Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Western States 2019

Summitting Squaw. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Sometimes I look back on the things I loved in childhood, where my favorite novels were wilderness survival stories and my favorite TV show was High Mountain Rangers (That link will take you to a fuzzy version of a particular HMR episode about a woman in the overall lead of a 100 mile trail race across the Sierra.), and it seems like I must have just sprinted out of the womb with a desire for adventure, wilderness, and endurance sports. I don’t know how a girl becomes such a thing at a young age, but when I first heard about the Western States 100 as a kid, I knew I wanted to run it one day.

My first actual encounter with the race was to volunteer at one of the Memorial Day Weekend training runs in 2004. I’d never run an ultra before, but I was supremely ultra-curious. I’d lived in Truckee, very close to the race course, for a few years, and I needed to see this thing with my own eyes. I would be working the Michigan Bluff aid station, but I and the other volunteers had arrived much earlier than necessary. So Shannon Weil brought us all back to her place to hang out for a while. 

I had absolutely no idea who Shannon was at the time, but I felt so welcomed into the Western States community by her. When I saw the Wendell Robie Cup sitting in her living room, with Ann Trason’s name engraved 14 times, my eyes about popped out of my head. We drank cold sodas and lemonade on her porch while Shannon shared stories from past races and from recent training days when she had hosted Scott Jurek. This was back in Scott Jurek’s heyday, and I was honestly like, “Umm, you know Scott Jurek? He stayed at your house? You are the coolest person I’ve ever met. Tell me everything!” I just sat there soaking it all up. I could not possibly have gotten a better introduction to the world of Western States! 

Fourteen years later, and I was a 5-year loser in the lottery for Western States. (It had taken me 5 years to get in the first time, but I never actually won the lottery - I just got shuffled in under the now defunct Two-Time-Loser rule to run the race in 2011.) I am typically very matter-of-fact about the Western States Lottery. Don’t expect to get in, and you won’t be disappointed! But 2018 was different. This was my 6th year in a row, I had 32 tickets in the hat, and I was sitting in Sean Flanagan’s lucky seat. (I am sworn to secrecy about exactly which seat this is, so don’t even ask.) So when Shannon Weil stepped onto the stage to pick the next 20 entrants, I had a good feeling. I’m totally in to the whole symbolism of these things, and I felt it would be rather poetic if Shannon pulled my name.

And then she did.

With Sean and Jenelle, at the lottery.

Coming full circle, my growth as a runner, developing my own roots in this historic community. These turn out to be the themes of Western States 2019 for me. For most of my running career, I have always been about faster or farther. I am unashamed of my competitive nature. But this year would bring me no improvement on either of those fronts, and I am happy to discover I’m finding joy in my running and racing in spite of that.

Western States is an incredibly special race for everyone, and I am no different. Just winning an entry makes you feel like the whole universe loves you, even if it denied you on 9 of 10 previous occasions (which it did). One result of the excitement that surrounds the race is that I immediately had the support of my best running friends for crewing and pacing.

Jenelle. In addition to running hundreds of training miles together, we had attended the lottery together for the last two years where she won in ‘17, and I won in ‘18. There’s something awesome about sharing that moment with someone who completely understands the significance. She has run the race twice herself, in addition to crew and volunteer duties on other years, so I knew she was the perfect person to have as my crew chief. I would trust Jenelle with my life. (Plus, as you’ll notice in this race report, she’s an incredible photographer.)

Jamie. This woman has finished Western States six times, including one top-ten finish, and she is the one who originally showed me the ropes by taking me on countless training runs on the course. If there was anyone I wanted coaching me through this race, it was Jamie. I asked her to pace me, but after a significant injury prevented her from running all spring, she teamed up with Jenelle to help crew.

Donald. Over the years, we’ve shared a connection through races, writing, adventure runs, and epic pacing gigs. Donald has been my pacer at both my fastest 100 mile race and my slowest, and he keeps me entertained with dad jokes, Harry Potter trivia, and showing off his knowledge of Hamilton lyrics. He’s the perfect mix of low key, knowledgeable, entertaining, and supportive.

My training went about as well as could be expected, given our epic winter and my inability to leave work at a reasonable hour most days. Luckily, Truckee, Tahoe City, and Squaw Valley plow their bike paths, and I spent most of my mid-week runs on these trails. I blew through two pairs of YakTrax, and I discovered that when the weather is so bad that driving anywhere is simply not an option, I can actually run a whole lot of laps on the 1.5 mile loop in my neighborhood. I had a nice, progressive race schedule (WTC 50K, Sonoma 50, and Miwok 100K), and Jenelle and I went down the hill most weekends to train on the course.

Running stormy laps in the 'hood.

Finishing a long run in the rain in Auburn with Jenelle.

