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Bryce Canyon 100 – A Hot Mess

The Bryce Canyon 100 and I have a love-hate relationship, an unhealthy dynamic that borders on the abusive: the course beats me up every time, but it’s so beautiful out there that I forget all the pain by the time registration opens again. It’s a vicious cycle. Last time I ran this race, I ended up with an ankle injury that took months to heal completely. Have I learned anything from this experience? No, I’m back for more. I should leave, but in truth I am too enamored with Bryce to break up with it. Here is the story of our latest weekend fling, which was really a threesome, since my amazing crew/photographer/husband combo model David decided to join the fun by running the 50:

It’s Friday morning, June 16, just before 6 a.m. This year’s weather forecast promised record high temperatures, many of us wear jackets or half zips and still shiver.

The glorious sunrise serves as a fitting backdrop to the countdown. At “Go!,” 300 members of the lunatic fringe club of the running community gallop down a dirt road that soon turns to singletrack. Much of the Bryce 100 follows the Grandview trail. True to its name, the views leave runners in awe. Even speedsters take breaks to enjoy the scenery, and to take pictures. I feel like I’m bursting with energy, so I pass a lot of people.

I arrive at Blubber Creek, mile 27, an hour ahead of when I thought I would get there. Could I have gone out too fast? Someone tells me I am third in the women’s field, with 70-plus miles to go. Around mile 30, a blonde woman with an ironman tattoo comes into view. We chat for a few minutes. Amy is from Texas, says she is struggling with the altitude, but she looks superfit in spite of that. I surge ahead on an uphill, but expect to see her again.

I have found my stride. It’s hot, but I feel strong. The miles click by. No need for music, no need for entertainment other than the cicadas singing in the grass. David, aka my amazing cheerleader/crew/photographer/husband combo model is waiting for me at Straight Canyon, mile 40. He tells me the first-place woman is only 23 minutes ahead, refills my pack, tells me to eat something and shoos me back out with a kiss and a handful of potato chips.

I take off at a brisk trot, in pursuit of the first-place woman. Soon, my back feels wet. While I appreciate the cooling effect, I realize after a few minutes that water is trickling out of my pack. Nooooo! This bladder is tricky, and I did not check to make sure it was closed all the way. Now, I have only a little bit of water left, not enough to hydrate me until the Pink Cliffs aid station in the heat of the afternoon. I do the smart thing, which is to retrace my steps back to the aid station. While I refill the pack, Ironwoman Amy runs in, looking strong. My lead on her has whittled down to nothing. I don’t even bother to add nuun tabs to my water, but do make sure the bladder is closed all the way before I exit.

It’s a long climb up to Pink Cliffs, but conversations with fellow runners make the miles fly by: I compliment Chris, from the flatlands of Illinois, on his power hiking technique, which he says he has perfected on a stair master at his local gym. A young guy whose name my ultra brain can’t recall is blasting music from portable speakers. We break into an impromptu and out of tune version of Born to Run that makes everyone within earshot cringe. The view from the top is worth every grueling second it took to get there. I take a deep breath, feeling grateful and very lucky.

  The last five miles to the turnaround have become more technical than I remember: downed trees, washed-out sections, tricky bits. I try to find a balance between running as fast as possible and avoiding another twisted ankle. David is waiting for me at the aid station. Like a race car pit crew of one, he helps me change my socks and tries to get me to eat something other than watermelon slices. This is the last time I will see him today. He needs to go back to our hotel and prepare for his 50, which starts the next morning. We hug, then I am back on my feet and back on the course in record time.

The sun is starting to lose some of its brute force. I know I am way too far behind the first-place woman to catch her, but I want to fight for second. Amy is close behind me, approaching the turnaround as I head out. I run strong all the way back to Straight Canyon, soaking up the views of the hoodoos in the setting sun and feeling intensely alive.

Mile 62. I am sitting in a chair at the aid station, gulping down a can of ginger ale. It’s 8:30 pm, time to get ready for the night ahead. Should I change into long pants? I remember the chilly morning, and the near-freezing conditions from my last Bryce 100, so I wiggle into my tights and pull on a half zip. It’s still a little too warm, but I expect temperatures will drop soon. I’m wrong. By the time I turn on my light, it’s cooling down, but not very much. My running skirt is miles behind me now, crumpled inside my drop bag at Straight Canyon. I have more warm layers waiting for me at Blubber creek, but no shorts, or short sleeve tops, which I now regret. Unless I want to run naked, which is probably against Utah state laws, I will be stuck in my tights until the finish line. 
Darkness falls like a velvet blanket. I keep running at a decent pace, but on a lonely stretch of trail around mile 70, I do what I do in every 100 once or twice: I turn off my lights, look up at the sky, and listen to the night sounds. I feel itchy and sweaty, but much more than that, I feel lucky – lucky to be out here, lucky to experience this moment of solitude and wonder, alone with the universe, one with the trees and the stars. Even the pain, coming alive in my quads and hamstrings now, is cause for celebration. I am here. The time is now. I breathe in joy. I breathe out gratitude. It’s the simple magic of life.

