“What they had done, what they had seen, heard, felt, feared – the places, the sounds, the colors, the cold, the darkness, the emptiness, the bleakness, the beauty. ‘Til they died, this stream of memory would set them apart, if imperceptibly to anyone but themselves, from everyone else. For they had crossed the mountains… “ (Bernard DeVoto, The Course of Empire)
When you know who you are; when your mission is clear and you burn with the inner fire of unbreakable will; no cold can touch your heart; no deluge can dampen your purpose. You know that you are alive. (Chief Seattle, Duwamish)
The undercurrent of excitement and nervous energy reveals itself in an almost audible buzz as we all crowd into the lodge. We adjust shoes and pack straps and zippered compartments in our clothing for the thousandth time and try to make small talk. We bump into each other and offer half-hearted “oops” because our minds are elsewhere… we are already running up the snow frosted mountain that looms large over the valley and this lodge. That mountain has called to me and taunted me for years. It offers the only entry way into a one-hundred mile world of beauty and suffering, physical challenge and mental torment. It freely gives miracles and yet demands everything you have. But when you are tossed out of THAT world- either through the finish line or by some other means- you will know for certain who you are.
I thought I already knew who I was.
We form a funnel shape around the start line, Alan hugs me tight and laughs. It’s 3…2…1 POW as the shotgun blast releases us into the pre-dawn darkness, running with cheers at our back up a wide gravel incline. The sky is lightening already, the air crisp but warm for the high altitude alpine environment- I float up the trail beside Alan. This is a dream, and I’m already picturing the finish line. There is no doubt in my mind we won’t be crossing it hand-in-hand the next morning. We’ve trained hard for this race…as much as possible with our busy lives. We are healthy, strong, and experienced with the belt buckles to prove it. I thought I knew a thing or two about running ultras, and I was mentally ready to suffer. Excited about it, actually. We run, ecstatic with hyper energy and looking around with new eyes and chatting with other runners- typical of the beginning of any long race. We hit the snow about 3 miles in. It slows our pace as it is soft and slippery- trampled from so many other feet- however the slope isn’t too steep and the going becomes a fun game of stepping in shoe prints and working our way from one snowy section to another. And then the scramble to the almost 9000ft top as a crowd cheers us on and cameras click. What a spectacle! We turn around to check out the sunrise just like Loren and Kristin had advised. The image of earth’s very own orange fire ball cresting the mountains and drenching shadowed onlookers in golden rays will be forever burned into my memory. Alan pulls out his camera and snaps a picture as I realize that -already- the pack of runners is thinning a bit and we are being passed by too many of them. “Come on!”
The ridge awaits us and we take off onto a soft single-track dirt trail thick with high altitude grasses and peeping wildflowers. I almost turn my ankle on a small rock and I hear the man behind me say… “yikes- don’t do that yet!”. I slow my run a bit and start paying more attention to the trail. It becomes very technical very fast. We pass snow, and then the snow encroaches onto the trail… and then just snow. We form into a long line of runners and the mood becomes tense as we use all muscles and too much energy struggling to keep from sliding down steep slopes and breaking through ice bridges. No shattered ankles today Mother Nature, thank you very much. This is my first time running at high altitudes and in the snow, and I’m fighting for balance with every step and working to suck in air while starting to worry about the time. Minutes are ticking by -but not miles. Alan- a nimble footed beast- starts getting frustrated with the clumsy sliding runners in front of us and jumps around them. He motions for me with his eyes to do the same but I can’t find MY feet and am stuck with the slippers while he disappears in front. My attitude turns foul and I sarcastically repeat his mantra in my head “stay together, finish together no matter what”. Yea, yea that lasted all of 6 miles I see. Then he’s waiting for me on the side of the trail in the mud and I tell him what I think of him and that he “should just go on without me if that’s what he wants, and I’ll be just fine with me myself and I”. But he doesn’t. He really loves me, somehow.
