Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Pure Bliss in Zion National Park

There are rare occasions in life where the right people come together in the right place for an adventure that turns out to be more than just the sum of its parts. When the parts themselves are amazing—consider the stunning Zion National Park, a small group of talented and intrepid ultra-runners, and an unmatchable host—you’re destined for the kind of magic that makes for a truly unforgettable weekend.

When the Wilderness Running Company announced its intention to host “Pure Zion”—a weekend of trail running in Zion National Park—there were a million reasons why it made no sense for me to go: I was just starting a new job and couldn’t imagine requesting time off; With my husband in school and the two of us surviving on just my salary, I certainly couldn’t justify the expense; It fell just a week after a hard 50 mile road race, and my legs surely would not be ready for another weekend of 40+ miles; And, as it turns out, Zion is a somewhat tricky place to get to, making a weekend visit feel rather impractical. Nevertheless, I blew off all the voices of reason in my head, and went with the little devil on my shoulder that told me to go for it. Turns out, that devil must have been an angel.

I first began working with the Wilderness Running Company last spring, writing a few gear reviews and a trail report for them. I’ve already explained how it was clear to me just from their website that I was very much in line with the mindset and philosophy of these folks. So, needless to say, I was pretty excited to finally meet Stacy and Lisa Young, the dauntless husband and wife duo behind WRC, in person.

I invited all the cool runner chicks I could think of that lived nearby, and luckily two of them enthusiastically jumped on-board with the plan. I only knew both Jamie and Jenny from having run several of the same races in the past several years. They are both talented runners, and as it turns out, fun and easy-going women, making them the perfect adventuring partners for the weekend. All of the airport and car-rental headaches were eased as we spent time swapping stories and getting to know each other, while Jenny initiated the ongoing joke of the weekend by teasing Jamie about passing her with three miles to go at Western States this year. We hadn’t even left Reno yet when I already found myself reveling in the pleasures of just being around other ultra-runners.

Bryon and Meghan made the trek out from Yosemite to round out what felt like the perfect running group for the weekend. I first encountered Meghan when reading her race report from Marathon de Sables last spring. If you want a little insight into her utter coolness, check out this post (among others) on her blog. I met and spent a little time hanging with both Meghan and Bryon at Michigan Bluff during Western States this year, and was stoked that they were with us for the Zion experience.

Jamie and Jenny and I arrived in Springdale Friday afternoon after the flight from Reno to Las Vegas, followed by a three-hour drive. Springdale is situated on the Virgin River, right at the mouth of Zion Canyon. It’s a somewhat eclectic collection of tourist shops, art galleries, and quaint, older houses where fence-posts of gnarled cottonwood branches brace lengths of wire, enclosing a handful of cows or horses in each miniature pasture. Mature trees, alive with the colors of autumn, shade the sidewalks, while hand-painted signs advertise local wares like cactus jelly and bumbleberry jam. After checking into our hotel, we browsed the stunning photos at several of the local galleries, getting excited for the adventure ahead. We joined Stacy, Lisa, Bryon and Meghan for dinner that night.

All weekend we were treated like rock stars, and it began at dinner on Friday with sweet gear packages from the WRC warehouse. After meeting Stacy and Lisa in person, I was not at all surprised to discover that they were kind, fun and easy people to be with. Stacy laid us out on our route options for the following day’s run, which included potential distances from 7 to 30+ miles. In the end, we all decided to run the same rim-to-rim route of about 26 miles.

The following morning, with Stacy piloting the 15-passenger van, we fueled-up on caffeine at the local coffee house, picked up two local runners, Bob and Mary Jo, and headed to the West Rim trailhead. There was a slight chill in the early-morning air, but it looked to be a perfect day weather-wise, and we set off in shorts and t-shirts, hydration packs full to the hilt, for what would be 15 miles of mostly easy downhill to the canyon floor.

The trail starts out up near the west rim with several miles of fairly flat running, and a few views into the nearby canyons. We kept a pretty mellow pace and spent plenty of time stopping for pictures. This was all perfect in my mind, since my legs were still in complaint-mode after the previous weekend’s effort at Helen Klien.

