From GearJunkie’s short interview with Kilian Jornet, this year’s Western States winner:
Is ultra-running more physical or mental?
It is impossible to separate physical and mental — if you have mental, you construct the physical. It’s not just a percentage of one or the other.
(Warning: this is looooong! I talk about every freakin’ aid station! and lots of other things in between!)
“She’s so calm,” Sanguinity said about me to Leboyfriend, as we sat in our campsite on Friday night. “If that was me the night before a climb, I’d be all keyed up.”
Call it fatalism, or denial, but the reason I was so calm was that I really didn’t think I would finish the Mt. Hood Pacific Crest Trail 50-Miler Saturday. I mean, fifty miles, that’s just unreal. It seemed like a good idea when I signed up, and I kept telling myself that just making it to the starting line was progress after being DNS (registered but Did Not Start) a couple years ago, but… nah. I’d be pulled at a cutoff.
We all went to bed early on Friday, tired from the omg endless packing that every camping trip seems to involve and the drive up the mountain. (We did make a stop on the way up at Little Crater Lake, where children told each other loudly that if you went in the deep blue water you’d be PARALYZED. By the cold, assumedly, though they made it sound like there were neurotoxins floating around.) I slept soundly until about an hour before the alarm went off, at a quarter to five.
I was taking the early start at 5:30. I pinned my number on (single digits, #9! It was just from registering so early, but I told Sang it meant I was an elite, and that’s why I was in the “first corral” at 5:30. I’m so hilarious), and put on my Dirty Girl gaiters for the first time ever, and somehow I fell into getting-dressed meditation or something, because I looked at my clock and it was 5:21 and I was still at the campsite! Crap! The starting line at the ranger station was close, but not that close. We booked over there in time for the last of the pre-start instructions, so at least I could see where everybody went as they jogged out of the clearing. Sang took my drop bags to turn in, I distributed kisses, and off I went after the rest of the pack.
We followed the Miller Trail to the PCT where it follows the margin of Timothy Lake. There was enough light that no one needed a headlamp; the air was cool but not cold. Pretty, pretty trail, with glimpses of the lake through the trees. The first aid station was close to Little Crater Lake where we’d been the day before. It was minimalist in amenities (no drop bags, porta-potty, or spectators), but had the cheeriest volunteers of any aid station. Someone took my water bottle to refill while I had a little Coke and picked a few snacks from the table. At least one race director must be very into hygiene– everything was in serving-size packets instead of the traditional big bowl o’ food that everyone dips their grubby hands into. This aid station had even placed trash stations a few hundred yards along the trail, so we wouldn’t have to pack the wrappers. Great service!
On to the aid station at Hwy. 58, or as I found out it’s called, “the mosquito place.” Sang and LeB were waiting for me there! I didn’t even need to get into my drop bag, as they had the purple Dr. Eldritch tote with all my race stuff in it. First thing, I combed my hair, which I hadn’t had a chance to do in the rush to start. Then I put on sunscreen while the bugs had a feast. Then up the trail again to the turnaround at Hwy 26, near the Frog Lake sno-park. I was running well and making good time! Sang and LeB met me again. I tried to convince them to skip the mosquitoes on the way back and just meet me back at the start/finish, but they didn’t listen and shooed me onto the trail. :)
My knee started complaining on the way back, but I could still run. I walked some, but played little games to keep running as much as I could. Walk in shade, run in sunshine. Run every time you see bear grass blooming. Stuff like that. And not for the first time, I contemplated my theory that pain below a certain threshold can be metabolized into the kind of stress chemicals that are great for running! (The threshold being nausea.) I decided not to air my theory to Sanguinity in case she was unable to resist a withering look even during my race. Oh, I also thought of lots of brilliant titles and lines for this post. Way better than this. Gone now.
By then the early-start and regular-start people were mingling and there were lots of people passing, coming and going. When I got back to Hwy. 58, I ate some candied ginger from my drop bag and sunscreened my face, which I’d forgotten the first time around. I admit, it was awesome to see LeB and Sang again! Then back to Little Crater Lake and then the ranger station! I pulled in there around noon or 12:15. The knee was dictating more walking, less running, but as I said to my team, “Sometimes I’m still running even when nobody’s looking!” Sang had my pace worked out and was confident I could make the cut-off at the farthest aid station, by 4:15 p.m. I started to wonder, while she got me a flat coke and some salt tabs: was it actually possible that I might finish?
I didn’t think about it much, though, because “one cut-off at a time” was the strategy I’d decided on before the race. That and “be tough.” I’d just been reading about Juli Astairs winning Vol State, so she and Marcia were my toughness models. And Anita Ortiz, and another woman I heard on a podcast who talked about “turning off the pain.”