Steps behind me break the mood of contemplation. It’s Alex, originally from France, now living in Colorado. We’ve spent some miles together earlier, before he hit a low point at the last aid station, but now he pulls ahead while I stay behind. A couple of other runners pass me over the next few miles. It’s finally cool enough for tights and long sleeves, but now my quads are telling me to slow down. By mile 80, they are yelling. This race reserves some of its most brutal climbs for the last 20 miles. I knew that this morning, when I hammered down these hills, but the morning was too beautiful to take it easy. Now, in the darkest hour before dawn, my legs are screaming bloody murder. I can feel blisters forming on my feet. My new head lamp, powerful but heavier than my old one, has dug a dent into my skull. I walk all uphills by now, and jog the downhills. On one of those I stub my toe, which joins the growing number of protesting body parts. My toes, feet, thighs, and forehead are waving banners saying:”Enough abuse!” or “Are we there yet?” Only my stomach is cooperating for once, happily digesting another Stinger Waffle, but everything else threatens to go on strike. Even the picture of Ironwoman Amy running past me to a second place finish fails to motivate me.

The nine miles to Thunder mountain aid station take forever, but there’s light on the horizon, and only eight miles or so left to go. My time goal of 25 hours has slipped away during my time in the pain cave, and even 26 hours now seems unlikely. It’s ok. I know I will finish, and resolve to a) get done before the day gets hot and b) enjoy the remaining miles, no matter what.

I exit the last aid station, hobbling on my blisters. About 30 minutes later, I get to a crossroads. The pink 100-mile flags lead up a steep mountain on my right, but so do yellow flags I don’t remember seeing before. I follow the pink, then have second thoughts about halfway up. This is an out and back course, and I don’t remember seeing a sign saying Red Canyon this morning. I climb back down, to find two guys I remember from the aid station scratching their heads at the intersection, asking themselves the same questions. We explore the other direction, which lacks flags altogether and also looks unfamiliar. A fourth runner joins us, and we go back up the mountain together, though none of us remembers this stretch from the morning. None of us has a pacer, i.e. someone who is still thinking straight.

Between the four of us, we don’t have enough brain cells left to make any sort of rational decision. We decide to stay together until we find the finish. Jeffrey, Jonathan, Josh, and Katrin, four sleep-deprived, utterly exhausted souls staggering through a beautiful desert morning. From the top, the view is beautiful but still unfamiliar. The pink flags look reassuring. The yellow ones do not. I remember my phone, on airplane mode in my pack, and notice we have cell reception. My mushy brain spits out one more bright idea: call the race founder! Matt Gunn answers, sounding surprised when I ask him if he has changed the course. No, not really. Yes, it sounds like we’re on the right trail. Yes, we’ve been through here this morning, and the yellow flags are for the half marathoners, which share part of the course with the 100-mile lunatics. I thank Matt, wondering if he will still respect me after this conversation. At least our little group is reassured. The sunrise is gorgeous, but I’m still wearing my long-sleeve top and tights, which makes me dread the rising temperatures. We are in similar stages of physical distress and agree to power hike the rest of the way together. How many more miles? There can’t be many. We stagger along a series of serpentines, up and down. My sunglasses are in the Straight Canyon drop bag, at mile 62, and the bright morning sun is playing tricks with my eyes. I see Gandalf the wizard in his pointy hat . . . no, it’s a tree. I am not the only one seeing unlikely creatures: Jeff describes a Panda bear, Jonathan a playground, complete with playing children.

A clearing with horse corrals and an old outhouse finally jogs my memory. We are on the right trail! We are going home! One more uphill. No, another one. And another. Two kids ride mountain bikes. We make sure they are real people, then ask them whether they have seen a finish line. Yes, they have, just a little ways ahead. We scrape up our last reserves of energy. My toes hurt so much that all other pain pales in comparison, but we’re almost there. A campsite. The finish line? No, another half mile or so along a dirt road . . . Finally, there it is! All four of us cross in 26:45, hours slower than I had planned, but somehow still good enough for second place female.

Our four-runner fellowship disbands, with hugs and congratulations. Then, I remember the pain I’m in. There is blood seeping from my shoes, making me feel like Cinderella’s evil stepsister. The amazing and not the least bit squeamish Toby Langmann-Gunn doctors my blisters, but my day is not over: After a shower and a nap, I drive to the Proctor Canyon aid station to pick up David, who ended up severely dehydrated and made the wise decision to drop at mile 33. I don’t like to overuse the word “epic,” but it applies to this weekend in its truest sense.

Bryce is a brutal race, especially in record heat. Bryce is also one of my favorite 100s. It’s challenging. It’s gorgeous. It’s unforgettable. This was my 11th 100, and I am still learning how to run these beasts. I already know I will be back for another shot at a sub-25 hour finish next year.

Thank you, Matt Gunn, Toby, Tana, and everyone else at Ultra Adventures. Thank you, Jeff, Josh, Jonathan, Alex, Chris, and everyone else I shared some miles with. Thank you, most of all, David Silva, for yet another romantic getaway weekend. Life is good!

Recovery hike before driving home to New Mexico on Sunday.