Nonetheless, I knew I was not in the same kind of shape I had been in back in 2011. I was not expecting a PR for the race, but I thought sub-24 was probably possible. Everyone likes to tell me how 2011 was a really fast year. Yeah, okay. They are probably right (jerks). But you know what else was faster in 2011? Me. So my finish time goal was simply “finish as fast as I can.”

They say everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame in this life, but when you run Western States, you are a rockstar all damn day. And night. Being relatively local, and having spent the last 16 years meeting other ultrarunners in the community certainly helps in that regard. This was one of the many differences from my race in 2011. I believe there was only one aid station the entire race where I didn’t personally know the volunteers. Even if you don’t know anyone, the volunteers at States are THE BEST and will treat you like a queen, but nothing keeps a girl going like being greeted with smiles and hugs from friends every few miles.

Mugshot at check-in.
Ready to rock on race morning.

I wore my now famous “I Love Butter” hat. I’ve yet to have any ultrarunners recognize as band merch from the band Hot buttered Rum, but I love wearing it to races because I always get a ton of smiles and positive comments on it.  Well, the fans at Western States blew my mind with their awesome love for my hat. And for butter.

Summiting that first climb at Squaw Valley might be the pinnacle of those rockstar moments. It’s hard to believe the number of people who make the four mile hike up at 4:00 in the morning to watch runners crest the mountain at the same moment the sun peeks above the horizon. I’d been chatting with Kelly Barber and Curt Casazza on the climb, but when I reached the summit, all at once I felt both completely alone and surrounded by a raucous crowd. 

Celebrating the rockstar life at the top of the Escarpment. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

The beauty of the sunrise and the cheering crowd filled me with energy. I saw so many people I knew and heard so many people cheer my name that I can’t recall all of them. Jenelle, who had also given me a ride to the start, was there, along with countless running friends, coworkers, and even parents of students. Like getting my name pulled in the lottery, it was an outpouring of love and support that I’m not sure I earned, but I soaked it up and smiled all the same. I knew I needed to carry their energy with me, fuel to get to the finish line.

I enjoyed the high country, even though it was snowy and slow. It’s the one part of the course I had never seen. The weather blessed us with cool, overcast skies, and I kept my long sleeves and gloves on almost until Duncan. Although it was well-marked, the intermittent snow made the course a challenge to follow. I practiced some team route-finding with the runners near me as we picked our way across snow fields, creeks, and downed trees. Looking at my splits, it’s clear that I lost a lot of time between the Escarpment and Red Star at mile 16, which is where most of the snow ended. Alas, those would not turn out to be the slowest miles of the run for me. 

The high country.

Getting the full treatment from the amazing volunteers at Duncan.

The climb up to Robinson at mile 30 might have been my favorite part of the day. The bird song rang through the trees and the perfume of wildflowers floated on the wind. I made some of the climb with Tom Wroblewski, and it was during these miles I met Cris Francisco. Cris and I ran together all the way to Last Chance before parting ways. These auspicious meetings and making of new friends are some of the greatest joys of racing.

The climb to Robinson.

Jamie’s daughter, Clara, ran me through the aid station at Robinson. When I first started running with Jamie, Clara was just a little kid, so it was pretty awesome to see this young woman now a full-fledged, capable part of the team. 

Clara guides me through Robinson. We both have our game faces on! (Photo: Jamie Frink)

Jamie was there with food and supplies, which I shoveled down so fast that I didn’t realize I had eaten too much until it was too late. I trotted out of the aid station feeling weighed down and bloated, grateful that I was in for a long stretch of mellow downhill.

I blew through the next two aid stations without eating anything while my body worked on digesting the Robinson Flat Buffet. I cruised the downhill with Cris while we traded stories of some interesting training runs we’d each had in the spring. He asked me about what was coming up in the course, and I took pleasure in sharing my knowledge. From that point to the finish line, I’d done countless training runs on the course, so I knew those miles intimately.

Once we hit Last Chance, I was home. The Canyons. My favorite. I felt amazing through this section. Like I was flying. Like sub-24 was definitely going to happen, and maybe even faster. Thus, when I make the comparison to my 2011 splits, it is hilarious because it turns out I was most definitely not flying. I passed a lot of people and did fine, but I was significantly slower than this same section of the course eight years ago. Regardless, I had a blast in the canyons. 

Jamie and Clara found me again at Michigan Bluff, and before I knew it, I was at Foresthill (mile 62) with the whole gang. Donald ran me from Bath road into the aid station where John Trent was on the microphone showering me with accolades. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I do recall that at one point I turned and blew kisses at him. My advice for this race? Have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously, even if you are serious about the race itself. (Also, did I mention you’re a total rockstar as a Western States runner?)