I really wanted a tour-guide to point out the names of the surrounding peaks, cliffs, mesas and canyons, so I was disappointed, although not surprised, to learn that Stacy wouldn’t be running with us on this day. As it turned out, Bob and Mary Jo filled in nicely in this regard. Although I’m not sure they were initially planning on staying with our group through the run (I think they got the idea that we were fast or something. Ha!), we all ended up touring along together. We didn’t see another soul on this trail all morning. We looked out upon the vast landscape and felt that it was ours alone.

We ran, surrounded with views like this...

...through beautiful landscapes like this...

finding plenty of time for photos and goofing around...

Jamie, Bryon, Mary Jo and Bob enjoy beautiful and easy terrain.

Bryon and the ladies. From L to R: Me, Jamie, Bryon, Meghan, Jenny

Much of the trail was cut directly into the cliff face...

Eventually we came to the turn-off for Angel’s Landing, a half-mile journey that entails scrambling along a steep ridge-line trail, with abrupt drop-offs and unbelievable views. We’d been debating the pluses and minuses of making this short side-trip all morning, and in the end, a few waited at the trail junction, while the rest of us headed off toward the cliff. There were definitely some people on the trail now, but since this wasn’t exactly a runnable section anyway, the added traffic didn’t matter so much.

Meghan negotiates the trail to Angel's Landing

The view from the cliff edge was more than worth the journey, and we even witnessed a California Condor circling just below us.

After we rejoined the rest of the group, we headed down the section of trail known as Walter's Wiggles...

...21 short, but immensely fun switchbacks.

By this time, we had nearly completed the 15 miles to the canyon floor, where Stacy and Lisa awaited us with an incredible spread of picnic goodies. Craving anything in particular? They likely had it!

The dynamic duo behind WRC: Lisa and Stacy Young

We left the safety of fresh sandwiches and popsicles, along with Lisa, Stacy, Bob and Mary Jo, to reverse what we had just done by climbing up the opposite side of the canyon on the East Rim Trail.

Even on the short road section, running through the canyon was pure joy. The cottonwoods shaded us with gold, and steep orange walls parted, allowing us in to secret cracks in their expanse. We climbed upward, knowing we were fighting daylight, but still somehow supremely confident in the perfection of the day. We wouldn’t get caught out in the dark, not with the magic that was clearly present here.

Bryon's view for the day. (This, and all remaining photos courtesy of the awesome Bryon Powell.)

We continued climbing through narrow canyons...

still finding time for goofing and pictures...

and finally found our way to the east rim, and back into the junipers and pines...

By the last few miles we had spread out a bit, and I found myself bringing up the rear of our little group. We’d seen no one else for the last 5 or 6 miles, and it was surprisingly peaceful to find myself alone, on a sandy trail, somewhere in Utah. The sun sank low, casting long shadows and bathing the landscape in a burnished gold. My ears were alive with silence, and the soft shush-shush of my feet hitting the sand. My legs had been slowly tightening as I ran up the East Rim trail, and now they were crying out in protest, finally feeling every one of the post-race miles. But it didn’t matter; it just didn’t. I ran along, smiling stupidly to myself at the sheer beauty of being here and being alive.

I arrived at the trailhead to find Stacy waiting for us (with treats, of course). How could I possibly explain to him what an amazing day this had been? In the zeal of post-run ecstasy, we stuffed our faces and tried to tell each other about our favorite part of the day, and there were just too many. There was no favorite part for me because it seemed that each new section of trail brought something newly spectacular, yet uniquely different, than the previous. It was such a fantastic blur of awesome that my brain couldn’t sort through it. I was giddy. Totally giddy.

That night, Meghan, Bryon, Jamie, Jenny and I hit up a restaurant in Springdale for some fish tacos and a few pints of Polygamy Porter. I realized once again, how rarely in my life I spend time hanging out with other ultra-runners. It is such a wonderful thing, a soul-affirming thing, if that makes any sense. When you are with people in whom you see a bit of yourself reflected, you start to feel like you, yourself, might actually make some sense. Like maybe you’re not crazy, and maybe it’s everyone else. Like you kind of fit in.