The terrain suddenly shifts and we are jumping over small raging waterfalls and streams, still through patches of slick snow, and then into bogs with mud that reaches almost to my knees as it noisily tries to suck my shoes even deeper. In many places there IS no trail and we scoot the best we can from one pink ribbon marker to another. It’s so difficult, I’m laughing. And I’m thinking of the irony of being chosen from the CRC lottery on this particular year. ME- a complete klutz who’s only salvation is a beat-down cowboy (in the words of Kristin) approach to running ultras that somehow has always gotten me to the finish line. I’m not a technical trail fairy. I hear a “what the f-iddy f-iddy f-f-f!!!“, and see a long haired male runner limping in front of me- I recognize him as the runner from Minnesota who took our picture back in the lodge when this race was still all so glamorous. I offered a faint “you ok?” as we passed, although clearly, he wasn’t. Alan is now asking me a question, and I have to focus. “Have you eaten yet?” he says, and I grimace. No. I can’t peel my eyes away from scanning the trail to grab a gel or I’ll stumble (or so I tell myself). I’m worried already about cut-offs, and choose to keep moving. I’ll eat soon. About a mile later, I easily grab a gel from my skirt waistband pocket and realize that actually I am getting a little hungry. The altitude must be messing with my ability to recognize when I need to eat and drink. We scoot though Lyon Ridge Aid fast. No time to spare. And now we really are running along a beautiful ridge- still laced with patches of treacherous ice and snow- but wild. The views are spectacular. So are the golf ball to basketball sized rocks that litter the trail and divert all energy and focus. I find myself wondering why my brain seems so cloudy- I’m already not thinking clearly. I assess myself- my breathing is fast and ragged. My legs feel good, but my energy levels have plummeted. I’m not hungry or thirsty but take a swig from my water bottle anyway. I can tell Alan is also working hard in front of me but he seems to have a better grip on his body than I currently have on mine. Although I know from studying the course elevation map that we are descending right now, it feels like a lot of uphill work. I’m being sucked too fast into my own little tunnel of suffering. I just need to survive to Duncan Canyon Aid and Loren and the beginning of the end of the high altitude. Red Star Aid and mile 15 arrives, with cut-offs just 20 minutes behind us according to a seasoned volunteer with a worried expression on her face. “Go through, and don’t waste a minute.” I grab some salty chips and a package of cliff shots from the table, although nothing looks appetizing. We run again on rocky trails with ledges and ridges that finally carry no trace of snow. We start to descend and the topography changes to dusty, fire damaged pine forests, the ground carved with frequent stream crossings that keep our feet from drying out. Alan yelps behind me and I swivel around to see him hopping up and down on his right foot. Alarm and concern leak through the holes in my brain and out into the air between us, but he starts to run again.
Duncan Canyon is a flurry of activity and Alan happily states “now THIS is an aid station!”. For a second I’m lost in the confusion. Loren grabs my shoulders- “HEY! Got anything to tell me?”. I give him my best “I’m tough” look (later he told me it was a “grab a car and get me out of here now look”) and tell him honestly that I’m not feeling well. He takes me over to two guys with buckets and sponges and I scream as a waterfall of ice water lands on my head and shoulders. After the initial shock, it feels so refreshing. We are dumped back out onto the trail-assembly line style- as we yell “runners #221 and #222 leaving”. Leaving into the fabled canyons that will break you. As if.
The trail levels, then slopes downward gently for a mile and a half. It’s easy running and refreshing, even though the sun has now turned on its broiler setting. We arrive at a small creek, and I promptly lay down in it and laugh like a kid on Christmas morning. Alan makes fun of me for all of one second before he plops down beside me. Oh the abundance! The happiness of splashing on your back in a cold mountain creek just cannot be described here in words. If I had a genie and three wishes, I would wish for peace on earth, and… maybe the ability to eat ice cream without gaining weight… and definitely that everyone on earth has the opportunity to splash around in a cold mountain creek on a hot day. OK tangent off. We eventually arrive at a river that requires us to cross while hanging on to a stability cord. Large rocks under the surface of the rapids make the crossing slightly awkward, but fun. The two mile climb up to Robinson Flat starts gently enough, but soon consumes our thoughts and bodies as our pace slows and effort increases. Alan’s checking his watch with worried determination- cut-offs loom once again. My head pounds and oxygen is all I want. The thin air and heat combine into a powerful raging monster that I’m fighting. It’s wrapping my chest in constricting ropes and I struggle to take the next breath. Breathe, step…repeat. Before Western States, I’ve never had such a problem breathing in a race. Not like this. Not even at Miwok two years ago, when I ran with mild pneumonia before knowing I had pneumonia. It worries and confuses me. What am I doing wrong? We finally arrive at Robinson Flat Aid. I see the wife of Derick from Cincinnati Ohio- who we met during a training run in Squaw days before the race- she waves at me and I weakly acknowledge her, but my war-zoned face betrays me. I’m worried. I make the mistake of sitting on the hot ground to rummage through our drop bag before cooling off at the water station. I’m overheated and know it but still waste time before having a scoop of ice poured into my sports bra (heaven!) and ice in my hat and in the bandana (a precious gift from Kristin) tied around my neck. I wander around for about a minute after grabbing pretzels that crumble like sawdust in my mouth and gels before finally spotting Alan in the chaotic crowd.
