The Magic of the Milky Way
This race report certainly turned out longer than I planned, but I feel that if I’m going to take the time to write a race report, I want it to be honest and authentic and hopefully be educational in helping someone else who wants to run 100 miles and wants to hear about what did/didn’t work for another; and hopefully help someone else prevent making similar mistakes or on the other hand help someone make a wise choice.
Before going into the race report, I want to share something that happened while training for this race. In practicing this sport we are constantly learning, changing, adapting, re-working. Goals, environment, age, new science, data are all playing a role in how we move forward. Everyone’s path looks different. In training for the Napa Marathon last spring, when I was struggling at the track, instead of keeping my head down both literally and figuratively, I practiced “owning my space.” You have to believe it to own it; this mental adjustment not only changed my body position but my ability to hit my numbers. While I ran my first 50k more than 6 years ago, I’ve had long breaks from training on the trails; taking time off to train for road marathons. While I might not have hesitation in saying I’m a marathoner, I’ve never considered saying I’m an ultra-runner. I most often feel uncomfortable when talking with people about ultra running, as I feel like I’m a very tiny fish in a big pond of folks doing amazing things out on the trails. But something shifted as I progressed through this training. I ran a couple of 50ks that didn’t require more recovery than from a long run (I was adapting to all the hard work) and I had a 50 mile PR, I began to entertain the idea that I was an ultra-runner. That I could lean on that identity and draw strength from it. If I didn’t believe it, how could I own it? How could I own my space on the trail? When the chips are down out there; when I’m having a physically tough day, the weather is awful, when other life events seem overwhelming. I can think, but “This is who I am. This is what I”m made of; I have everything in me right now to persevere through this moment.” So I encourage you; regardless of what distance you run, if you have a difficult time saying “I’m a runner” or “I’m a half-marathoner” or whatever it is, consider changing that voice. Because you have the grit, tenacity, and beauty and strength of a runner inside you. Don’t be afraid to own it.
The above personal progress that I made in my training and the amazing in-person and online support that I received prior to the race gave me a huge collective boost in making me feel that I was not going into the race alone in any way; my friend and colleague Lori McConnell, put it so simply for me. “Just go do what you do and everything will fall into place.” I definitely drew on this a few times during the race when I was struggling; I repeated “just do what you do” “just do what you do.”
On the flight to Sacramento, I replayed my equipment and fuel list in my head for the 100th time, but felt fairly confident that I hadn’t forgotten anything. As I was drifting off into a nap, the vision of my hydration bladder on the drying rack popped into my head. Yes, the hydration bladder was still on the drying rack at home. Thankfully I had all of my Ultimate Direction soft bottles that would carry my Tailwind, but I wanted the bladder for water. As I about jumped out of my airplane seat when I realized; my voice of reason; my husband, Joe, was there to simply say, "I’m sure we can buy one." After a couple of phone calls, I determined finding a UD bladder was going to prove challenging, but there was an REI just a couple of miles from the hotel. While the bladder I ended up purchasing was awkward and annoying, for the most part, any major hydration bladder crisis was averted. So lesson learned; regardless of how many times you’ve packed for a race; having a reminder checklist to review is a good idea.
My thoughts around fueling are a 24/7 thing for me. I know that I can’t put in the heavy training weeks without making wise fueling choices. The week before a race, I go to simple carbohydrate, protein and healthy fat meals that are easy to make and easy to digest. And especially when traveling, I do my best to put myself in an environment that I can have my tried and true pre-race meal. Pasta with a non-spicy red sauce, and a caesar salad with toasted walnuts. Our room at the Larkspur Landing suites had a kitchenette that allowed me to stay on track and avoid a restaurant the night before.
The morning of the race I had 1 cup of coffee, A bowl of oatmeal with almond butter and sliced banana and 1 glass of Ener-C about 90 minutes to 2 hours before race time.
As everyone is standing at the start line in the dark, half listening to the pre-race course instructions, my mind and body are just ready to get started and my thoughts are bouncing all over the place. The Race Director said something that resonated and brought me into the pre-race space I needed to be in. He said. “This is your moment. The one you’ve all trained for and now you’re here together to execute all of your training.” It immediately brought me from feeling very small in this large group of strangers to feeling connected to the other 300 people; we weren’t just sharing this moment, but we’d shared similar moments for the last 6 months. I was cheering and rooting for them all to have their best race that day, too.