Sunday morning we got a slightly earlier start so Jamie and Jenny and I would have time to shower after the run before checking out of our hotel. I walked stiffly out to the sidewalk to meet Stacy, with my legs in that post-ultra-race-tightness state. I knew they would hurt on the day’s 15-mile run, but I also knew it didn’t matter. They were strong enough to get me through the day, and the day was destined for more trail running greatness. I was all smiles as I climbed into the van and took what had become my standard shotgun seat next to Stacy.

After picking up Bryon and Meghan (and of course, coffee) we headed off to Kolob Canyon for an out and back down into the canyon and along La Verkin Creek. Even during the drive to the trailhead we kept letting out audible gasps, oohs and aahs at the scenery. It was such the pleasure of the entire weekend that we could declare beauty at every turn.

Stacy joined us for the day’s route, which began by heading down into the canyon for several miles along the spine of a small ridge. The surrounding walls of color provided constant distraction, but the precipitous drop-off on both sides of the trail meant I also had to keep an eye on my feet.

Soon we were at the bottom of the canyon, and picking our way alongside the river. The trail was as red as the canyon walls, and buttery leaves rained down gently from above, adding to the warm fall palette. Conversation seemed lighter than the previous day. I know I, for one, was simply trying to soak up every moment of my weekend, knowing that it was to be over soon. I kept craning my neck up at the scenery, and finally realized I needed to take off my visor because it was impeding my view.

We paused for a brief photo-op at our turn-around point, Kolob Arch, before heading back up the trail.

With Stacy, at Kolob Arch

Jamie, Jenny and I parted ways with the rest of the group back at our hotel. As we all exchanged hugs, I was less sad than I would have expected. I still felt imbued with appreciation for every minute of the weekend, and I was pretty confident that there would be future adventures with all of these friends.

I have to confess that this year, more than ever, I have learned the simple joys of being out for long days on trails with friends. While we were standing at the base of Kolob Arch, still chattering away about all things running, Meghan asked me what I think it was that made for such a successful season for me. How was I able to run so many races, so many personal bests, and continue racing for such a long season without burning out? At the time, I didn’t really have an answer. True, I trained harder that in previous ultra-running years, but it’s not that I didn’t already know how to do that. I just lacked the motivation for it. Now, I think I have the answer to Meghan’s question. As much as I love racing, and training hard, I think it was the adventures shared with other runners that sustained my enthusiasm throughout the season. And Zion turned out to be the absolute pinnacle in the range of this summer’s incredible runs.

I can't express enough gratitude to the Wilderness Running Company for dreaming up, and presenting, this event. What an opportunity! You can rest assured, when they disclose whatever their next adventure is, I'll be there.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Goodbye, Blue Tank-Top

It's a sad, sad day, friends. My blue, Nike tank-top is nowhere to be found. *sigh*

If you've ever seen me at a race, or even if you've ever read one of my race reports, you know exactly the blue tank-top of which I speak. More of a mainstay than the pigtails, this was an essential part of my...what is it that those elite athletes call their racing get-up? Their "kit"? Yeah, that's it. Along with my black, Patagonia Sage Burner Shorts, it was an essential part of my kit.

I have worn this top at every race of any significance for the past two years.

Here we are together at the top of Mt. Diablo:

And here we are at the halfway point of this year's TRT 50, shortly after a serious dirt-dive blessed it with a semi-permanent swath of dirt down the side:

I suffered through my one and only 100 mile race to date in this top for more than 28 hours.

You can even see me modeling it here, as the poster girl for the the Lake of the Sky Trail Runs.

I tried to dig it out for Helen Klein after a few weeks of colder weather kept it out of the usual wardrobe rotation. I looked again while packing for my trip to Zion. I'm finally facing the fact that it's left me for good.

This top was so comfortable, not unflattering, breathable, and best of all it never chaffed anywhere! Even though it's currently the season for tights and gloves rather than tank-tops, I'm having a hard time moving on from this relationship. We were just so right for each other.

But now, in case you were wondering, you know what you can get me for Christmas.