We are running now down a wide dirt fire road, side by side and talking. I remember laughing…although I can’t remember any of the specifics of our conversation. However I feel alive again. The course meanders onto buttery single-track trails, and then back again onto fire roads. Red dust permeates the air, and our feet act as the mixers that kick even more up and into our noses and lungs. We are making great time now and Alan is literally almost dancing over the trail as he speeds up and then slows down waiting for me. I think for nearly the thousandth time that I’m slowing him down, and I question our judgement when we decided to run this race together. Western States… the race that started it all… and I’m keeping this amazing man from finishing at his potential. And although I know how he feels- how this is OUR year to run together and our way of proclaiming to anyone who cares that this kind of love IS possible and our way of diving deeper into each other- I still feel pin pricks of guilt. But I don’t dwell on these thoughts because this race is gritty and relentless. It demands all of my attention. Miller’s Defeat and Dusty Corners – aptly named- both go by in a blur. 10 feet in front of me, Alan’s talking to himself. He’s manic and immersed in his own thoughts. I’m used to this and don’t even try to follow his conversation until I hear “Aaron”, and I snap to attention. He laughs and softly says “I love that kid” And then louder, “I LOVE him”. Aaron. Our enigma child- the sensitive little boy who (unlike his older brother Cole) resisted bonding with Alan because one of his first life lessons taught him that parents don’t stay together- that nothing is permanent. The kid who has thrown the most challenges at us while testing our patience to the very edge of the definition of unconditional love. The same kid that has driven Alan to privately confide in me his frustrations as we sometimes awkwardly tried to fuse our two families together. I’ve been inside myself all day struggling to just survive. Survive the next step, the next mile, to the next aid station. However, this moment sparkles- that the man I love so much loves my kids and accepts them for who they are is deeply satisfying. And I know with startling clarity that we are going to make it in this race and in life- come ice and fire.
At Last Chance, I ask the station captain about cut-offs and hear “oh you’re an hour 15 ahead” and I sigh in relief. Then he continues as I gaze at him in blank confusion- “so right now you have a shot at still finishing just under 30 hours, but you have to run hard and push yourself, ok?”. I decide he doesn’t know what he’s talking about- after all, we are finally pulling ahead and making up time. I almost gag on the chips but watermelon goes down pretty easily, so I stand there greedily grabbing piece after piece. I’m not sure if I thanked anyone at this aid station- I hope I did, or if not, that Alan thanked them. Within 10 minutes after leaving, my stomach cramps violently and I almost lose the watermelon. I slow down and dive into the bushes. Dang it. Too early in the race for my body to be such a mess. Alan’s still waiting for me when I reemerge, and we run until the trail morphs into a technical descent after a large sign that reads “CAUTION- proceed at your own risk” and Alan’s moaning about his knees and complaining about the aches and pains of running while at the ripe old age of 50. “Hey old man”, I laugh. “I still think you are the cutest ultrarunner out here”. He snorts dust and snot and wow, do I love him! We see a creek, the water gurgling in its most inviting seductive notes, but I only stop to dip my hat in it. We chat with another runner who oozes of experience on this Western States course. He moves slowly but deliberately and expresses his own doubts about finishing this year, cutting off my optimistic objections. He says he’s saving his burst of energy for Devils Thumb and squints his eyes knowingly. We pass him, cross a bridge, and then suddenly we are almost scrambling on hands and feet up the hillside. I’m gasping for air just yards into the climb. What just happened? Yet we somehow continue. I develop a rhythm in the pushing of my body beyond what I thought was possible- step, breathe, step, breathe. Heat no longer vibrates, it hangs suspended in the air- no breeze to cool my forehead and lift the sweat dripping down my chin. This isn’t a thumb, this is Hell’s middle finger. We pass a few runners on the side of the trail- I don’t notice them until Alan says, “hey man- you ok?”