Rio Del Lago 100.

“We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” – John Muir

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It started off innocently enough. I signed up for RDL100 after my epic fail at States just to qualify for next year’s lottery and to try to get in one actual 100 before the end of the year. However soon my thoughts were consumed with fantasies of a faster race- my goal became 25 hours (although secretly I wanted to finish sub-24), and my training was right on target. I planned my long runs for maximal effort- less walking and more running. I lost a little weight by being conscious of my carb intake and added strength training with weights and HIT exercises targeting my legs, abdominals, and lower back. But just when training began to really ramp up six weeks before Rio, my tendon in my left foot started to scream. Loudly. All of a sudden, I couldn’t run a mile without a knife-like stabbing sensation that spread from my heal to my toes with every excruciating step. I iced, stretched, massaged, and wore compression. I strapped my foot into a “franken-boot” at night that locked it into a 90-degree angle. It was starting to heal.  Then I ran the Grand Canyon. I was there with Alan. We HAD to run down the south rim of this amazing crack of red earth, across to the north rim and then back again the next day. It was an adventure on our bucket list- a beautiful experience with my best friend. However, it trashed my foot. Three weeks later while checking into my hotel in Folsom, CA for Rio, I couldn’t even walk without a little twinge of soreness. I needed to re-think my goals. I decided to still start strong- that I would try to keep a 25 hour finish pace for as long as possible. If/when I fell apart-  I would just try to relax, soak in the party atmosphere that makes RDL100 such a fun race, meet a few cool runners along the way, and FINISH.

I meet a Mr. Dan Foley in the lobby of the Hampton Inn at 3:50am. Practically every other runner is staying at Lake Natoma Inn 10 miles across town- but it booked up a month ago while I was prancing around the Grand Canyon. Oops… thankfully Dan replied to my request on Facebook and saved George from having to backtrack across town in Daisy (Kristin’s bright yellow ride) to pick me up. He and Kristin need to focus on Norm.  Dan, the only other person in the lobby at that hour and recognizable in Hokas, running shorts, and a hat that said “ultrarunning”, greets me with a big smile. Just another crazy runner like me excited about this adventure. Conversation spikes the drive to the start at Beal’s Point and Folsom Lake. After leaving my drop bags in the sorted piles of other bags, I mingle around the start area trying to keep warm. The weather forecast predicated rain, but thankfully the rain gods decided not to soak us before we headed out. There is just a slight breeze and the crisp smell of Fall -woodfire smoke, falling leaves, and grass damp with morning dew. I practically walk into Betsy. Here from Oregon, I met her first two years ago while we were both crewing at Pine to Palm. Our universes are in a parallel orbit- we both ran Mountain Lakes last year and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. Our little ultrarunning community is growing, but it is still very small. I love these reunions with runners from past races and sharing our commitment to… nature, to the journey, to finding joy in suffering, and to building deep relationships with others who just get “it”.  Norm, Kristen, and George are off to the side. I join them. Norm and I exchange a look and a smile. A lot has happened in the three years since we both first ran and finished this race as our first 100… it feels good to be here again with him.

The race starts with a simple countdown and a running shuffle past the blow-up archway and into the dark. I run with Norm for the first maybe half mile (?). He’s holding back at a slow jog and pacing himself perfectly. Smart man. I keep looking at my Suunto- I don’t usually bother with watches during a long race, but Alan had talked me into wearing it. I had adjusted the settings a few days before thinking that an every 10 second GPS ping would save battery life. I didn’t realize it would also inaccurately chart my pace and distance. My watch is telling me I’m running at an average pace of 12-14 minutes a mile. I know it can’t be right and that I am probably averaging 10 minute miles, but speed up anyway. From the blackness to the right of us, I hear a desperate screech: “BEeeeee QUIET!…. STOP MAKING NOISE!!!!” The yell is repeated over and over in an ever-heighted panicky pitch. I look over at the runner next to me and we both roll our eyes and laugh. Quietly, of course. Are there campgrounds over there? Our voices are low in the stillness of the night and our minds focused on the miles ahead. However, I can imagine the footsteps of 400 runners on a paved bike path right next to your tent WOULD sound a bit like a herd of stampeding buffalo. Poor campers… I am so sorry for that.