Heading into Foresthill (mile 62). (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Jamie, Clara, and Jenelle. "Team Gretchen!" (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Kaycee Green escorted me through the aid station where the rest of the Strider family had everything ticking like a well-oiled machine. It was a blur of smiles and hugs and tutus, until I departed with Donald to find my crew. Now I had Jamie, Clara, Jenelle, Donald, and Sean Flanagan at my service. This race is seriously a 100 mile party, and I love it.

My stomach had turned a little sour, but I dutifully ignored it. My super power during 100-milers is my ability to eat. I once ate a hot dog and a cup of chili at mile 60 of a 100 and never had a problem. So I shoved a few things down my throat and a few more in my pockets, and Donald and I ran the gauntlet of the cheering throngs on our way out of town.

Heading out of Foresthill with Donald. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

My legs felt great, and the 16 miles to the river have a lot of nice, runnable downhill. I kept a decent pace all the way into Cal 2 as darkness set in, and I was pleased to see that I was still on-track for a sub-24 finish. What didn’t please me was the deteriorating state of my stomach. 

“Gretchen’s in the house!” Mike Holmes announced upon my arrival at the aid station. After giving me a much needed hug, he gave essentially the same commentary that John had in Foresthill, but Mike doesn’t need a microphone to hold the attention of the crowd. Another chunk of the Strider family was holding down operations at this aid station, and I was joyous at seeing JoAnn, Andy, Marisa, and the crew.

“What do you need?” JoAnn inquired as I looked over the smorgasboard with distaste.

“My stomach does not want food,” I said, making a face and finally beginning to feel concerned. Sure, it was mile 70, and these things were bound to happen. But 30 miles is way too far to run with no calories. 

“Ignore it and eat something anyway,” JoAnn offered, which, frankly, is the same advice I would have given in her place. I popped a few peanut butter banana bites in my mouth and didn’t linger.

“Donald, I’m leaving!” I called over my shoulder as I shuffled down the trail. I knew he would catch up whenever he was ready.

Looking back, I think of Cal 2 as the beginning of the end of sub-24 dreams. The trail to the river crossing continues to be fairly mellow, and as the miles ticked by, my nausea ticked up. It felt like I slowed to a crawl - the only thing that seemed to keep it from getting worse. Voicing my status to Donald just made me feel depressed about it, so I tried my best not to whine. Mentally though, I knew I was entering a dark place that was brand new to me.

I was anxious to arrive at Rucky Chucky because I was in serious need of a bathroom. I had one final hope that emptying my bowels would alleviate all the problems, and I could also tell that I had started my period. I’d known this was imminent, so I was prepared, but it did seem like a less than auspicious moment for it. 

It must have been near midnight, and I felt immense gratitude at seeing Jenelle waiting for me at the aid station. She led me through the maze of crews waiting for their runners to the bathrooms. I nearly cried when I saw they were all occupied. Then someone else’s pacer guided me to a hidden, unoccupied bathroom, and I nearly cried again because runners are so awesome. Seriously, I clearly had my own guardian angel showing me an unoccupied bathroom in that moment.

I dealt with my various needs, and made vigorous use of the handwashing station before Jenelle led me back toward our stuff. I took only a few steps before pausing.

“Ooh, I don’t feel good,” I moaned, giving Jenelle a panicked look.

“Here, sit down,” she said, guiding me toward a chair.

“Is this your chair?” I asked her.

“No, but it’s okay.”

I just gave her a wide-eyed look and giggled. With no energy to argue, I plopped down into the anonymous chair.

“Do you want to try eating something?”

“I don’t know,” I whined. I seriously was at a loss. Typically, I can tell my crew and pacer what to do and what I need, but at that moment, I felt like a lost little kid. Take care of me! I wanted to cry. Fix it! Whaaaa!

Jenelle handed me a sea salt & vinegar kettle chip, which is one of this world’s greatest pleasures. I took a tiny mouse-nibble and waited to see what would happen. Immediately I knew it would be nothing good. 

I looked at Jenelle in alarm. “I think I’m going to be sick.” My eyes darted fearfully around, taking in the fact that there were people and their belongings everywhere. Where should I go? I didn’t think I would be able to stumble away from the aid station in time. “I don’t want to puke on this person’s chair,” I squeaked.

“It’s fine. It’s okay,” Jenelle assured me, and then she quickly and quietly alerted the people nearby that I was going to be sick. They grabbed their stuff and fled like I had the plague, which was fine by me. Then, I tossed my cookies. 

Gross, and not super fun, but it was over with quickly. I felt pathetic, near tears, but when I looked up to see Jenelle snapping photos, I couldn’t help but giggle.

“Yay! Western States!” she said with a tentative laugh.