Anyone else have any favorite, well-loved running essentials about which they would care to wax nostalgic?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Donner Lake Turkey Trot

With Helen Klien being my last official race of the season, I am now officially in slacker-mode. Never mind that my last two weekends have included 42 miles of running in Zion, and another race. There are just too many fun things to do to stop running! But the off-season is all about having f-u-n, and typically for me, well, that involves running.

One lap around Donner Lake is my standard "go-to" training run. It's about 1.5 miles from my house, and 7 miles around, so it makes the perfect 10-mile run. When I'm nearing the end of a run and things hurt, I always try to bring my brain to a place that is comfortable and familiar. When I have 7 miles to go in a race, I tell myself, that's just one lap around the lake, and then I picture where I am every step of the way around. It turns a tough finish into something I have done a million times. So, when I get a chance to run an actual race on this course, I just can't pass it up!

Last year at the Donner Lake Turkey Trot, Cap and I won the "Canine and Human" category. This year, I decided to leave Cap at home. I felt kind of guilty, but I knew he wasn't ready to lay down the speed, and I wasn't in the mood to wait for him. (Sorry, Cap, but there are plenty of skiing adventures in our future!)

As soon as I arrived, I was greeted by Chris, and was delighted to discover that most of Team Library Dork was in attendance. Turi and Dave were busy registering, but unfortunately Amber had to stay home with her boys. I had time to say hello to a lot of other friends from the neighborhood before the start. The best thing about the DLTT is that it is a community event. I see a lot of local friends that I don't normally see at most of the races I run, and it's such a treat!

I lined up near the front, and took off with the speedsters. It was a chilly morning, and luckily they had us starting on the sunny side of the lake. Still, I was bundled-up in my tights, long-sleeves, jacket and gloves!

Running thought the park. How much do you love that green Salomon Whisper jacket? My new favorite!

I hung on the shoulder of the first place woman for a while and let her set the pace. It felt quick, but I was also eager to warm up my cold muscles, so I had no complaints. The road was flat, and we all trampled along the north side of Donner Lake.

Shortly before turning into Donner State Park, I spotted the 3 mile marker on the road. My watch had it clocked at 20:21. Hmm. Could that possibly be accurate? I decided there was no way I was running sub-7 minute pace, but friends with gps's later confirmed it was spot-on. Yikes!

As soon as we turned into the park though, conditions changed a bit. I passed the first place woman to take the lead, and we promptly hit some ice and snow. The long icy stretches were well sanded, so I was able to keep my speed up there for the most part. The snowy stretches required a bit more caution. Then we hit the hills.

This is where things got a little dicey, and the whole "6:48 pace" started to fall by the wayside.

I was having fun running fast, and just trying to hang onto my pace through the slow stuff. I finished in 49:51, and was pretty stoked to go under fifty minutes. My friend Nathan took the win for the men, just barely edging out Chris, and we got our pick from the raffle prizes. (He chose a thanksgiving turkey, and I chose a sweet Salomon backpack-a total score!)

People watching included hanging out with these little alpacas. Totally weird! It's probably a good thing I didn't bring Cap, since I can't imagine a more tempting scenario for a border collie.

We stood around in the sun and people-watched while raffle prizes were awarded. Afterward, Chris and Dave dragged us all off to the local brewery for some standard post-race beer tasting. (Seriously, they had to force us to go. I swear.) It was only then that I realized what true beer nerds these guys are. (And I say that with the utmost respect!) They ordered a taster set of the beers, and sat there plugging their notes on each selection into their iphones. (Okay, Chris was writing his by hand, but he's still a beer nerd.) I just ordered my standard, the Donner Party Porter, and let them have at it. But seriously folks, I have totally found my peeps.

Nathan and me, at the finish. They served this hot chocolate made by Clif that was specifically for post-race recovery. How awesome is that!

It was a beautiful day with friends! Now I swear I am going to focus on being lazy. At least, during the week. Weekends are still fair game, right?