The start of a race in the dark, headlamps bobbing and water paks sloshing is this rhythmic and beautiful sight; everyone is in their quiet space. I had decided I was just taking this race aid station to aid station. So I was thinking about the mileage to the next aid station, and not further than mile 19 or so where I would see my crew again for the first time. I knew I wanted to watch pace in this section. It was a paved, slightly rolling bike path, but I knew I couldn’t run road pace; I’d blow my HR and legs up and risk the later miles of the race. So my goal was to keep my HR down and just run at a comfortable conversational pace.
We hadn’t been running long when I looked down to check on my pace, only to find that that I hadn’t pressed start when I crossed the start line. I was most concerned about knowing how long we’d been out there so that I could stick to my 30 minute fueling window. I quickly asked a runner if he had time elapsed on his watch. He did not have time or mileage, only HR; which I spent some time trying to wrap my mind around - How did he know when to eat? He could track mileage aid station to aid station; but I just could not wrap my mind around not knowing the time…so I moved on to the next person; he had time elapsed - 15 and change, so I started my watch, added on 15 minutes in my head and was able to easily adjust my fuel timing.
My fueling choices: Most of the time I had 2 bottles of Diluted Tailwind and water in my bladder. I was eating every 30 minutes; my pattern as follows - gel, gel, chews, waffle, gel, gel, chews, Clif energy food, throwing in the occasional boiled potato and potato chips from the aid stations. I followed that pattern for about 20 hours before my body decided it didn’t want anymore. By mile 75 my body really didn’t want to eat anything it had already eaten that day; if I tried a gel or other my body’s immediate reaction was “No!" So what to do? Start getting creative - broth from the aid station; slowing the amount of time between food. In the future, I will make sure my crew has more real food that I can eat when I see them; with more protein and fat. GF PB&J. GF Tortilla with Avocado; all things I’ve trained with, but didn’t put into the scheme that weekend. The above scenario worked great for 50 miles, but 50 and beyond I needed more real food on board, earlier. You’ll find out how I fueled those last miles a bit later.
Some would argue that 1 salt tab an hour is too much, but it’s the timing I started with and stuck with it through the heat of the day; during the night and later hours I know I went by feel and slowed my intake, but for the most part I staved off leg cramping except for a bit in the heat of the day and I did not have hand swelling.
In a 100 mile race, any number of things can go wrong and any number can go right and you hope that you err on the side of things going right. A key is that when things go wrong, success in working through it is how you respond; my plan was to not freak out and take the time to figure out what adjustments needed to be made. Since the first 19 miles are on a paved path with minimal climbing, I knew that I could be faster than even my earliest projected time coming into the first aid station where my crew was allowed. But I didn’t think I’d be an hour early. So as I rounded the corner and started to scan for my crew (really helpful to have someone in your crew in bright colors or waving something that is familiar) I was pretty confident they weren’t there; but it was OK, it was only 5 miles to the Granite Beach aid station where I could see them next. I was fine in my current shoes (I started out in road shoes because of the terrain), and I still had enough food and water. But how were they going to know I’d already come in? By the time they realized it they could have waited around too long and then miss me at the next aid station, too. And if that happened the entire day’s plan would need to be re-worked. So I took the time to stop at the aid station and find a kind volunteer that would let me use her cell phone. I left Joe a hurried message that I was leaving Beal’s Point and to meet me at Granite Beach. And also sent a fast and cryptic text with the same message. Surely they would get it and have time to get to Granite Beach.
But I can’t say I didn’t have monkey mind for the next 5 miles, playing around with the different scenarios of how I would move forward without my crew. I’d make the road shoes work, I’d use the aid stations for food and hydration. But sure enough there they were. I did a quick change into my trail shoes, refilled my pak, used the bathroom and was in and out fairly quickly. Nothing was hurting yet and I was optimistic at 25 miles in.