Miles blur under the cover of the dark. We run a slight downhill, then flat, then little rolling hills- all paved. We run near the water with views of the lake and bridges that are probably stunning during the day. I vaguely remember this path from the AR50 course 3 years ago- my first ultra-distance race. I’m making great time but my watch! It clocks me at a 12-minute pace. NOT ok. I’m feeling fresh as the first light of morning hits the edge of the horizon. My legs are loose and easily find a rhythm, my breathing is calm and relaxed. I’m fine. And then… just like that. I’m not. The sore twinge in my left foot suddenly shoots up into my calf, and then my entire leg is wrapped in the iron jaws of a massive cramp. I lurch to the right and slow while limping heavily on my good leg. Good God what is this special sort of torture?!  How demoralizing. 13 miles in, and I’m toast. The cramping subsides just enough to run again, then returns. The pattern repeats itself over and over again, and my right leg is now insufficiently handling the extra strain by responding in kind- both legs feel like anchors as I alternate running and walking on this incredibly easy paved pathway. I’m being passed by a lot of runners now- all of them happily chatting without a care in the world. I’m mad at my legs for treating me so badly, and tell them so. And as if mother nature just wants to rub it in- gray clouds thicken above and coat me with a cold drizzling rain. Nice. We pass the campground again- this time on the left and with families awake and eating breakfast over inviting campfires. My watch says 16.2 miles, but suddenly we enter Beal’s Point at mile 18. I spot George first and force a smile as I run by him. Ron and Paula find me in the chaos. They look a little surprised to see me so early, and tell me they just arrived. I’m happy to have their help, but probably don’t act especially grateful. I’m in a foul mood. I’m too warm and take off my rain jacket. I give it to Ron, grab a Snickers from my drop bag, and run out. Best just to keep moving.

We edge out across the dam, then veer onto a connecting trail that skirts around the earth dike. The trails are relatively easy. They are soft and still a little sandy with small rolling hills. I’m starting to feel a little better- probably due to the Motrin I popped before Beal’s Point. I usually avoid Motrin during a long race. I know the possible complications and want to avoid kidney failure. However, it’s chilly this morning and I’m hydrating well. I arrive at Granite Beach aid surprised at how fast the miles are clicking by. Ron and Paula grab me first and motion me over to a cooler filled with delicious drinks- Frappuccino’s and a variety of coconut milks. I’m in love with both of them- my beautiful crew. I pass through the actual aid station without stopping. I’m on fire. The nine and a half miles to Horseshoe Bar fly by- I alternate running and walking as I meet and chat with other runners. I pass a few, and then am passed. These trails are crowded. RDL100 is one of the largest 100 mile trail races in the Pacific Northwest, and I can’t find a consistent running rhythm while slowing down behind groups and then speeding up to pass. The meat grinder comes and goes. I barely notice the little sharp steep hills, technical rocky passes, and knee jarring steps. I’m in my mind comparing this race to the first 15 miles of Western States. The meat grinder, in comparison, feels like a leisurely walk among flowers on a spring day. It’s freaking easy.