If I can manage to wrap my brain around the sheer awesomeness of the experience, I have a post coming soon about my trip to Zion. It turned out to be one of those very rare, very special experiences that I'm not sure I can fully capture in words and photos. I do love a challenge though, so I'm going to give it my best shot. Stay tuned, friends.

And in the meantime, I'll be looking for more adventures. Any suggestions?

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

The 2009 Helen Klein 50M

Have you ever had one of those races where everything just falls into place? Where all the things that could possibly go right, do, and it feels like the entire universe is conspiring to create your perfect race? I have. And I was really hoping for one of those days at this year’s Helen Klein Ultra Classic. Unfortunately, it simply was not to be.

I’ll start with a reflection on my goals for the day. (Yes folks, make sure the coffee pot is full, and settle in. This will certainly be one of those long, classically-Gretchen-style race reports.) When I put this race on my schedule last spring, I had one thought in mind: Run a big 50 mile PR. I am definitely a trail runner, but I was interested in posting a fast time for the 50 mile distance. In order to do that I needed a fast course, which inevitably meant a road race. Having previously run 8:39 at Helen Klein, I knew it was a fast course and chose sub-8 as a goal.

And then I put up a respectable season of racing. Most of my races were merely training runs, but nonetheless, by the end of August I could tell that I was essentially in the best shape of my ultrarunning life. In stark contrast to last year, when I felt completely burned out after July’s TRT 100 and didn’t race again all year, this year I was still getting faster into the fall. I started to reassess my goals.

It seemed obvious that I could run 7:30 at Helen Klein, and possibly even faster. And let’s face it, if you’re going to talk about low 7’s, then that 7-hour barrier just starts to sound tantalizingly close. Should I even be considering something that huge? It felt completely audacious. Arrogant, even. Maybe this whole “winning thing” had started to go to my head? On the other hand, it was deliciously exciting. I blame the head-spinning high of winning the Lake Tahoe Marathon, but I decided to go for it.

Unfortunately, October didn’t go as it should have. I didn’t recover well from the marathon, and couldn’t shake a nagging illness for three weeks. I tried to get in some quality workouts, but they all felt awful. I went down to run 25 miles on the HK course one Saturday. My plan was to run about 8-minute pace. I could tell in the first three miles that it wasn’t going to happen. I started at 8:15, and slowed down from there, finishing with an average pace of 8:25. I would need to average 8:23 for a sub-7 at HK, and this workout had only covered half the distance. My confidence was definitely faltering.

The week before race day I fell into what I’ve come to realize is my typical pattern before an important race: I got nervous and stressed-out. In my head, I ran over all the things that had gone wrong with my training and all the reasons things might not go well. I considered completely giving up on my goals so I wouldn’t suffer that whole “tried-and-failed” fate. Maybe I could just run for fun? But by Friday, I realized this stress was all silly. It was just a race, right? I may as well just go for it and see what happens.

The Helen Klein course typically starts on a dirt levee, and continues for nearly 25 miles on a paved bike path along the American River, before turning around to repeat those miles. The finish is a gradual half-mile uphill on dirt to Cavitt Middle School. My plan was to try to average 8:15 pace for the first 15 miles, and then reassess. If, at any point during that 15 miles, I could see that it just wasn’t going to happen (as I could tell early on during that 25-mile workout) then I would back off and go more conservatively. But if I still felt good at mile 15, then I would try to continue my pace and see what happened.

I arrived at Cavitt Middle School just after 6 am on Saturday morning. I sent a drop-bag to the 12-mile aid station so that I would have somewhere to put my long-sleeved shirt when the day warmed up. I took care of all my pre-race duties, said a quick hello to my friend Jenny who had just taken third in the ultrarunner.net series. Before I knew it, Norm was compelling us all to sit and listen to the pre-race briefing.

Norm tells us how it's going to be, then requests a round of applause for Helen.

Among other things, we learned that the course had to be re-routed at the beginning due to some construction. This, he said, would make it a quarter-mile longer. Darn, I thought. Well, okay, I would just have to deal with that. I had actually given some thought to this possibility before race day, since this has happened before on this course. Personally, I think this is just one of those things to be accepted in the world of ultras. Sometimes courses are a little long or a little short. That’s life. I mean, does anyone ever complain about the extra 0.2 miles at Western States? (Sorry, but I hope not!)