It would be another 11 miles or so before I would see the crew again at Rattlesnake Bar. I knew the next section my pace would slow with about 4 miles of it being a section called the Meat Grinder. It’s 4 miles of uneven rocks, sometimes narrow trail and a lot of ups and downs. Unless you’ve trained on that type of terrain or lived there and could practice the section, it would be challenging to move through it quickly. It was also starting to warm-up into the 70s and the shade was hit or miss. I was wishing I’d thrown a tank into the clothing mix. So note here, it never hurts to have all options - tank, short sleeve, arm warmers, long sleeve, and a light vest/light jacket. When you’re in the mountains, you just never know.
Coming into Rattlesnake Bar, I was hot, but was still feeling good and was just starting to deal with hotspots on my toes. Jeanette, the gal that was pacing me from miles 45 to to 75 had arrived. We still had yet to meet in person; she was a friend of my crew lead - Julie; who put us in touch via email. From her notes, I knew she had run the American River 50 miler, loved night running, and had an infectious drive for new adventures - just what I would need for 30 miles in the dark. I took the time to take my shoes and socks off and get some anti-chafe cream on the toes; had Jules stuff ice down one of my arm warmers that I could tie around my neck, connected my watch to a portable charging stick, loaded up some tunes as I was needing a break from my mind space and knew there was a big climb ahead. It was just about 9 miles before I would see them at the Overlook Aid Station and start the 30 miles with Jeanette. The ice definitely helped cool me down and I was feeling refreshed for the 3 mile climb. I knew the climb would be a speed hike and much of the mountain exposed. I put my head up, pictured the Squak Mountain fire road that I trained on, moved my arms, and climbed.
When I arrived at Overlook, despite the climb and the heat I was still running around the 24 hour mark and was feeling really good about where I was. At Overlook I had planned on eating some real food, but we didn’t have the Mac and Cheese made and I didn’t want to wait for it, so I left without taking in much real food outside of potatoes from the aid station. I think this was a mistake. I should have been patient. It was 30 miles before I would see my crew again. While I was confident in Jeanette as my pacer, I was a little nervous about running with someone I’ve never met before. I’m pretty quiet when I run, and even more so when I’m trying to conserve energy, so I hoped she wouldn’t take offense if I didn’t talk much. Jeanette was awesome, she was encouraging and patient, chatting the miles away. Shortly after leaving Overlook, I hit a bit of a rough spot; there was a lot of climbing and little creek crossings. I just physically and mentally didn’t feel great, but after time, I did hit a new rhythm. Hopping rocks on 50 mile legs can prove challenging. It wasn’t until 65 or so that I finally lost balance during a crossing and wound up with submerged feet. It could have been much worse; I could have ended up with butt in creek, and when you’re trying to manage as many things as you are out there, wet feet and shoes really doesn’t seem like that big a deal. As a side note, while I’ve determined I need a shoe with a wider toe box for races 50 miles plus, I was happy with how the Saucony Peregrines drained and dried quickly. It probably didn’t help with the two blisters I already had forming on my toes (i.e. the wider toe box). I knew that when I got into the Overlook Aid Station the 2nd time they would need to be addressed.
In the future, heading into the night hours, I will pack my light jacket. Once it was cold enough that I needed more than my short sleeves, it took way too long for me to change out of my wet short-sleeve and into my long sleeve. I would have been much better taking off my pak for a moment, putting on a jacket, and continuing to move. Maybe it was only a few extra minutes, but all the extra minutes over 100 miles add up.
Running in the dark is peaceful and mystical and sometimes scary. We could hear the creatures in the night, and it seemed we were alone for quite a while, but then during my second wind, I was climbing really well and we caught up to a group that we played back and forth with for several miles. One of the runners out there had a bell on; he was faster on the trails, but slower at the aid stations. He would pass me after a few miles out of the aid station, but then I would catch up and leave the next station earlier; it was comforting to know he was pretty close by with his bell ringing.
While post-race reports revealed that some runners were temporarily stranded by a mountain lion (between their whistles and another runner’s airhorn, the cat eventually left); I am curious though if they continued on after the next aid station. I do hope they were able to finish. We were startled by deer a few times, but other than that my experience with the wildlife was uneventful.