. Ernie doesn’t respond and just peers back through glazed eyes, his bloody dirt crusted face expressionless. I snap out of my fog as I realize the seriousness of the situation. I am now all business and nursing game face as I work with the other man- an EMT- to assess and help. We get Ernie to drink a bottle of water and eat a gel. We pour water on his hat and shirt. We take his pulse- fast and thready but not too fast. He starts talking in complete sentences and answering our questions. He stubbornly stands up, but agrees to walk slowly. We scramble up again – losing Ernie – but knowing that there is a long line of other runners on the trail and that help is on the way. I’m gasping again, but I’m concerned about Alan. He walks, then doubles over… the pattern repeats. He tells me to go ahead and I’m too exhausted to argue. I walk ahead, then stop to wait for him to catch up. A hoard of mosquitoes attack with starved vengeance and I’m swearing and dancing and slapping them away. Word must have gotten out in the mosquito communication chain that Devils Thumb is the place to be every year on this day- heat stroked ultrarunners are easy prey. I run back down the hill to find Alan and arrive just in time to see him spray pink and orange chunks of melon all over the trail. Nice. I massage his shoulders, grab his arms… come on Tiger, you have this. We hear the 3 short blasts of the horn from the top- signaling 30 minutes until cut-off. Alan panics and we are walking faster. We arrive to a scene of chaos as volunteers desperately work to shuttle runners out as new runners stumble in. We sit down and I’m face to… prosthetic knee… with Dave Mackey as he asks me what I need. It sinks in, and I’m overwhelmed once again with my love of the sport of ultrarunning and the humble culture that permeates it. Dave should have been running this year, not me. I glance over at Alan. He has tears in his eyes, his hands listlessly holding onto a paper cup filled with chicken and rice soup. He says he doesn’t think we are going to make it- not even to Foresthill where Kristin and Loren and George can try to pick up the pieces. His voice shakes as he says, “please just don’t leave me here by myself”. Like I could. The aid caption at Devils Thumb is now pacing and barking out orders. He looks at us- “you have to go! We have over 50 runners out there on the trail about to be cut-off and we have to make room”. We stumble out, and Alan doubles over again this time with flank pain. Alarm bells ring in my head- I know too much about rhabdomyolysis and kidney failure and tell him that if the pain hasn’t resolved by next aid or if he hasn’t peed- we drop.
As if God finally reached down to earth, observed our personal hell, and drew a trail with his finger into the mountain himself, we were suddenly running down a beautiful buttery single track shaded by tall trees. We RAN. Alan did not mention his flank pain again- maybe because it actually resolved, or possibly because he just didn’t want to drop. Regardless, I couldn’t spend the energy figuring it out. There, on the trail, I just decide to trust him. We both get a second wind and whip out 11-12 minute miles down to El Dorado. The sun is low in the sky and hiding behind the pine trees to my back as I sink into a chair. I’m once again teetering on the edge of everything. I watch my right hand shake as it holds a cup of steaming broth. I’m proud of the dirt crusted underneath my purple nails and the small scrape on my thumb- I earned it somewhere back there. I’m also proud of the purple bracelet inscribed with “I carry your heart” wrapped around my wrist- I’m carrying it for Riley. I’m not proud though of my physical weakness. This race on this day confuses me. Maybe this just isn’t my day- but then why? I like to think I am tough enough to power through anything- I’ve always been able to… just deal. With a variety of weather and trail conditions, with running while sick, with doing what seems impossible by simply putting one foot in front of the other. I may not be fast, but I AM tough enough. Or at least I was. Or maybe this is my lesson in humbleness. I don’t like this lesson. In the middle of my selfish private meltdown, word catches on around the aid station that WE are THAT crazy couple who are planning on getting married at the finish line, and the air explodes around us with high pitched “OMG’s” and “Aaaaahhhhs” and many “Congrats!!”. I’m pretty sure we even posed for a picture before I felt a friendly shove by a volunteer and a “get out there and do it!”