I knew exactly what she meant. Like, don’t forget to enjoy this. But also, you worked so hard for this race, have been anticipating it for years, and puking is totally not unusual, isn’t ultrarunning a great sport, lol? As well as, you know it could be worse, so don’t complain. But mostly she just meant, isn’t this thing we do beautifully ridiculous?

“Yay! Western States!” I celebrated, returning the laugh. I mean, you have to laugh. You know?

Immediately post-puke. The low point of the race, for sure. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

"WTF, Jenelle, are you taking photos??" (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Double thumbs up. "Yay! Western Sates!" (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

I spent what felt like forever at Rucky Chucky, but who knows how long it was, really. All my concerns about time were left in the dirt along with the contents of my stomach.

I felt quite good by the time we walked the steps down to the river crossing. Weak, but no longer nauseous for the moment. I was so pleased about this that I was completely giddy and ridiculous, saying all kinds of silly things to the lineup of volunteers who were there to outfit us with life jackets and get us safely loaded into the boat. 

If you ever want to witness a precision operation by a fleet of well-trained volunteers, you should check out how they do the river crossing at Rucky Chucky sometime. They have volunteers guiding you down the steps, putting your life jacket on you, snapping the buckles, guiding you into the boat, and unhooking the boat from the anchor. Then, a master oars-person ferries you swiftly to the other side where another volunteer quickly hooks the boat to the anchor, and still more volunteers guide you out of the boat and take off your life jacket. It’s probably faster than doing the river ford.

I bounced happily on my seat as we flew across the water. “Look! We are just sitting here and we’re moving down the trail! This is the best part of the race so far. Do you think you could just head downstream and row us all the way to No Hands Bridge? Please?” Like I said, I was kind of giddy.

On the raft. Totally delerious. (Photo: Donald Buraglio)

The remaining 20 or so miles of the race were simply an exercise in moving forward as well as I could and staying positive. The only real calories I took in came in the form of whatever electrolyte drink they were serving, and they only way to keep the nausea from totally taking over was to keep my effort level low. 

“You mean you’ve never puked in a race before?” Donald was amazed. (After our Western States cheer, I’d also cheered to Jenelle, “My first puke in an ultra! Yay!”)

“No. Never.” I assured him.

“Wow, I get sick in pretty much every 100,” he said.

“God, then why do you keep doing them?” I absolutely could not imagine doing this again if I thought I would get sick. I guess we just fool ourselves that way. As Mark Twight famously said, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun!

Donald kept me entertained on the trail, and Jenelle showed up at Pointed Rocks with papaya enzymes for my stomach. The enzymes helped a bit and tasted pretty good, too. 

Sunrise at Pointed Rocks aid station. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Jenelle and Sean were both there to run me in the last mile from Robie Point. It’s pretty awesome to have your own cheering section following you in. 

Stoked to be arriving at Robie Point. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

One mile to go! (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Crossing The White Bridge with Donald and Sean. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Just past the white bridge, a woman walking toward us cried out, “There’s butter at the finish line!” I gave her a genuine smile. I’d gotten cheers like that all day. I told you that hat was a brilliant idea.

I was happy to duck across the line in just under 27 hours, and happy to be done.

Kaycee not only led me through Foresthill, but she was there at the finishline, too! You can't tell from this photo, but she was still wearing her tutu. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Full Circle.  (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Western States 2019 wasn’t my best race or my fastest race, but it was also far from my hardest race. I picture it in my mind as this experience with a multitude of branches, roots, and curling vines, reaching out to other days and people in my life, connecting me to the many moments that came together to form the adventure of Western States. The friends who were out on the course volunteering, the friends who crewed and paced for me, the friends I trained with, the people at the lottery with me (and the ones who went through years of losing the lottery with me), the family who supported my training, the other runners who inspired me, the non-running friends who were excited for me, the new running friends I met on course. The days of running in the dark, on the ice with my YakTrax, on snowmobile trails, in dumping snow, driving hours to the trailhead for weekend long runs. Those branches reach all the way back to that afternoon sipping lemonade on Shannons porch listening to stories, all the way back to that ridiculous episode of High Mountain Rangers, all the way to a high school girl in Southern California dreaming about a trail race through the Sierra Nevada. It’s a race that permeates an entire year of your life, and for many of us, an entire lifetime of running. A lifetime of following passions and developing a community that surrounds it. This year, I found the love from that community to be the greatest reward I can imagine.