Soon we were headed through the darkness on the quarter-mile walk to the start. Because of the re-route, the start would now take place on a narrow dirt trail. Norm was quite apologetic about this, but I just made sure to line up near the front.

It was at about this time that I realized that I hadn’t put on any sunscreen. Crap! Oh well, what’s a little sunburn in pursuit of a crazy-ass, ridiculous goal, right? I let that worry go, and ran off into the bushes to take one last pee.

It didn’t concern me to be the only woman on the front line. It didn’t intimidate me to be standing directly behind Chikara Omine and a few other speedsters. I wasn’t even really paying attention. At this point, all the focus, all the worries and thoughts that had been building for the past several months were culminating in one idea—the rapidly impending start.

The first mile and a bit (part of the detour) involved single-track and a good, solid hill, which felt like a significant change from the original course. In spite of being at the front, I was somehow still trapped behind a few people walking up the hill. It was early, so I tried to relax, but as soon as I had the opportunity, I scooted past them.

We entered the bike path along the American River to witness a beautiful sunrise. I tried to settle in to a steady pace, but every time I looked down at my GPS it said crazy things for “current pace.” Things like 7:40, and similar stupid numbers. Still, my average pace was reasonable, and I worked on staying relaxed and running well.

I fell in with a local runner named Chris, and we seemed to have a similar pace. He was an experienced ultrarunner, and we exchanged the usual what-races-have-you-done pleasantries. He had run TRT 100 earlier this year, so we traded horror stories on that one as we made our way down the bike path.

There are a lot of aid stations on this course, and part of my strategy to run fast meant skipping many of them. They were located only about 2-3 miles apart, and when running faster than 9-minute pace, that many aid stations just aren’t necessary. I blew through the first one completely, and paused at the second one just long enough to grab a couple of potatoes with salt. I had plenty of GU’s in my pockets, and they would provide the majority of my calories throughout the day.

I was averaging well under 8:23 pace, but all of my projected splits were behind. It appeared that the distances were off due to the re-routing of the first part of the course. I hoped the turn-around would be moved in order to compensate for this, but I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I just had to keep running and not worry about those things over which I had no control.

I made what was probably the world’s quickest pit-stop when I spotted a restroom that was located about 5 feet off the bike trail. I ran straight in, (fortunately not crashing into anyone on her way our) and specifically picked the stall with no door. No door to latch/unlatch=faster! I was quite pleased with my efficiency, if I do say so myself.

I felt relaxed but uncertain. At the Sunrise aid station at mile 12.5 I dropped my long-sleeved shirt and grabbed a few more GU’s from my bag. Again, time was of the essence, and the whole process took me maybe 15-20 seconds. Things felt good.

The 50K runners, who had started 5 minutes behind us, started to come by. Soon I heard someone calling my name, and I looked back to see Jenny Capel leading the charge in the women’s race. Jenny and I will be sharing the trails together in Zion next weekend, and we spent a few moments commiserating on the probable state of our legs only a week after this race. It was sure to be a slow (but beautiful!) weekend. She cruised ahead looking strong, and went on to win the 50K in an incredible 3:59!

I turned on my ipod in an effort to relax. One of the events I had forgone in order to run this race was an epic 4-day music festival in Yosemite featuring all of my very favorite Bay Area jam bands. I was heartbroken to miss it, so as a small compensation to myself, I queued up a number of songs from the very bands I was currently missing, including ALO, Hot Buttered Rum, The Mother Hips, Blue Turtle Seduction and Surprise Me Mr. Davis.

My potential turning point at mile 15 came and went, and I still felt good. I couldn’t see any reason to back off at this point, so the decision was made. It was time to go big or go home.

And then, at mile 18, the pain started to creep in. I noticed my butt and hamstrings were much tighter than they should have been. That kind of thing is to be expected for me in a road race, but this was way too early to be feeling it that strong. I was a little worried, but my game plan said to stay with it at this point, so I did. I was definitely concerned that things had changed so much in just the last three miles though.