. And just like that the comfortable aid station disappears behind us and we are once again alone with a chorus of frogs and climbing up. Chicken broth- I had chicken broth and Ginger Ale. It won’t sustain me for the entire climb, but I can feel my stomach in my throat. My water bottle was full entering El Dorado Aid and I shake it now… yep, definitely still full. What does this mean? I can’t process… thinking takes too much energy. Golden filtered light- a portrait photographer’s dream- fades into blue twilight. The trail loses its hard outlines and now softly folds in front of us. Somehow- even though our headlamps are still waiting patiently with George at Michigan Bluff- this is comforting. Not being able to see the steepness of the ascent makes it more tolerable, and we just take it as it comes. From the almost near blackness, I see an unexpected shape in front of us with pigtails and a “PACER OF HONOR” trucker hat, and Kristen is suddenly bouncing up and down with excitement- and we are home with her. We walk into Michigan Bluff aid like celebrity cream puffs expecting royal treatment- and we actually get it. We lay down in lawn chairs, our feet high in the air as our disgusting toes are cleaned and patched and sore legs massaged. Oh… heaven can’t be THIS good. I try to eat a slice of the pizza that George brought and manage a few bites. George continues molding tape art onto the canvas of my husband-to-be’s foot as Kristen makes small talk and rummages through our floating drop bag. She pulls out the zip-lock 1 gallon plastic bag of munchies. “What sounds good to you? We have skittles, gels, cookies, pop tarts, protein bars, and shot blocks”. When I couldn’t make a decision, she hands me a whole package of pop tarts. We leave with hope- for the first time in a while both Alan and I are smiling and we are thinking the same thing- that we might actually still be able to pull this off. We climb up a steep fire road (what is this?) but the world is now a better place in the cozy glow of our headlamps. Alan is lagging and stops to adjust his shoes, but I’m impatient. That evil hungry monster named Cut-Off is still not that far behind and soon we will be entering Forest Hill. Forest Hill!!!! Onward. We dip down into yet another canyon with yet another stream crossing, then climb up yet again- finally hitting the fabled Cow Street for more “up”. We pass by houses, front porches glowing and then a happy party house- with an actual table in the front yard with a buffet of glittering liquor bottles, ready for the taking. We are offered bourbon. But it’s just Jack, I think with disdain…and then catch myself. My goodness, when did I become such a bourbon snob? And does it really matter 60+ miles in? I almost pounce on that table, but Loren and Kristin are waiting so we break into a run.
The beauty of Foresthill and the three amazing people waiting for us… is impossible to put into words. It’s a homecoming. As Loren described it during a planning meeting over chili and cornbread two weeks before the race, finally seeing your pacer at Forest Hill is a bit like driving in with a borrowed car. You’ve taken it on a joy ride and now you’re screeching to a stop with tires burning and engine smoking, and you’re stumbling out and handing over the keys. Your turn, you fix-it-up pacer! And I’m not just smoking- my car blew a gasket back there somewhere. Loren, pacer #221—good luck with this one. The pop tart package is a crumbled unopened mess in my hand, so I drop it back in our bag. Chicken soup sustains, but will not sustain forever. I take a big sip of Zola Espresso. It’s good… oh wait, nope. Definitely not good. I am momentarily distracted by my fluffy “bridal” tutu and slip it on over my head with Kristin’s help. It glows prettily as the little LED lights pop to life. I glance at Alan- he’s grinning from ear to ear and looking like a king on a camping chair throne. George is trying to get my attention to provide distraction and he launches into a joke about Trump… but he’s interrupted halfway through and I am all of a sudden running again behind Loren- decked out in CRC orange- yelling “Wooohooooo we’re running the Cal Streets baby!”. We form a single file line onto the trail- first Loren, then me and Alan right behind- with Kristin sending love and encouragement from the rear. Loren’s easy pace feels natural, but I now have a rock in the place of my stomach, and I’m struggling again. Kristin’s talking to Alan and Loren joins in with laugher and I want to contribute something to the conversation, but I’m really stupid. I can’t think of anything witty to say. I worry irrationally that I’ll be foggy brained for the rest of my life. I sadly picture my life with a “foggy brain” and how I would be a nuisance to everyone around me- including Alan and our kids. I would go through life not being able to carry on a conversation with anyone because I wouldn’t be able to organize into a sentence the random words bouncing around in my head. Remembering and writing this, it all seems so absurd and pitifully funny- but time stood still at Western States, and that day and night blurred into eternity.