Soon after I started south both knees were hurting enough that I couldn’t run much at all. A shame to miss all the free speed on the downhills! But power-walking uphills was still fun, and there was quite a bit of level trail. The PCT is graded for horses and tends to follow ridgelines, so as trails go it’s gentle. There were quite a few horses on the trail, and at our campgrounds, too, all looking gorgeous and healthy. I was happy to step off the trail and stand quietly, but as usual felt guilty for taking the uphill side, which I believe is against horsey etiquette. I just don’t want one to slip and fall on me!
Soon I passed a sign marking the border between Mt. Hood National Forest and the Warm Springs Reservation. Traveling on the trail itself is allowed, but no spectators were allowed at the aid stations on Warm Springs land. The first of the two aid stations seemed to be right in the middle of the forest, like magic. (It turned out there was a gravel road just beyond.) I got there at about 1:40, with six miles to go before the turnaround and 4:15 cutoff. I was in good shape.
The knee pain was not good, and I was dismayed when I hit some long, steep-feeling downhills. (Runners who were still, you know, running, probably loved it!) I had to inch my way down some sections. There was a pretty one-log bridge crossing a stream at the bottom, but I didn’t dare stop and play lest I lose time. (The bugs were also a deterrent.) Someone told me I had a beautiful smile, though, so that was a lift. :)
I walked on, mostly uphill now, but already dreading the future downhill this implied. People passing me on their way back from the Warm Springs Meadow aid station told me encouraging things about raspberry sherbet, but I was really low. I had been speed-walking with purpose, but now I was trudging. I wasn’t going to make it back to the finish before the 6:30 cutoff. Should I turn in my race number at Warm Springs Meadow, even if I was there a bit before the cutoff? Or wait to be pulled at the next aid station, where at least I would have made it forty-some miles (but slowly and painfully)?
Luckily, I at least knew that it’s a bad idea to walk into an aid station and quit. What you do is, you sit down and have a drink and a snack and rest a couple of minutes, and then decide. So I did that. The sherbet was awesome. Amazing. I asked the volunteer behind the snack table how the sweeps worked. She said “Well, this aid station closes at 4:15. And the course closes at 6:30? You still have a margin.” (It was about a quarter til four.) I don’t think she really understood my question, but that was good enough for me. I didn’t get into my drop bag at this station either. I turned and walked back down the trail with my ice cream still in hand.
And it went great! For a long time I had good speed and energy. I met a few more people on their way to the aid station, and encouraged them with talk of sherbet like people had encouraged me. (They were insufficiently impressed, like I had been.) I was having a little taste of what I believe is one of the coolest things about ultras– you can fade way down, and then come back. Deer flies zoomed in circles around me and dust hung over the trail, but things were fine.
Two older guys I’d seen from time to time throughout the race passed me. They were in it together, trotting along and getting ‘er done. They asked me if I was okay and if I needed anything; I said, “No, no, my knees are making me slow but I’m good.” They jogged off and I heard one say to the other, “Yeah, I think my age is making me slow!” I caught up to them at the aid station. They’d been booking in case the aid station shut down at 5:30, but although the truck was being packed up there was still ice, water, and gummi bears. (And lots of other stuff, but those three items were what I needed to sustain me.)
Six more miles. My burst of energy had dimmed, but I focused on putting as much distance as possible between me and that aid station, so that if a sweep did come along, I wouldn’t be ordered to go back there. I was glad every time I crossed a dirt road. When I really flagged, I figured that sitting down and a snack were what had revived me before, so I sat on a rock or tree stump long enough to unwrap some food and sneak a peak at my watch. The bugs got me going again. Several very perky people passed me with a “good job.” (That’s the universal thing runners say to each other, so I say it too, although doesn’t it seem a bit judgey?)
The 6:30 cutoff time had passed. I was back in the Mt. Hood National Forest, and looked around to see if Sanguinity might have come to meet me. She wasn’t there, but a bit later down the trail, there she was! She was walking with a guy who I assumed was a sweep, but who turned out to be the brother of another runner. He went on to look for his sister, and Sang turned around to walk me in.
It was great to be with her, and not have to be so self-propelled anymore. We were passed by a couple more people. I stepped aside for a passel of women who were practically dancing down the trail while chatting. One or two of them passed me, but then another one saw the race number pinned to my shirt. “Hey, a RUNNER!” she said. They were the sweeps! Much different than the reluctant but stern figure I had imagined holding out a hand for my race number. Sang made a joke about how we had politely stepped off to let them go by. “Not on our watch!” one said, and they tagged along behind us, removing the ribbons that marked the course and laughing and burbling with each other. (Being a sweep looks fun!)