I can hear Rattlesnake Bar Aid from 2 miles away. Or, to be more specific, I can hear one woman. She’s screaming and cheering at the top of her lungs. As I hike up a small hill to turn down again into the aid station, I see her. She points at me, jumping up and down, and yells “YOU!!!!”. YOU ARE F-ING BEAUTIFUL!!!!!!, GO GET IT YOU AMAZING THING!!!!”. I’m laughing so hard I can hardly breathe, and tell her “it’s YOU… YOU are beautiful!”. I see Paula and Ron as soon as I enter the crowds and controlled chaos at Rattlesnake. I don’t spend a lot of time there- it’s already almost 1pm and I’m concerned that I won’t make it to the Overlook, mile 44, by my latest goal time of 3pm. I hydrate, and hug them both, and then climb back up that silly little steep hill to the trail. I run and power walk on some of the best trails yet. Smooth and worn by countless other feet over years, they are buttery soft. I run through little fields peppered with old oak trees and small forest groves with several stream crossings. The river remains an ever-constant companion on my right side. I run alone for the first time since the race started, and feel relieved at finally being able to relax and set my own pace. Before I know it, the trail widens into a fire road, I’m back with a large group of runners, and we are starting to climb steeply towards Auburn. The climb doesn’t feel like a whole three and a half miles- probably because for the first time all day, the intermittent drizzle of rain turns into a light deluge. The rain soaks my thin long-sleeved shirt. I know I’m dancing on the edge of hypothermia, and start moving faster. I’m running up towards Alan, towards my kids, and I cannot wait to see them. I crest the top and make the right turn. I see Alan first and give him a big wet cold hug. Ron and Paula are there, and Paula is wearing her pacer bib. She offers to pace, and I gladly accept. It will be nice to have some company. Cole and Aaron are “sword fighting” with a pair of sticks and I grab them both and tickle them. Aaron insists that I try a Krispy Kreme donut “NOW, mom”. I catch on fast. Alan has promised them that as soon as I take my donut, they can have the other two. I sit down, now shivering, and pull off my shoes and socks. I have blisters forming on both feet, but the left foot needs the most help. I lance a blister on my middle toe and wrap it in mole skin. Dry socks and my rain jacket feel amazing. Then, just like that, I’m kissing Alan goodbye and walking out onto the trail towards No Hands Bridge with Paula. We start to jog, and suddenly I’m crippled by a sharp sting on my left middle toe. OMG that blister!! I never get blisters when I run and until now, had no idea just how much they hurt. I limp along for a few miles complaining before the stinging sensation numbs enough to pick up the pace a little. My legs are stiff though and cramping again, and I’m running like a gingerbread man with no knees. I know it’s my own fault- I’m undertrained and started out too fast. We cross the bridge- I am now halfway into this race. I see Loren at No Hands Aid and he gives me a hug. He’s there to pace (of course!) and is waiting for his runner. I’m still eating well, and grab for some of the goodness at the buffet table. Paula and I don’t stay long- it’s too cold. We cross over hwy 49 amid flashing lights and police directing traffic. I start to feel better and Paula pushes me to pick up my pace along a gentle wide trail with the river to the left of us, and hills rolling into more hills on the right.

The sun begins its dive into the horizon behind us. I glance back towards no hands bridge and my eyes are instantly washed in delightful color. Reds and oranges, filtered through the mist, are brushed like paint on canvas into a magical landscape scene. The rain has softened for now into a fine mist. I don’t want to risk exposing my phone to moisture- so you’ll just have to believe me when I say that for a few brief minutes, Auburn CA is immersed in a strong enchanted spell. Fairies with purple and blue translucent wings flutter by us, their wands spraying rainbow glitter-dust over the trail and our shoes. The trees bow and whisper in their husky sweeping voices as they shake their leaves happily over our heads. I can tell you that even the river goddess appears. She rises gracefully out of the water and laughs loudly. She flips her dark curly hair and water droplets like diamonds fly out from her and land with soft splashes around us. Or maybe they are just raindrops. Regardless, we are wrapped up in beauty.