We run like this, Cal-1 and Cal-2 Aid Stations appearing and then slipping back into the night. Loren running, then walking and running again. Every time he starts to run, I try to run as well- our feet pounding out a sort of rhythm of alternating paces. Fast. Slow. Fast. Slow. Running downhills, and hiking the ups. Sometimes he disappears around a bend and I try to speed up until he appears again, headlamp bobbing. Alan and Kristin breaking up the night with rambling distracting tidbits of interesting conversation- so much alike, those two. Cal-3 appears, and I’m falling into another chair. I gag on a cheese quesadilla that tastes like vomit soaked cardboard. Yuck. Loren walks over and gives me a hard- almost apologetic- look. “We’re being kicked out- we have to go”. The aid station caption walks over, squats down, and looks into my eyes- “you have to make up time on this next section or you may not be able to finish- do you hear me? You have to run hard and give it everything you have…everything.” I am grateful for the concern and for the advice and at the same time protesting it- I already AM giving it everything I have. But I find that somehow, I can give more, and I do. We run at a 12-minute pace- that seemed at the time more like a 6-minute pace- although Kristin’s GPS doesn’t lie. We run over sand and soft trails with the gurgling sound of the river following us for miles. We climb a steep hill that Loren calls the “six-minute hill”, and while I appreciate his optimism, at mile 70 something, it could have been Everest. That hill is a battle ground and I’m gasping for air at the top after… 20 minutes? I can’t seem to catch my breath on the ups- and it has been the trend throughout the entire race. I don’t understand why. I trained on Montara Mountain and made it submit to me as I learned all of its secrets running repeats up the almost 2000-foot ascent. But I’m panting like a thirsty dog after climbing a six-minute hill. Lights from Rucky Chucky glow from a quarter of a mile away, and we arrive into a fairy tale of color and swirls of human activity. The river roars above the music. I’m dreaming. Trail angels are everywhere and I’m put into a life vest- I’m not even trusted to buckle it myself and I let the powers-that-be take over. Alan, Kristin, and Loren are all wide awake and seem to be having a great time. I follow them blindly into the raft and our raft “guide” pulls us across the river with record efficiency. It’s a freaking party- except I’m the drunk party guest passing out and missing the fun. I step out onto the other side, nibble on a cheese tortilla and almost lose everything over a pile of drop bags. George is there though waiting for us with a smile after hiking I think almost two miles down to the river. We are not worthy of this kind of support.
The hike to Green Gate isn’t so bad. We laugh and talk, share stories. Alan is fighting fatigue- I see it in his posture and in the way he drags his feet. It’s the witching hour right before dawn, when even the darkness sleeps. Green Gate Aid borders a fire road on both sides, and we are funneled through a “runners only” chute where food and drink await. I’m cramping though again and my inner thighs are chaffed – so my main concerns are Pepto and Squirrels Nut Butter. I think I try to force a gel and ask to have a bottle filled with coke. We leave, soon veering onto a rutted single-track trail. Kristin keeps saying “any minute now this trail is going to open up into a beautiful buttery floater and we will run”, but I am skeptical of this. Not that she’s wrong- but that the trail will ever behave. Western States so far, has just thrown us flat on our butts and every time we have tried to stand up again she, this formidable race, gives more misery. However eventually Kristin’s proven right. Alan and Loren disappear into the dawn in front of us and Kristin and I alternate running and walking rolling hills. The scenery reminds me of my first 100-mile adventure 3 years ago at Rio Del Lago- dry grasslands with oak trees and a sandy trail lined with little innocent looking green shoots of poison oak. We climb a hill that lasts forever. Kristin remarks that any minute now we are going to turn off onto a sweet downhill that rolls us right into ALT. However no turn-off appears and we are just fast hiking and losing precious time. I ask like a little kid in a car for probably the hundredth time, “Kristin are you sure we are still on pace to finish?” and I hear “yes, but we need to run a little”. There is a note of concern etching through her voice that makes me nervous. We pass another runner who is known for her fast finish times. She is lurching to her left side, eyes vacant and feet barely moving- her pacer hovering protectively. Kristin knows them, and yells back at them “GREAT job keep on going…!!!!”. I’m totally amused and in love with MY Kristin (sorry George- but just at Western States) who can’t help but light the world-everything around her- with positivity. We are running now. Running to ALT. Down that little hill to the sound of cow bells and those beautiful bagpipes. Rachel yells “YEA!” and I’m happy. SO. Happy. To be here at this very place at this exact time surrounded by a sea of friends. The love and energy is palpable. Alan is once again a king on his lawn chair throne with his disgusting feet waving high in the air, sipping sparkling apple cider from a delicate Champaign glass and taking big bites of fluffy coconut cake. It’s kind of hilarious but I only stop to laugh for a second before plopping down beside him.