I had lost Chris at an aid station somewhere and was running solo, when a woman came up beside me to say hello. It turned out to be Janelle, another runner from Tahoe. We had met earlier this year at Lake of the Sky, which had been her first ultra. She was down for a training run with a little oxygen in preparation for December’s CIM. We shared a few moments on the trail together before she went on ahead for the rest of her run. I find it so much fun to happen across runners like this in unexpected places!

Packs of people were out in organized groups for training runs, most of them women. They cheered me like a heroine. It was amazing, really. I wasn’t feeling so hot, but the sheer volume and sincerity of these women inspired my own smiles and enthusiasm to cheer them in return. Somehow, when you’re the first woman, you get way more cheers from the crowd than when you’re farther back in the race. I noticed this at the Tahoe Marathon, too. Cries of “First woman! First woman!” ring through the air, as the spectators share the knowledge with each other, and their encouragement soars. It seems silly, but I’ve been such a spectator many times myself. You’re watching the race, and the fast men run by and you cheer. More men come, and you keep cheering, but then, finally, there’s a woman, and your exuberance seems to double. It’s just exciting, and you can’t contain it. I felt honored to now be the one receiving the cheers.

Somewhere through miles 20-25 I started to fall off the pace. I was making a conscious effort not to, but it seemed I was powerless to stop the slow, inexorable decline.

Chikara Omine came flying by in the other direction, leading the race and looking strong. It was quite a while before the second place runner appeared, and it turned out to be Ray Sanchez, who also looked strong. Soon a few more faces came toward me, and I cheered them on as well as I could.

I reached the turn-around point at the Guy West Bridge with another runner who promptly informed the aid station crew that his GPS said it had been 25.5 miles. A glance at mine confirmed that his was accurate. I could tell by the response from the crew that they’d already heard this from other runners. I felt bad for them because we were the very front of the pack, and they were clearly going to have to hear complaints of a long course all day. Damn that technology!

My watch still said I was averaging 8:21 pace, but I felt like hell. I knew without a doubt 7 hours was off the table for the day. I accepted the fact without much disappointment, mostly because I knew I couldn’t let myself dwell on it. I knew I had bigger problems ahead of me.

The graffiti was bright, all over the freeway underpass, and it said a few things loud and clear. It said that A) things were only going to get slower from here on out, and that B) it was going to hurt. A lot.

I pushed through the miles to 30, thinking it was a significant mile to get through. Then I realized all it meant was that I still had 20 to go. Oh God. Twenty miles never sounded so far. Every muscle in my body felt tighter than it had ever been. My ass was tight; my hamstrings were on fire. My hips cinched down like a pair of hydraulic clamps. My form started to fall apart even as I focused all my mental energy on holding it together.

All I could think about was walking. Twenty miles still to go and I was ready to be done. Couldn’t I just call it 50K for the day and go home? It hurt so bad, and it was only going to get uglier. One step at a time, the miles slowly, slowly crept by.

I decided I needed a change of music. No more of this oovey-groovey, hippie, jam-band crap. I needed an adrenaline kick in the ass. Spearhead, The Raconteurs, Nirvana and Green Day became the order of the day.

The only thing that did seem to be going well was my nutrition. I had no problems staying hydrated, and the GU and potatoes seemed to be keeping my energy stable. I never bonked. I just had every muscle from the waist down on-freaking-fire!

Now the music had a good beat, and I tried to focus on it, let it drive me. “Desperate, but not hopeless.” Somewhat ironic lyrics I suppose, but desperate I was. Sadly though, the well of hope was rapidly running dry. As my average pace dropped toward 8:37 and then 8:40, the only emotion I had left was despair. The internal argument went something like this: This whole thing is a disaster! And then, No! You can still salvage something out of it! It was like the angel and the devil on my shoulders, except they both felt like the devil.

The only splits I had on my bottle were for 7-hour pace, and they had long since become irrelevant. I really didn’t know what kind of finish time might be possible, but I knew I’d kick myself if I let things get bad enough to run slower than eight hours. Winning hadn’t been on my radar at all as far as a goal. All I wanted from this day was a fast time. But at this point, I couldn’t think of much else to motivate me, so I figured I’d better start caring about hanging on to the lead.