Light dims to blue haze- twilight through the fog and rain. Then darkness swallows. Paula’s headlamp magically appears on her head, while I have to stop and ask for help to pull mine out of my pack. The trail is different in the dark. It’s rocky, muddy now with slick clay, and steep- not “climbing mountains” steep- but just little climb after steep little climb. I’m now cursing those silly fairies we glimpsed earlier- they must have picked up ALT aid station and dropped it further out past this vast maze of wilderness. Even Paula, on fresh legs, keeps mentioning aid should be “soon”. We cluster into a train with other runners, all of them picking their way through the mud. We crest another steep hill and start sliding down into aid. A volunteer yells at us “use the right side of the trail or you’ll fall!”. A pacer behind me tries to encourage his runner with “See? We found the aid station…”, and I hear a grumpy response: “Yea, you told me it was close an hour ago”. ALT is a soggy mud fest with a few tables under tarps. The volunteers here – bless them all! We stop for a few cups of broth and I sit down for just a minute. “There’s always a silver lining”, Paula says. We agree that our silver lining to the rain is the constant threat of hypothermia. Sitting in cold rain isn’t comfortable, so we don’t waste any time. Our path leads back into the darkness.

My stomach violently cramps. Up until now I have been nausea free- eating well and drinking without any problems. We have been running and walking for miles on a rutted single track with a drop off to the right and a steep ascent on the left. There is no space on either side of the trail and no trees- not even a bush- to hide behind. Looking back, a long line of headlamps ring the ridge, emerging out of the foggy darkness in groups of twos and trains of four or more. There is no possibility for privacy. I crouch down on the left side of the trail against the slick embankment as Paula stands guard. Headlamps approach blinding me, and a man’s voice breaks through the night: “hey- you ok?”.  I giggle hysterically as Paula replies very matter-a-factly “yes, just a bathroom break”. The body-less voice in the darkness laughs and moves on. Nobody cares 60 plus miles into a race after running for over 12 hours. We all just become flashes of light in the dark.

We move on in an ultra-running shuffle with walk breaks, taking time to maneuver around and over the endless rocky, muddy, and steep sections of trail. The conversation bounces around, all the while Paula offering a steady consistency of pace and companionship that was real and truly satisfying. We start talking about the women of this crazy sport- about Courtney Dauwalter- a 32-year-old school teacher who won Moab 240 outright, and how tough and determined she must be. I mentioned that at times during races while going out too fast in the beginning, I’ll find myself in a group of all male runners near the front of mid-pack. How there’s so much competition, jockeying for position, and sizing each other up. I get it. I understand and experience that kind of nervous energy and determination to start and finish a race strong. But in a group of guys early in a race, I often find myself wanting to see another trail sister. Ultrarunning women share a special connection with each other. It’s a shared connection to nature and a celebration of the physical act of running under tree canopies and through high grass fields. It’s the love of adventure and exploration, and the process of teaching our bodies to perform more efficiently. It’s also a shared understanding that we need to watch out for each other. We- on average- are at a disadvantage in this sport. Pregnancy and childbirth can knock us out of running races for a year and a half during the most physically athletic years of our lives. Societal expectations sometimes still smother. Men are rarely judged when they spend hours away from their families training for an important race- women often still are.  Women often have to compromise training around monthly hormonal swings that leave us feeling exhausted, and inconvenient menstrual cycles that cause pain and deplete us of iron, a building block of hemoglobin- the carrier of oxygen in our blood. I’ll often pass men stopped directly on the trail in daylight, watering a poor unsuspecting bush. Women walk away from the trail and squat – a fact of nature that cramps our already sore leg muscles and stings our chaffed thighs while cutting minutes off our pace. In a 100 mile race, this alone can cause a woman to finish 15-30 minutes behind a male runner with the same pace. Paula and I agree- these things aren’t talked about enough. We also both agree… the men of CRC are awesome. Respectful, considerate, and non-discriminatory- “our” men get it.