I was excited about my new Petzl Nao headlamp; knowing I would need it for up to 14 hours of darkness, and unsure of the reliability of my portable charging sticks. I bought a back-up battery. Also, with this headlamp, the battery sits kind of heavy on the back of the head, so I bought the extension cord which allowed me to keep the battery in the top zipper of my pak. This made it a lot more comfortable. I was both happy and unhappy with the headlamp. The amount of light it provided was perfect; but the battery life was disappointing; I was expecting at least 6 hours at its brightest setting, but feel like I got 5 at the most; but this also may have had something to do with them not getting fully recharged by the portable charging sticks between uses. The changing of the battery in the middle of the night did not go smoothly; as we somehow knocked Jeanette’s waist lamp to the ground and were for a moment without any light to see what we were doing. We didn’t panic (well maybe I did a little) and eventually we were reconnected. I definitely recommend having a small portable flashlight for moments like this and as back-up when the headlamp starts to dim. One other note about charging things. I was able to charge my watch with it still on. I had the portable charging stick in my shorts pocket and it charges in about 90 minutes. It was fine, but between the amount of time taken to get it connected and it being slightly awkward to run with, next time I may use two watches instead to avoid having to mess with the charging stick, etc.
So I think I came into Overlook 2 about 1 hour after I’d hoped. I think part of that was due to too much time trying to change clothes, the snafu with the headlamps, and too much time needing to re-stock at the drop-bag aid station.
So I came in, sat down, and took off the shoes, knowing I wanted to change socks; sure enough the blisters were at a state where they needed to be popped; interestingly enough I had no takers. I couldn’t understand why no one would want to touch my dirty 75 mile blistered feet? Even Joe avoided the job by running to the aid station to get hot water - My friend Mary’s sister, Caroline, (who I’ve met on several occasions - so she wasn’t a complete stranger) was their crewing and came to my rescue, popping my blisters. So lesson learned, I need to practice popping my own blisters and/or have a pre-designated blister popper on my crew. Again, the hot water was not hot enough and the Mac and Cheese was a complete fail, so again, lessen learned - more portable, easy real food next time around.
Leslie, my next pacer was there and ready to go; I knew what was ahead as we were returning on the 25 miles I’d already traveled in the opposite direction. We had the 3 mile descent, 2 or 3 miles of more technical trail and then a few easy miles in. I felt like I was cruising at a 12 minute mile on that first descent - no such luck - I think I might have managed 16 minute miles. This is when my fueling strategy was going sideways and any time I tried to eat something I was on the edge of the trail. Each of my pacers had different strategies; Leslie’s was to get far enough in front of me to call out rocks, roots, and to chat our way through the 9 miles, far enough ahead that I could hear, but that I wouldn’t feel obligated to respond.
Leslie asked me at mile 80 what it is I think about out there and at that point in the race; I just couldn’t get the energy together at the time to answer, so I’ll answer now. The dialogue in my head might go something like this…
“I just need to get to mile 75; once I’m at 75 I know I’ve got this. Then it’s just 9 with Leslie and 16 with Joe.”
“You are so selfish; this is selfish what you do; all the hours away from home training, putting yourself at risk - what if something happened?” (this was a dark point for me and when I was most likely needing calories; yes, my mind sometimes goes to these dark places; but this is where doubt and fear live and at the end of the day, I do not want to be driven by fear or live in doubt; I want to be strong in mind, body, and spirit, I want to be true to myself, and I want to be an example to my daughter.) Doing this IS being true to myself and I am always striving to keep it all in balance.
Going into the race, I said I would hypothetically free my mom from her Parkinson’s mind and body and we would fly together over those mountains, so I would repeat, “Tall and Light.” “You’re a fighter” “C’mon Mom, let’s do this together, fly with me; fight with me.”
“But I can’t go too fast, I need to stay upright; at this point it’s about getting to the finish line in one piece.”
“But am I taking the chances I need to?”
I picture my hair colorist looking me in the eye and saying “You’re going to nail it.” And I picture all of the messages on Facebook.
And then I run for everyone who supported me. And I continue to ride the line between conservative and brave.
All of this mental back and forth is mixed with my mind quieting in the darkness, looking up at the stars for strength, and running peacefully, fully in-tune with all of my senses, feeling alive and not wanting for anything to be different.