With my pacer on the best day of the year: at the track in Auburn, CA on the last Sunday morning in June. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Sean and I cannot contain our excitement waiting for the awards ceremony to begin. (Photo: Helen Pelster)

They say you're not a true Western States runner until you have BOTH colors of buckles. Okay, I might have made that up, but I love my shiny new bronze buckle as much as I love butter! (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

With a Little Help from my Friends (A TRT 100 Preview)

“I cheer so loudly for my friends who are racing that another spectator asks if I’m for hire, but you can’t put a price on that shit.”  -Julia Millon at Western States, 2017

On June 23rd of this year, while most of my running community from far and wide was gathered in my home town for Western States (a.k.a. “Statesmas” a.k.a. “The Big Dance”), I headed to a track in Claremont, CA. An entirely different slice of my running community - teammates and alumni of my college track team (Claremont-Mudd-Scripps) - were gathered at the track, not for a competition, but for a celebration. It was Coach Goldhammer’s 65th birthday.

I’ve talked often about how running connects me with other people, and Coach was the first one to teach me the importance of the running community. It was apparent in the crowd of athletes who showed up for the celebration, as well as in the many words of kindness and love we all had for Coach. So even though it was a bit painful turning down the opportunity to pace Jenelle at States and seeing so many friends go for their dreams that weekend, I knew I wanted to see Coach and reconnect with the track & field kids.

I’m ruminating on these things, I suppose, in that quiet search for the reason why I run. I mean, there are always a lot of reasons to run. But seriously, what’s the reason? Because it’s not to get faster; that clearly isn’t happening at the moment. And it’s not to “push my limits just to see how far I can take them,” which I used to claim as the reason. I’m just not doing a lot of pushing these days. Running can feel so utterly and completely unimportant. 

But something keeps pulling me out there, even if less often and at a slower pace.

The idea of community keeps rising up as the reason, which I wrote a bit about last summer. I don’t know that it’s entirely the answer either, but my running friends and the broader running community have lately felt more important than ever.

Devil's Oven Aid Station crew hauling supplies back down the trail, Castle Peak 100K 2017. It takes a village. (Naomi, Kysenya, Steve, Me.)


Twenty days before Coach’s birthday bash, I was in the middle of my last high-mileage training block for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. Given that my spring training had more holes in it that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, I knew it was a critical three weeks of training before I would begin my taper.

After experiencing a calf strain earlier in the week, I had taken a few days off, and was setting out on a solo 30 mile run from the house which would take me out the Donner Lake Rim Trail and along the PCT before looping home through Coldstream Canyon. About 20 yards down the trail, something snapped in my calf and I collapsed to the ground in pain. I knew it wouldn’t bear weight, and as I sat in the dirt, tears streaming down my face from both pain and fear, I saw my entire future as a runner laid out before me.

Clearly TRT 100 in six weeks was off the table - the injury was too serious. Failing to finish (or even start) both TRT and Miwok, meant I would be without a Western States qualifier this year, and my 5-year-lottery-loser ticket count would return to zero. I would probably be 55 or 60-years-old by the time I got in to the race, and fuck it, I don’t even really want to run States that much anyway. In fact, why even bother with running? There are so many other things I could be doing with my time. I’m totally over it. I hate running. I quit.

Just like that.

Here is the text exchange with Jamie and Jenelle the following morning:
This is what you call support from friends. Friends who have been there!

I didn’t even have to send a real cry for help, and my friends filled me back up full of hope. Okay, fine, maybe I won’t quit running just yet. Jenelle gave me a recommendation for a sports medicine doctor and told me about the anti-gravity treadmill at Truckee Physical Therapy that is open to the public. My friend Ann Marie squeezed me in for some massages. I went to physical therapy twice a week for three weeks, and I dusted my road bike off and went for some long rides. My calf has been black-and-blue for a month from all the soft tissue work.

In short: I didn’t run at all, but I didn’t quit running.


On May 29th, a week before the injury, I had two missed calls from Jenelle and a text message that said “Please call me when you have a minute.” I knew it must mean bad news, and I called her immediately. It wasn’t actually bad; it was horrible. I am grateful Jenelle didn’t bother with any pretense at cushioning a blow that could not possibly be cushioned before bursting through her tears, “Julia’s dead!”

We spent the next half-hour crying on the phone together trying to understand what happened to our friend and why, me slumped on the floor in the mudroom and Jenelle on a nighttime run through the woods because sometimes that is the only real option for handling overwhelming pain and grief.

This idea that we will never run with Julia again - never hear her laugh or make a snarky remark, never have her come up behind us on the downhill, hear the increasing volume of her footfalls beat a joyful tattoo on the dirt until she flies past us - it is painful and slow to digest. And that is nothing compared to the knowledge that she won’t get to run with anyone. Ever again. No running, no laughing or crying. No sharing anything. The reality of being 27-years-old and full of life one day, and then suddenly not. Not existing at all. It just feels so fucking unfair.