Goat Hill. Our headlamps suddenly shine onto a wall of mud directly in front of us. THIS is the trail? The cursing and yelling of other runners above us confirms our suspicions. It’s a long, slick mudslide without any footholds. Bushes frame the edges of the climb and I consider bushwhacking through them, but it’s too hard to pick out the poison oak in the dark. Paula and I scramble up, feet slipping, on hands, feet, and knees. I rely on momentum and a prayer as my finger nails fill with squishy mud and the water bottle in my hand becomes climbing tool. Somehow, we are the lucky ones who make it to the top of the slide without a fall. We continue to steeply ascend the trail that is still slippery, but dotted with rocks for traction as my legs scream at me to stop. A loud collective gasp of relief comes from a long line of us as we crest the top. THIS is FUN. I wanted to do this.

After what seems like a lifetime, we enter hwy 49 aid. I ask around for Tylenol, and an actual pharmacist approaches me. She hands me a small packet and I snatch it up like an addict as she warns me “eat lots of food- I don’t want your stomach to bleed”. You and me both, sister. I grab two grilled cheese quarters and a cup of steaming broth spooned out of a camp stove by sweet angels. It’s at this aid station that I hear news of two runners with broken ankles, one with a broken collarbone, and another still waiting for help after sliding off the trail and falling 40 feet into a ravine. This “easy 100 miler” is still 100 tough miles. No Hands Bridge with its string of bright lights shines below us. We enter a party, but just stop for a few short minutes. My leg muscles, trashed from intermittent cramping and climbing, feel like they are being soaked in acid and are slowly dissolving- one tiny muscle cell after another. My 25 hour pace goal for Overlook the 2nd time is 10-11pm, but I know by now I’m not going to make it- in spite of Paula’s steady pushing. So, I relax and we power hike/run-shuffle back up this famous trail. Paula calmly admits to me that she thinks she’ll lose a toenail. I’ve been complaining fiercely off and on throughout our time together, and she hasn’t said a word until now. She is one tough woman.

I feel like a drowned sewer rat as we enter Overlook Aid once again. It’s midnight and the rain has finally stopped. I’m thankful for layers of dry clothing and Ron- who has waited hours for us to come back. Ron and I mostly jog down the road. He’s also fighting Plantar Fasciitis. My whole body hurts too much to pay attention to just my left foot, but I know Ron is feeling that “hot coal” sensation, and I sympathize. Sometimes whole body pain is better than a focused pain. We move through cardiac aid quickly and settle into my run/walk routine. Ron is used to moving much faster, and I’m grateful he is now pushing me from up ahead. He runs, looks back, then continues. A bright round orb appears from behind clouds- the full moon shines and reflects light over the water. The trail is easy- rolling gentle hills and obstacle free. It’s ideal- a trail running dream. At Rattlesnake Aid, I pause and look up into the sky. As I do, the moon shoots across the sky from right to left. I look down. Then up- the moon is once again in its original place, but is moving – clouds parting for it. I know I’m not hallucinating. It’s an optical illusion. The clouds must be too thin to contain the moonlight and are being blown across the sky fast. The visual, though, is hypnotizing and makes me dizzy.

Ron gives me his headlamp as my headlamp battery dies. He pulls out an extra headlamp from his pack for himself. I have a flashlight, but the beam bounces around too much in my hand and my eyes are working too hard to find obstacles on the trail. I have an extra set of headlamp batteries… somewhere, but am thankful for a pacer (and friend) who cares. It’s still dark as we enter the infamous meat grinder. This time it does live up to its name…kind of. Compared to my 50k mud party with Paula, the meat grinder gives me little to complain about. However, the constant breaks in rhythm, rocks, little steep climbs and descents, and large steps hurt. I think I still complained.

Ron guides me in the dark. We don’t talk, but just knowing he’s there is comforting. A long race, though, is intensely personal. No one can lead you through the night if your heart isn’t in it. No one can understand how you feel from moment to moment. No one can lift your feet off the ground. Each step becomes a choice, an act of will- a lesson in pain, but also resilience.