Leslie and I roll into mile 84 (back at Rattlesnake Bar) and we are scanning for Joe and Julie. We weren’t faster than projected time, they should be there. Leslie has received a text that they got lost and are on the other side of the Lake. Leslie finds out where they are on a map and asks one of the aid station volunteers about ETA and he says 30 to 45 minutes. There is no way I’m waiting around for 30 to 45 minutes for them to arrive! I’m realizing that it’s a possibility I’m going to need to go finish this on my own.
I look Leslie in the eye and I say, “I really want to cry right now.”
And she responded perfectly, “I know you do.”
She validated how I was feeling and then asked what she could do.
I said, “You can help me figure out what I need to go out there on my own. I’m going to need to pack food and hydration from the aid station.”
I knew that I had the Meat Grinder in the next section and that it would be a long 11 miles back to Granite Beach.
Meanwhile Julie is breaking speed limits and laws to try and get to Rattlesnake Bar, as Joe is stuffing his face with “to-go” French Toast from Denny’s and spilling syrup all over Julie’s car. (Honestly, one of these race reports someday will need to be written from the crew’s perspective). Leslie is trying to stall me in hopes that they will roll in.
Just as I’m putting my last water bottle in my pak to head back out, we hear Julie calling my name.
I’m pretty darn irritated at this point; and of course (sorry Joe); it was all Joe’s fault. And in my dear husband’s fashion; instead of walking up and saying, “I know you’re irritated right now,” he says. “So, are you ready to dance?” as he does some sort of awkward middle-of-the-night trail dance.
While I rolled my eyes and maybe half smiled, it at least made the other crew members laugh, and I kept all negative words as an “inside voice.” And we were off.
For the next 9 miles Joe focused on making sure I stayed upright through the Meat Grinder and he was also successful in getting me to eat. He knew I was off a fueling strategy and that I would need to try something new.
From behind me I hear, “How about a candy bar; a little reverse trick-or-treating? I have candy in my bag and I’m handing it out,” he chuckles to himself, hoping I might find a little humor in this.
Initially I say, ‘no’ but I then realized that I have no other options outside of what wasn’t working for calories at that point and I might as well give it a try. “What kind?”
“Dark Chocolate Milk Way.”
“Ok, Let’s start with one bite.”
One bite went down without any adverse affects, so for the next few hours, one bite at a time I ate two Dark Chocolate Milky Way bars. Something that I would normally turn my nose up at saved my bacon. As Joe says, it was the worst best decision I made.
One benefit to having a pacer is also to help keep an eye on the trail markers; thankfully the orange markers had reflective strips and while the trail was well marked, we did take one wrong turn. At the time, I wasn’t paying attention at all and it was an intersection with more than one way to turn. But thankfully I don’t think we went more than 100 yards out of our way before realizing we were off trail.
One of my goals was to not hallucinate on this 100; while I did hallucinate to a degree, trees and bushes began to take on a 3-dimensional shape, I did not hallucinate any people this time around. As we neared the finish, which you can hear for miles by the way and seems like cruel and unusual punishment at the time, we started to run into people that were out cheering others in; and we were getting the message “just one more mile.” “you’re almost there,” I had enough wits about me that I knew that it wasn’t true - that there was at least 2 more miles. Seriously, why do people still do this?
There are so many things that could have gone more wrong, I could have immersed my entire body in the creek, Jeanette’s headlamp could have been permanently broken, Joe and Julie could have not made it to Rattlesnake Bar in time, I could have been stopped in my tracks by the mountain lion, I could have gotten lost and gone more than 100 yards out of my way. So at the end of the day I’m just stoked to have crossed the finish line, being the best that I could be that day.
I love this sport, I love the people it brings into my life and the deepening of connections of those around me. Julie, Joe, Jeannette, and Leslie, you were all such an integral part in successfully getting me from the start line to finish line. I’m so very grateful for the time and energy you gave to the adventure. I have another experience to add to the toolbox and I have time to keep getting stronger, and to keep learning and growing as an ultra-runner and all of the other hats I put on throughout a week.
What now? Recovery! What is that going to look like? Lower mileage and mixing in yoga and swimming and practicing patience as I wait for December 3rd (The Western States Lottery Draw) to reveal my 2017 goals.