Julia, our medical officer, putting a runner's hip back into place at the Devil's Oven aid station during the 2017 Castle Peak 100K. I took this picture because I was so impressed with her ability to take charge of this person's pain, decide what needed to be done, and just do it. At 26-years-old, she projected skill and confidence that I struggle to find in myself at 44.

The Tahoe Rim Trail 100 is now three days away. In spite of a complete lack of serious training, I’ll be toeing the line. I keep trying to remind myself that I finished Hardrock after five weeks of barely running, so finishing this is definitely possible. The big difference though is that I had been in the best shape of my life just before that five weeks of illness in 2012. This time? Not so much. Not even close.

I’m trying to approach it as an adventure rather than a race. Finishing is a huge question mark, and time is not a factor. Except, of course, those cutoff times. Dr. Andy, who will be at Tunnel Creek all weekend, likened my attempt to the Dread Pirate Roberts, who, after being “mostly dead all day,” still managed to storm the castle successfully. I have no doubt that there will be plenty of “mostly dead” in my story, but I will accept whatever ending plays out, fairy tale or otherwise.

My sister is coming out to crew, and her presence at my hundred-mile races is starting to become mandatory. I’ve got a pacer who has promised to go the entire second half of the race with me, no matter how slow it is nor how poor my company. I’ve been trying to brace them both for the reality that this will be slower and with greater potential for problems than usual, but I think they get it. Because that’s just how this sport can be, and that’s how good friends are.

With my sister, Laura, before the start of the 2015 Superior 100.

The excitement I have about seeing friends out on the course is almost silly to explain. For a number of years, I’ve worked the night shift at the Tunnel Creek aid station, sometimes after running the 50M or 55K race during the day. It’s a great crew, and now I have a sense of relief knowing I will see them all out there, hopefully the full six times that 100 mile runners travel through TC.

A sampling of replies on my Facebook post stating that I would be running Saturday, but with very little training. All these comments are from Tunnel Creek volunteers.

This being essentially my hometown 100, I know I’ll see friends all over the course, not just at Tunnel Creek. I know that no matter how awful I look or how slow I’m moving, they will tell me I’m a rockstar. And I will totally, absolutely believe them. Ultrarunners are great at lying to each other, and to ourselves, if that’s what it takes to make it happen.


Last summer I paced my friend Donald for nearly 15 hours through the final 30 miles of the Hardrock 100. That may sound like a painfully slow walk, but from my perspective, it was awesome. For one, the mountains were incredible. And when you have told someone nearly a hundred times “yes, we are still on the course,” and “yes, I’m sure”; when you have sat in the dirt with them while they puked all over the wildflowers; when you have heard them wax poetic on the wonders of having an out-of-body experience at 2:00 AM on the trail (also known as sleepwalking, I’m thinking), you know that the whole thing really is just one grand and glorious adventure.

Chasing Donald through the wildflowers on Oscar's Pass during Hardrock.

Incidentally, Donald will be returning the favor by pacing me this weekend. While I hope not to be puking on the wildflowers, or on anything else for that matter, I will be delighted if I am upright, moving, and ahead of the cutoffs for the last 30 miles. Here is our text exchange from last week:

So either he does kind of know me, or he knows this is just how ultrarunning is. Probably both.


There is little left to do now but pack my drop bags and check the race-day forecast 20 or 30 more times. Jamie texted this morning with the news that she signed up for Javelina, and Jenelle and I both replied within a minute that we wanted to come. I’m already planning our theme costumes for the event. Maybe my sister will want to come out and help crew.

Ultimately I know that whether I finish TRT or not, if I never get into Western States, if I quit running and come back to it a hundred more times in my life, it is all precious. Trail running, like life, requires embracing the fear, the joy, the struggles, the teamwork. The feelings of failure and the feelings of triumph. The devastation and loss.

It makes sense, then, that we make some of our strongest connections with the people with whom we share these experiences. Without these friends and this community, I wouldn’t even be showing up on Saturday, and you sure as hell can’t put a price on that.

This is Julia crossing Volcano Creek on March 31, the last day Jenelle and I ever saw her. I love this photo because even though it is missing the broad Julia smile, she looks strong and determined. Those two words sum up a big piece of who she was and who we can all aspire to be. 

"Because when you keep showing up, at some point you'll see something you never considered to be possible. And you automatically beat anyone who didn't show up, including the version of yourself who could have tapped out."  - Julia Millon

Sunday, May 06, 2018

The Miwok Live Wire Fun Run

The last few years of my ultrarunning “career” have seen slowing times and fewer races on my schedule. I could chalk this diminishing display up to age and let that take the full burden of excuse. However, not only are ultrarunners themselves evidence that being 44 doesn’t necessarily mean you get slower, I also know that if age plays any role at all, it’s a minor one. The truth is that I just haven’t been as motivated to train in the last couple of years.