Finally we came to the road in the campsite, and then up to the road leading to the finish area. LeB was up ahead and called to the race people that a runner was coming. Several kids started yelling it too. By the time I turned the corner there was applause and cheering. Several dozen people were still around and all of them seemed really happy when I crossed the imaginary finish line! I thought it was so, so sweet of the race people to keep the course open past 6:30. They still had bananas and drinks out on a table, and an earnest volunteer told me to sit in ANY chair I wanted. I remembered then to ask Sang what time it was. 7:24, she said. A little under fourteen hours.
I sat on some steps (they really were packing up the furniture) and had a box of delicious warm chocolate milk. Sang was horrified and fascinated. Another volunteer came and dropped some extra snacks off. Aww! I was really happy. Did I mention that Sang and LeB both cried when I finished? :)
I didn’t even have to walk back to the campsite, as the car was parked just up the road. Sang went and got the solar shower she’d been tinkering with during the day and set it up for us. I peeled off my gaiters and shoes and socks to examine my filthy blistered feet. LeB built a fire, and Sang made dinner.
Both feet blistered pretty badly– the ball of each foot is basically a large blister, with extra blisters on each heel and most toes. Clearly at this distance or longer I should pre-tape. The knees recovered quickly, as they do. Race results were posted here this afternoon, and there I am, DFL (Dead Fucking Last, for you non-runners) in 106th place of 106. Another baby step for this baby ultrarunner. “You know where I’d be if this were Badwater?” I said to Sang. “Just past Stovepipe Wells. Looking up at my first climb.” I have a long way to go, if I want to go there.
I don’t have any races on my calendar. I’m going to take awhile and get strong, try to make my knees bombproof again like they were all too briefly after that month of backpacking. I did this race on guts, but if there’s a next one I want to do it on good training and knowledge– and not keep anyone waiting an extra hour again!
I am really happy I finished. Really grateful to my amazing support crew. And really glad to be on Spaceship Couch with my feet up!
I got an email on Friday to say I’ve been accepted into the Independent Publishing Resource Center Certificate Program, fiction/nonfiction track! Ever since I applied I’ve been thinking about zines, letterpress (which I didn’t think I was interested in but now suddenly I am), stories, handmade boxed sets, and the cool people I’m likely to meet there. I’m psyched!
Other weekend highlights:
I zipped through The Wolves of Willoughby Chase over the weekend– I don’t think I read it as a kid! although I had Black Hearts at Battersea on my shelf. Thoroughly satisfying tale of the evil governess, plucky orphans, and giant estate with roaming packs of wolves. It prompted me to poll people– do you like reading books set in the same season you’re living through, or the opposite? I’m an opposite girl. When it’s a hot summer day and I’m reading about snow and ice on the moors, part of the enjoyment is feeling how the author is creating the chill and making me believe it even while I’m sweating and eating popsicles.
Maybe next winter I’ll be rereading Mary Stolz’s Go and Catch a Flying Fish. I think that’s the most summery book I know.
I often wish that writing had events like running has races. Writing has deadlines. Ugh. Running has RACE DAY, when you wake up suddenly, eat your breakfast out of a sense of duty, line up all chilly and goose-bumped– and then you go out and do it. I haven’t found a way to feel that performance aspect in writing.
Yesterday Sanguinity and LeBoyfriend saw me off at the Forest Park 50k. I ended up walking 80 percent of the course because of knee pain, and finished only 15 minutes before the time limit. My time was something like 8 hours and 45 minutes. If it had been a training run on my own, I’m sure I would have packed it in long before 31 miles. But it was a training run (for July’s PCT 50-miler) and race day.
The time on my feet was valuable in itself, because I’ll be trundling along for 13 hours in July. I’ll just need to do it faster!
It was a lovely soft overcast day in the woods. I heard a pair of owls calling back and forth, and saw several of the little gray mice they probably love to eat. The thimbleberries are still green, but a few salmonberries were ripe. The trail was plenty muddy, but that’s spring in Portland.
The training notes I made seem so, so obvious to me now.
A couple of times, my experience gave me the pleasant feeling of being able to cope. I went down the wrong path for a few switchbacks, but I figured it out, got back on course, and let it go. I was hours slower than I’d hoped, but except for some chagrin at keeping Sang and LeB out all day, it didn’t really get to me. That steadiness is definitely not a personality trait– it’s something that training and racing has given me, and I love it. It’s like not freaking out over free-writing or a short writing assignment: some days are better than others, no big deal.
Of course, I’m not so unflappable that I don’t love having my amazing crew to take care of me. It wasn’t until I had eaten some finish-line food and we were ready to go that Sang and LeB revealed that the car had broken down (again) and transportation home would take a bit of doing. You know you’re a real ultrarunner when your crew starts strategically keeping secrets from you!