We waste too much time at ALT having our feet fixed and soaking in the magic, and scoot out at around 6:30am (I think). However the trail rambles peacefully on rolling hills and the sun hasn’t yet showed its rage that we- mere humans- would have the audacity to still be running on day number two. Kristin leads the way with a kind of run/jog. Small steps and easy, her pigtails flying in the breeze. “Just tuck in behind me” and she is the mother duck. We dutifully tuck in, all in a row. We run down a small ravine and there is Quarry Aid Station, home of Rogue Valley Runners. Alan’s sputtering and cursing behind me as a blister pops in his shoe. I’m concerned for him, but he gets very little sympathy from Loren or Kristin- we are running out of time and there is nothing anyone can do about it. I give Hal a high five as he peers at me “back for more, huh?”. I wonder if he recognizes me as that annoying runner who forgot her drop bags at Pine to Palm two years ago, and after finishing bawled on a cot for an hour. Yep. Back for more. I’m disoriented and we all scramble away from a pick-up truck backing into the aid station. No time to re-organize. We move out onto rolling fire roads exposed to the full sun. Kristin has suddenly changed from a radiator of warmth and encouragement into a hardened drill instructor. “We have to run…. No, run faster Rebekah!” Loren, following bright pink trail markers, disappears into bushes on the side of a hill. Darn it. Another damn Everest.
But this is Everest on fire. I can’t breathe and I find myself audibly gasping. I keep catching Loren’s worried expressions as he climbs and then has to wait for me, followed by Alan and Kristin. We don’t have time for this. I’ve never in my life felt this kind of exhaustion. I had always wondered what it would feel like to give everything in a race- now I know. It’s a suffocating blanket pulled over me as the sun rages. My head spins, and I fall down- my foot catching on nothing much. I decide to just lie there like a fish out of water- gills still furiously pumping for oxygen- but Alan and Kristin grab my arms and pull me up. Loren yells that he sees the top of the hill. Alan’s pouring the last of his water onto my back and head and shoulders and yelling at me to drink. I take a sip from my almost full bottle and dry heave. The hill empties into a field of waist high grass and we march, single file towards Pointed Rocks Aid, mile 94.3. Luis Escobar spots us before we spot him, and he’s clicking away, camera to face with an exuberant grin. I give him my best smile- amazed that he is here capturing the struggle. But the smile only lasts for a minute. Alan’s yelling for help, and I think I ask for ice. I’m guided to a chair underneath the shade of an open tent as ice water is poured over my head. George appears again and he’s squatting down beside me and telling me that I can do this. I’m wanting to say that I’m not so sure- that I’m worried about heat stroke if I leave, but I can’t remember if I actually verbalize these thoughts. I doubt it. I’m helped up and we leave together, runners #221 and #222 and their pacers. Loren tells me we need to run, but that he will try to help us finish under 30 hours with my pace- and to take it easy. I try to run on the gentle downhill, but the world immediately twirls underneath my feet. I stop to prevent myself from falling. Loren walks back towards me. I can’t think, but KNOW I’m holding Alan back from that track in Auburn. I can’t keep him from this- this dream that he’s worked so hard to achieve. “Loren- I can’t finish under 30. You need to pace him in. Please.” Alan’s caught up and he’s holding me. His body shakes when I tell him to go. But then he whips around and just like that- disappears down the trail with Loren following. GOOD. I fall into Kristin’s arms “I’m so sorry Kristin”- and we are both crying.
We enter Pointed Rocks Aid station again, and again I sit down and receive a pep talk from George. He’s calm but concerned. A volunteer walks over to cut off my wrist band, but Kristin stops her- not yet. Not until the official cut-off. The horn blows once. 10 minutes. “Ok, let’s try this again.” We walk out and into the searing heat, and I’m once again dizzy. I see spots floating in front of my eyes, and Kristin immediately turns me back around. It’s over. I’m helped into a truck and given the special front seat as Kristin and George hop in the back. We are shuttled down a rutted dirt road and into a parking lot where George’s car waits. As we drive, George finishes telling me his joke about Trump… I find it funny.