The rest of the race went pretty much like that. I wallowed around in some of the darkest places, trying to forget about where I was. A 50 mile race never felt so long.

The worst part about ultras is that you stop at the finish line, but the pain doesn’t. I finished in 7:39, which didn’t really register as either good or bad. I was a little disappointed, and a little relieved, but mostly I was just empty. And in pain. Ugh.

Amidst the crowd of 30K and 50K finishers eating their Thanksgiving feast, I found an empty corner of the dirty gym floor, and lay down with my legs up the wall. It was all I’d been dreaming of for the past two hours, but it gave me no relief. I lay there for a few minutes staring up at the ceiling in wonder, a few silent tears leaking out of my eyes. They didn’t come from disappointment, pain or even self-pity. It’s just that I had completely scraped the bottom of my barrel, and I had nothing left but a couple of tears.

I shifted restlessly around the gym, trying to find some sort of position that was comfortable. I couldn’t think about eating or changing or anything until some of the pain subsided. I was completely anti-social and had no idea what to do with myself. Finally, after about an hour, a shower in the women’s locker room sounded like a good idea, and it did go a little ways towards bringing me back to life. I got some food and became capable of some actual conversation.

In the men’s race Chikara Omine won with an amazing 5:45:41, missing the course record by a painfully-close 3 seconds (made even more painful by the knowledge that the course was long). Ray Sanchez also ran well, posting a 6:45 for second place. In the women’s race, I managed to hold on to first and just got edged out of the top ten overall, taking 11th. Tia Gabalita of Corvallis finished second in 7:57.

Chikara said he’d been injured all month and not really expecting much, but that he could tell early on in the race that everything was just clicking. He felt good and seemed pleased with his time. Jean Pommier seemed to be feeling more in my camp—it was a rough day out there.

There’s a lot I could say about why things turned out the way they did at this race. I could talk about the long course (51.4 miles by my watch), or the October illness. But these things have to be accepted as a part of racing, and even if absolutely everything had been working in my favor it was still a very questionable, very reachy goal. It took a surprisingly small amount of reflection for me to feel at peace with my results.

I know what you’re thinking. I won the race and set a PR of exactly one hour. Only a crazy person would sheepishly refer to the day as a disaster. But you know, I’m used to being called crazy, even if I don’t really like it.

It’s just that, I had bigger things in mind. This was made obvious by the early pace that I set. It was aggressive, and apparently slightly crazy. But do I regret it? Nope. Not one bit.

The thing is, I am typically a pretty conservative ultrarunner. I was known to go out too fast at times back in my days of shorter races, but ultras scare me too much for that. I’m chicken. (And starting conservatively has worked well for me in this genre of running, so I think I’m going to stick to it from now on.) But you know what they say: Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment. So, now I know.

I suppose I could have been more realistic and set my goal at 7:20. I would have probably finished with a faster time, and I would have certainly done it with less pain. But that would have been sealing part of my fate before I even got to the starting line. That would have been saying “I can’t do it” before I’d even tried. So, I gambled big, and I lost. Even by the time I was in the car driving home, I was already giggling a bit at the hilarious beauty of it. This running thing we do—it is pretty awesome. (And crazy, did I mention crazy?)

I’ve got plenty of reflecting left for my autumn days, but I do want to say one more thing here. In many ways, I am proud of this race, even though I do feel like it was a disaster. I have never crashed and burned so hard. I have never experienced anything like it. I watched all my goals fall to pieces around me, and still summoned everything I had to salvage what I could even though it felt like getting all of the pain with none of the reward. I’m proud of not giving up, because I really, desperately wanted to.

Thank you so much to the awesome volunteers, and to Norm and Helen for putting this on. I also feel so grateful to all of my running friends. (Yes, that means you!) You guys have really supported and encouraged me, and I really felt that out there on the course. Your faith in me was no small thing in my mind and heart. So, thank you.

Helen and me after the race