The sun finds us still traveling. My blood sugar is crashing, and I force myself to eat a cliff bar. I gag, but keep it down. Ron is now working hard to push me, but I’m limping from blisters on my right foot. I sit down on a log and take off my shoe and sock. I’m horrified. I have four nasty blisters across my foot and my 2nd toenail is barely attached. My socks and shoes have been wet for 24 hours. I should have expected this. We don’t have scissors. I have a strip of mole skin- just one. Ron has a band-aid, but it’s too large for my little toe. I pop two blisters with my fingernails and wrap them with moleskin. I wrap the band-aid around my little toe, but the edge hangs over my toe. I shove everything back into my sock and shoe. I’m pretty sure Ron heard a few (more than a few?) choice words come out of my mouth. Sorry Ron. I shuffle on behind Ron for three slow miles mumbling and moaning, and yelling at every rock that hits my foot. The band-aid on my toe has filled the extra space between my toe and shoe, and is now pressing heavily against my bruised toenails. The pain of THAT focused my mind like a razor. Just. Get. To. Aid. We heard the cowbells and cheering from Granite Beach aid, and I thought I saw the outline of the aid station through the trees to our left. However, the trail snake-like wrapped itself around and out and in again. The sounds of the aid station disappeared as we passed it following the orange ribbons marking the course and mocking us. We are alone, and I don’t remember any of this from yesterday. Ron is just as confused as me. I sit down. I have to take care of my foot. Shoe and sock off again, and I peel the band-aid off. The toenail remained in place, thankfully. I consider running barefoot. At this moment, a beautiful thing happens. A runner with his pacer passes us. The pacer smiles warmly and tells us the trail wraps back onto itself and joins a road. Aid is still ahead. He also gives me a small band-aid that fits my toe perfectly. There is always hope.

We are greeted at Granite Beach with shrieks and f-bomb laced cheers from another woman- different than the day before but just as beautiful. Disco music and costumes and an actual bonfire tempt me to stay awhile. Not fair… given we are just 4.5 miles from the finish line. Ron steals my phone and sits down in a chair to text Alan & Paula an update. I hobble out and keep moving. At my pace, Ron’ll catch up to me in no time. The trail widens into an unpaved bike path of rollers. It’s beautiful running weather, and the ground still sparkles with rain drops from the night. Ron finds me. We hike the hills and turtle-shuffle the downs. He is SO patient with me- this is not at all his 100 mile pace. We find the dike, and turn off onto the side trail. We are within a mile of the finish. Somehow, though, I don’t want it to end. When I cross that finish line- the responsibilities of middle age, of motherhood, of a stressful job, of navigating complex relationships, of never having enough time- will all come crashing back. I take a deep breath and soak it all in. I’m alive. I’m in love. I’m walking it in with a full, happy heart.

We crest the dam and we are running on it. Ron isn’t pushing my pace now- I’m keeping up. I see Paula and Alan, and our boys. I almost keep going… then stop. I grab Aaron’s hand and push Cole out onto the course. They are crossing with me. We run through the silly blow-up arch and I pose for a picture from the race director. It’s underwhelming and brief and feels… in a way, unfinished… just like every 100 mile finish. How do you wrap up a journey with just a finish line? I lay on the grass and Alan treats me like a queen- bringing me breakfast and hot chocolate. Ron and Paula cover me in a space blanket. It feels deeply satisfying to not just have finished- but to have experienced this journey with the support of the man I love more deeply than words can say, and the companionship and encouragement of two like-minded friends.

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Many thanks to Kristin and George, who drove out of their way to Pacifica to give me a ride to Folsom. You both have generous hearts of gold. Paula- you were an anchor during the darkest and toughest miles of the race. I will always treasure the memories of our adventure together. Ron- my goodness you are one patient pacer! You pushed me when I could still run, and just offered support when I couldn’t- you never became frustrated and you never judged. Norm- I thought about you all day and night. I wondered how you were doing, where you were, and what you were going through. You are an inspiration to me. And Alan. I know it was difficult for you to simply watch and wait. But having you there with Cole and Aaron, and knowing that our family is ok, gave me the ability to run without worry. Your love and support were everything.

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