So it does not surprise me that, while I was not terribly excited about running a 100k race, I do have a lot to say about the joys I found at Marin’s Miwok trail race this Saturday. Spoiler alert: They do not include running 100K.

I had spent the week leading up to race day on a field trip to Washington D.C. with 22 middle school students. (This is where people generally interrupt me to say, “God bless you!”) Our schedule was packed, and I arrived home at 2:00 AM Friday morning exhausted and with the beginnings of a cold. When I awoke nine hours later, my head felt like the size of a hot air balloon and I had a raging headache. I gamely packed up my running gear and drove to Pt. Reyes to crash with my friends Heidi and Kerry before the race.

When the alarm went off at 3:15, I was kind of dreading my day. I loaded up on cold medicine and coffee though, and by the time I was in the car heading south on highway one, I felt pretty reasonable. Maybe the day would not turn out to be an unending sufferfest after all?

Just two miles out from Stinson Beach and the start of the race, I learned that my day would indeed not turn out as expected.

The sight of several cars pulled over and flares burning across the road greeted me. I wondered if this was overflow parking for the race, and I pulled over into the first available space. When I approached the flares, I could see that the road was blocked off.

Roadblock! If you look closely, you can actually see the downed line that zapped our day.

“What’s going on?” I asked a woman in a down jacket, who turned out to be Laura Richard. Laura and I both had Cool, Sonoma, and Miwok on our schedules, so we’d been seeing each other all spring.

“The road’s blocked off because of an accident,” she said.

There was a handful of other runners there trying to figure out what to do.  When the police said they didn’t know when the road would reopen because there was a downed power line across it, I ran back to my car and got onto my phone to try mapping an alternate route to the start. I knew going back through Olema and all the way to Mill Valley would mean missing the start of the race, but maybe there was another way?

“Hi! Can we jump in with you?” The woman knocking on my car window startled me. After explaining that she and her grandpa had been taking a Lyft ride from their campground to the start, I encouraged her to get in but to hurry! A small sense of panic was beginning to overtake me. I knew we would make the start, but I hated being late.

The woman’s name turned out to be Heidi, and she navigated while I drove. The first option was to take Fairfax-Bolinas Road - an unpleasantly windy affair - up to Ridgecrest Boulevard. I chewed up the one-lane roller coaster as fast as I could, vainly hoping Grandpa Dan wasn’t getting carsick in the back. When we spotted headlights coming back toward us, I had a sinking feeling. I pulled over and rolled down my window to get the news.

“There’s a gate at the top, and it’s locked.” It was Laura again.

“Shit!” came my reply. I’m not supper witty at four AM in a state of duress. “What are you guys going to do?”

“Go back down to the roadblock to see if it’s open yet,” she replied. “Going all the way around would take well over an hour.”

I agreed that there was no point to that. It was already nearing the 5:00 AM start time of the race. So, I turned my car around and followed her.

And that’s how, when the 2018 Miwok 100K runners took off into the dark of the morning, I found myself with ten or fifteen other runners standing at a roadblock on highway one. Trapped.

We tried hard to negotiate with the officer at the barricade. We could literally see the downed line right there, and we could see that anyone could easily drive, or even walk, around it.

“If you can get by on foot some way that is not on the highway, that’s fine by me,” he even told us. It was only a little over two miles to the start, and seriously, what the hell is the difference between running 62 miles and 64 miles, right? But I swear you have never seen such a tangle of blackberry brambles and swampland. We tried bushwacking. We tried fording the lagoon. We tried begging the officer a little more. As the sky brightened, our hopes faded, and we knew our race day dreams were dashed.

Laura finally got a phone call through to Tia, the race director, to at least let her know what had happened. After that, we quit trying to pretend that we could somehow negotiate a late start, and instead started making plans for our day.

Laura called her pacer, and they decided to run a double Dipsea. Several other men made plans for a trail run on the south end of the course. I hooked up with three other runners, including Heidi, and decided to start from the Randall aid station (which was just down the road, on OUR side of the barrier) and run to the start at Stinson and back. We hoped we could talk to Tia and see if there was anything she could do for us.

Four thwarted Miwok runners and two of their crew.

I’ll be totally honest. Given the fact that I was a little undertrained and definitely sick, I was not completely devastated about the turn of events. I will admit that I had really wanted to check the box on getting my States qualifier, but I knew I had TRT 100 in July where I could make that happen. Other runners were not so lucky. Also, of the four runners in my group, I had traveled the shortest distance to get there. And I had already run Miwok twice before! I knew I really had nothing to complain about.

So, no States qualifier on this Saturday in May. But what I did get was a wonderful 28 mile trail run with three new friends whom I will definitely be seeing again.