Placer high school and the track, and I’m limping slowly over with Kristin’s help. We enter the track at the same spot that the runners enter it. I still have my bib, but not my yellow wrist band. I am NOT a runner. We cross the track and walk towards the finish line- I look back and see Alan. He’s running like he’s possessed. I call his name but he doesn’t hear me. He crosses through the finish line, my heart jumps… so, so, so proud of him. As he walks out of the finishing chute, his eyes finally focus on mine and his face crumbles as he grabs me.
We exchanged our marriage vows in the medical tent where there was comfort and shade, sitting side by side on the cot. It wasn’t the storybook ending to our journey that I had pictured. It was, in the ways that mattered, better. Our written vows that had made the journey with us from Squaw suddenly didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was right in front of me. Our parents, our kids… him. And the only thing he needed to know, he already knew. That I’ll be by his side come ice and fire.
What I learned:
I’m still processing. What went wrong? I have no regrets about my decision to DNF. I was sick for two days after Western States with intense nausea and a fever. Had I passed out along the trail somewhere in between aid stations, I would have been a liability to myself and to everyone else- and Alan would not have finished. There is a common saying in the ultrarunning community that a long run is 80% mental and just 20% physical stamina. I firmly believe this- but sometimes that 20% kicks me back into place and reminds me that I’m not Wonder Woman.
However I could have carved out more time to train for Western States. My longest run was 35 miles, and my highest mileage week was only 55 miles. I was so very busy with the responsibilities of life- but there were still days that I brushed off a scheduled run or work-out session in favor of other pursuits. I could have trained more efficiently as well. I didn’t acclimate to heat. I often forgot my Suunto at home in favor of wandering down meandering trails with no destination in mind- more adventure running than specific training. As I ease back into training- this time for RDL100- I will be setting goals and defining a training plan that includes rest days, long and short runs, and weight training/cross fitness.
In looking back at race day, I made a few critical mistakes early on that haunted me throughout the day and contributed to my inability to finish. I should have eaten more often and in larger amounts, starting at or before mile four. Altitude stresses the body, and I wasn’t paying attention to caloric intake. I also wasn’t hydrating. Interestingly- even in the canyons- I felt no thirst and forgot to drink. I ran into aid stations over and over again with bottles still half full. Had I hydrated better from the beginning I may have been able to power out a finish.
I cannot end this race report without acknowledging the special people in our lives that helped us before, during, and after this endeavor. First- our parents, who drove long distances to spend a week with us in the Sierras. They teamed up to provide our kids with love, affection, pizza, and ice-cream while we ran-and then woke up early to meet us in Auburn. Love you, Mom & Dad and Pat & Kathy! Franz and Jen- thanks for taking the time to coach Alan from injury to a 100 mile-finish. Your advice and experience made all the difference. Jen- specifically THANK YOU for making sure I was taken care of after I arrived at the track when I… obviously could not handle myself. You said we would look back and laugh- yes. Yes, we will! To everyone at CRC who volunteered at ALT this year or helped in any other way- ALT, in our minds, was our beacon of light. “Just make it to ALT…”. Your support made all the difference. Jack- you really out did yourself with sparkling apple juice and coconut cake and those clean socks… and running with Alan into the finish. Thanks for staying to witness our vows. Thanks for all of it. Loren- your optimism and discipline kept us on pace throughout the night. Whenever the glow of your headlamp disappeared ahead of me, I ran faster. I didn’t want to lose sight of you. Thanks for challenging me to go beyond. Kristin- trail sister, soul sister- your love and encouragement lifted me off the ground. You paced with the perfect mix of compassion, practicality, and honesty. There were certainly other things you could (and probably should) have been doing other than staying up all night helping two exhausted “runners” across almost 40 miles. And when I couldn’t go any further- thank you for your support without judgement. George- you were a consistent force of strength and encouragement. You gave so much that night! I’m sure you waited for what seemed like forever at Michigan Bluff just to patch up our disgusting feet and feed us pizza. You followed us to the river just to be there with our floating drop bag and to show support. And you drove me to the finish line just in time to see Alan cross. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
What we did- we could not have accomplished ourselves. The beauty of our Western States experience this year is in the outpouring of love and support from all of you. The race was a team effort, from start to finish. Alan and I will always be grateful.