feel like enough. I could have used stronger light. There was a mind/body disconnect here that I didn’t feel in control of. I eventually heard the voices and cheers from the Clackamas Aid Station, the largest Aid Station of the race. I came in, grabbed some mashed potatoes and headed to the porta potties. I would need to put on warmer clothes. I didn’t change my bra or shorts but put on a dry tank and dry long sleeve, and added a beanie. At this point I came in 30 minutes past the 27 hour target I’d been on until then. And it was my longest break. About 20 to 25 minutes. Joe and John got my pack refilled with Tailwind and Food. And John and I were off (he was allowed to start pacing at Mile 55). This is when I should have taken in my last calories from real food. This is when the Mac and Cheese would have helped. And as Joe remembers 55 was the first time he saw that I was a little fuzzy in my thinking and taking longer to make decisions about what I wanted.
I’ve known John Wallace III, my pacer, for 4+ years. We run together often and when I mentioned training for Mountain Lakes, he offered to pace early on. He was a huge support through all of the training; even when I was doubting myself, John offered encouragement and turned things around. I knew that he was the right person to have pace; experienced, patient, kind, willing to have tough love if needed. I owe a huge amount of my success to him.
From Mile 55 to 71 the course travels around Little Crater Lake. I remember not liking this section at all. In my mind it was going to be a lot less technical and I had no sense that I was running around anything. It was also when my body decided it no longer wanted to digest food. I would eat food and a couple of minutes later I’d be on the side of the trail; my body trying to get rid of any excess. It took me some time to figure out what was triggering it. I was focused on continuing to get calories in and my body was telling me to take a break. It was letting me know it couldn’t work so hard to digest and it needed simpler carbs. Anything more than a gel my body would not accept.
By mile 71 when we were back at the Clackamas Aid Station, I was dry heaving. My body was still trying to sort out what to do. It was going to come out one way or another. I knew from reading blogs and talking with seasoned 100 milers that a little dry heaving or vomiting did not mean the race was over. It was really just a blip on the radar and it was more about recovering as quickly as possible and then moving forward. Before the race I had asked Joe and Anika, that no matter how bad things looked, to never, ever doubt that I would finish. I did look at Joe and tell him that I was hurting, but he gave me no pity. He simply followed through on my request. He looked me straight in the eye and quietly told me I could do it. I could totally do this. He never looked at me with worry, only belief. I can’t begin to explain what it means that he was so quietly 100% there for me.
Mile 71 was also the first sign that my hip flexors were cranky. After the stop at 71 they tightened up and it took a good mile or two to get them warmed up and running again. We were now on our return trip back to Olallie Lake. We wouldn’t see Joe and Anika again until mile 97 – another marathon on the trail. The return trip felt completely different and is probably the fuzziest part of the run for me. It was a new moon and pitch black, the only light from our headlamps; which between the two of us was adequate, but I felt like I was in a long, dark tunnel. With altered vision it’s also about not tripping and falling. We talked some, but we were quiet, too. Around midnight I remember feeling so incredibly sleepy. I had slowed to a walk and felt like I was sleep walking. I was able to keep down a PocketFuel Cold Brew Coffee and that seemed to take the edge off. It was also during this section that my pack broke. I went to tighten the top, front strap and it snapped right off, leaving my pack to not fitting tightly around my shoulders and jostling around. I didn’t want to take the time to stop and fix it, but eventually realized that it needed to be done or I was just adding another controllable element of discomfort.
Another runner joined us for a while; she was sans pacer and not a big fan of the dark. I don’t know if she was sans pacer for the whole race, but kudos to her for her bravery and self-motivation and determination to get through those 12 hours of darkness alone.
The darkness was sitting heavy and I longed for some daylight. I craved being able to see my surroundings. And slowly it gave way to the sunrise. When I think about this point in the race. I see it in black and white and shades of gray and the memory of it slowly transitions to color. My stomach was still trying to figure what it would keep down (it decided on gels and 7-up or Coke). My hip flexors didn’t want to fire and every step was painful. I remember the exact spot on the trail that I realized that despite the stomach issues and painful hip flexors that I’d never thought about quitting and I knew at that point that I was going to finish, but I asked myself how I would feel if I was riding home in the car without the prized belt buckle (Belt buckles are handed out to all who finish in under 30 hours). All of the time that went into training, the time and energy that my family and pacer had put into my succeeding. I remember turning to say to John that I would not go home without a buckle. He acknowledged and said something like, “OK, let’s do this.” But in order to do that I knew I needed to pick the pace up, so I started to run again and focused on my breathing and mentally relaxing my hip flexors that so badly wanted to seize up. John also started to call out my pace so I had something else to think about. After some time, I heard John say, “I like the perseverance.” And it was all I needed; the recognition that I was trying my best, that I wasn’t going to succumb to the pain.
I saw a white canopy down on the road. We were much closer to the next aid than I thought. There were even quiet voices coming from that direction. I asked John if he saw the tent. He didn’t. Then there were cars, and more white canopies, and the voices…I soon realized that I was hallucinating the last aid station. I was sure that I saw my family. Joe in a green puffy jacket. Anika in her blue fleece, but they gave way to trees. I saw cars, tents, flags and signs. Only to find fallen trees, bushes, foliage and tree stumps. I could no longer trust my eyes. I needed to just focus on the trail in front and not look around. I so desperately wanted that aid station. I would see Joe and Anika, be able to drop my pack, and have just 3.1 miles left to the finish. I also knew that the time to finish in under 30 hours was tight.
When I arrived at the mile 97 aid station, it was 11 o’clock (1 hour to spare). Joe was ready to take my pack and hand me a gel and 7-up. One of the volunteers at the the aid station looked at me and said – It’s 11 o’clock. You can still do this. You’re going to have some climbs, but when you’re walking you need to move your hands as quickly as possible. Your feet will follow. Use the downhill. You can do this. John who had been running behind me since mile 55, asked if I wanted him to lead, I said ‘Yes’ and he became the rabbit. I put my gaze on his feet, dug to the very depths of my strength to will my hip flexors to fire, moved my arms as quickly as I could and I fought. After 2.5 miles John dropped back behind me. He said about .5 to go and told me to run it in. That .5 was the longest .5 of my life. I have never fought for anything so hard in my life. I finished in 29 hours, 58 minutes, and 15 seconds. 1 minute and 45 seconds to spare.
I’m addicted to the pain, the deep ache of bone that comes, the pain that I have now pushed through, accepted, and learned to sit with as part of the process, stripping down to my most vulnerable and being willing to rely on others to maintain this state. If I wasn’t willing to be in this state I don’t think I would have finished, let alone under the 30 hour cutoff. I suppose a combination of that and perseverance. If I’d for one moment thought I wouldn’t finish or become complacent with finishing without the belt buckle then that is what would have happened.
I had someone tell me that the first 50 of a 100 was physical, the next 25 mental, and the last 25 were spiritual. For now I think the entire 100 was a mix of physical and mental – definitely more mental in the latter half. With a few moments of spiritual sprinkled in. The spiritual is post-run – as the ache settles in - when I’m reminded of how deeply I went. When I sit in awe of how deep I was able to go. The fear that comes with understanding the power of my own mind.
While the buckle is awesome. I’m more stoked that I’m walking away with my love for running, a greater affection for the ultra-running community, a better sense of and respect for the distance. My time on the trails makes me a better mom, wife, friend, coach. Balancing it all can be tough. But I’m determined to walk the delicate line of an all-consuming sport and the other priorities of life as this sport is the compass for how I live. I believe that if I continue to seek a raw and vulnerable state; with a willingness to both be there for and lean on others, the balance will follow.