As we began the hike up Randall Trail to Bolinas Ridge, we traded names and the usual pleasantries of first time trail running. We learned Heidi, from San Clemente and mother of two young boys, is a “Disnerd” and has two prominent Disney tattoos - one of the hitchhiking ghost from Haunted Mansion, and the other of Dumbo. They were hard to see while running, but they were loud and proud on the front of her thighs, and I loved it. David, a doctor from Dallas (or sometimes Couer D’Alene), gave us a solid lesson on racing nutrition. This was of great interest to Bryant, from Bozeman, who had been planning on running his first 100K that day.

Making our way up Randall Trail

I felt heartbroken for them all. I mean, flying all the way in from Bozeman or Dallas? Missing your first 100K? Driving the entire family in an RV the full nine hours from Orange County? I recognized how much each of them had invested in this day - from training, to travel plans, to taking the time off from a bartending job on Cinco de Mayo. These are not small things. And there was not a bitter word among them. Disappointment, of course. But as we made frequent stops to “ooh and ah” at the landscape and take photos, I watched with appreciation as they still found incredible pleasure in their experiences. Damn if ultrarunners aren’t the most resilient people.

David, Heidi, and Bryant on the Bolinas Ridge.

Heidi and Bryant. Check out those awesome Disnerd tats!

Bryant enjoys the sunshine on the grassy hills of Bolinas Ridge.


David leads Heidi across the sunny ridge.

Enjoying the morning views.

This was NOT the wreck that blocked the road. (Photo: Bryant Schwartz)

After negotiating the steep beauty of the Matt Davis Trail, we arrived in Stinson to see the finish line already set up, and I took pleasure in running through hooting and hollering, arms overhead in triumph, as the volunteers clapped and cheered. I even had my “fake finish line photo” taken.

Tia graciously told us we would get free entries into next year’s race, and I think that gave us all great relief. Given that the roadblock was no one’s fault, least of all hers, I knew that was generous of her. The volunteers said we were officially known as the “Live Wire Runners” because of the downed power line thing. I kind of felt cool that we had our own nickname. We discussed screening “Live Wire Runners” onto the back of our race shirts.

I am incredibly grateful to be given another chance at this race, and excited that Bryant, Heidi, and David all said they would also return to run next year. Reunion!

My official fake finish line photo. First woman! (Actually, that's fake too. Heidi was first.)

The run back was entertaining because we got to run with a lot of the top men for a while. We spread out a bit, and Heidi sent a message that she was returning to Stinson to meet up with her husband. When we arrived at the Bolinas aid station (which hadn’t been there our first time through), they were confused about who we were until we told them we were Live Wire Runners.

“Oh! Live Wires!” the radio operator declared. “Oh yeah, come on into the aid station and get what you need.” Needless to say, the volunteers were incredibly nice. I even got a homemade lemon square that I’m pretty sure was part of the “volunteers only food.” Delicious!

More spring!

Bolinas aid station

The scene at the Randall aid station was much different this time around. It was absolutely hopping! As I approached, I first ran into Jenelle hiking up the trail. It was so great to see a friend, and I felt like I was getting cheering and support just as if I were actually running the race myself. At the aid station, I got hugs from Kacey Greene and Louis Secreto, and since this was the official end to my run, I had another finish line photo taken. Because why not.

My actual finish line photo from the Miwok Live Wire Fun Run (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)

I hung around Randall long enough to see friends Curt, Chris, and Kelly come through. My cold medicine was wearing off though, and my head was throbbing again. My down jacket also wasn’t quite enough to keep me from feeling the icy wind, and I decided to grab my race swag and head back to Pt. Reyes.

Kelly Barber kicking ass and handing out smiles.

I spent the rest of the afternoon in the beautiful sunshine of Tomales Bay drinking wine with good friends. Another bonus of running 28 miles instead of 62.

Coastal stroll with Heidi (Pt. Reyes Heidi, not runner Heidi).

Tully, living the dream on Tomales Bay.

As I said to Jenelle while we ran down Randall Trail together, it’s definitely a blow to the ego these days returning to races where I used to run fast. (10:43 at Miwok 2011 - Who the hell was that chick??) But I also think it’s kind of good for me. It forces me to recognize the other things I love about running and racing besides just being competitive and pushing my limits. I love being outside in the beauty of nature, and more than anything, I love, adore, absolutely cherish this community. From the support of friends like Kacey and Jenelle, to the opportunity to share the trail with three strangers-turned-friends with amazing attitudes, the trail running community never fails to rekindle my spirit.

Congratulations to all the runners - official and Live Wires alike. I am already looking forward to seeing everyone at Miwok 2019. Hopefully for 100K this time around, but I’ll take what I can get.