 

Tools We Did Not Know We Needed: The Best New App Ideas for Ultra Runners

 

 

The AppStore is a crowded place, with tons of games, calculators, and productivity enhancers. It is now possible to fritter away hours and hours trying to find new ways to save a few minutes of time. Yet, I feel the digital marketplace neglects the rich market of ultra runners. Our needs are different from those of the general population, so it’s no wonder we don’t yet have the tools we didn’t know we needed. Beyond Strava, I can think of some useful apps for those of us who don’t feel complete without their cell phones:

A calculated effort

1. Mushy Brain – The Finish Time Calculator for Ultra Runners

Ever made finish time predictions that were a little too optimistic? Are your fingers too swollen during your run to use the crude, basic calculator on your phone? Is your brain unable to perform basic mathematical equations after mile 65? We’ve got the answer!

My low-tech 2015 Western States pace chart, lovingly prepared by by husband David, who would never insist on the ultra signup interlock device.

Trained to recognize your deteriorating linguistic patterns, including grunting sounds, over the course of an ultra, this app lets you use your voice to calculate and re-calculate when you’ll be done. Its superior algorithms consider a variety of data points for accuracy instead of just the number of miles to the finish: air temperature, altitude, regularity (or irregularity) of footfalls, number and impact severity of random gravity checks, nausea level and/or barfing frequency, and the deteriorating linguistic patterns mentioned earlier. The premium version includes additional calculators for when you will reach the next aid station, when the runner behind you will pass you unless you speed up, and even an alarm for when to wake up from your trailside nap if you still want to make the final cutoff. Hours of entertainment will make the miles fly by.

Leadville 2016, mile 92. My calculations for reaching the finish line needed some adjustment.

2. Rattle – The App That Will Make You Move Again during an Ultra, Guaranteed.

 

Are you tired? Are your feet dragging? Do you still have 50-plus miles to go? Release your own safe, legal PED in the form of an adrenaline jolt mid-race.
This app is linked to your GPS watch. Once your pace slows to an unacceptable level (which you set before race day, based on your goal finish time), you hear an unmistakeable, bone-chilling rattling sound . Guaranteed to at least double your ground speed for the next five miles, or your money back.

San Diego 100, 2016. I did hear a rattlesnake at mile 43, which gave me a burst of speed in spite of the 105 degree heat.

Disclaimer I: Use sparingly. Habituation will progressively blunt the effect. In-app purchases therefore include other scary animal sounds, or just a rustle coming from the bushes, which works well for those with lively imaginations, especially in the dark.

Disclaimer II: Manufacturer will not be legally or morally responsible for injured (or deceased) runners who confuse the sound of the Rattle App with an actual rattlesnake and get bitten as a result.

Matt Gunn’s amazing eco-commodes trailer at an Ultra Adventures race. Unfortunately, they are not available in the middle of the woods.

3. Potty Map – You Can Go There!

An idea whose time is overdue. The world is not your oyster, it’s your restroom. Detailed, large-scale interactive map shows your current distance to rivers and residential dwellings, plus bushy trees, rocks, and other visual barriers close to your route.

Never trust a sock in the woods.

The paid premium version adds vegetation density, wind direction, warning flags for cacti, briars, thorny vines and poison ivy, plus the location of plants with large, soft leaves for emergency situations, e.g. when you find yourself without TP or an extra sock. Take care of your most pressing needs with confidence.

4. Ear Worm Be Gone! – The Tune Remover

Which is worse? This . . .

Song stuck in your head at 2 a.m. and driving you crazier than you already are? You’re too tired to use willpower effectively at that point. Besides, scientific studies confirm that the only reliable, safe way to get rid of an ear worm is to replace it with another. This means you have a say in what you want to hear over and over. Feel empowered! Even better if the new ear worm makes you run faster, just because you want to get away from it. This app gives you many delightful options, ranging from YMCA by The Village People to Gangnam Style.

. . . or this?

Pay $1 extra for even more imaginative choices, including commercial jingles for used cars and excerpts from Donald Trump’s inaugural address.

5.Stop RUI – Spousal control for Ultrasignup

Developed in collaboration with the SOAR* coalition. If you’ve ever been guilty of RUI (registering under the influence) as described here: http://runkat.com/wordpress/?p=738
Your partner will appreciate this handy and simple interlock device. Breath alcohol levels above the legal limit will block the registration link on Ultrasignup, or block the Ultrasignup site from opening altogether. Add-ons include interlock devices for irunfar.com, ultrarunning.com, ultrarunnerpodcast.com, trailrunnernation.com and other websites that could be classified as gateway drugs to ultra running. This app might save your marriage. Residents of Colorado and California should note that a version sensitive to cannabis consumption is in the testing phase.

Don’t get on Ultrasignup when you’re seeing double.

*Significant Others Against RUI

Which of these would you use? What did I forget? Please let me know!

It’s a good time to be alive and running, with or without these apps –

See you out there,

Katrin

Monument Valley 2017: A Race so Beautiful it Cures What Ails You

Dawn over East and West Mitten

I spite of its tiny size, the Epstein-Barr virus is a formidable enemy that zaps your energy. I’ve been fighting it since last December. By early February,  I was able to start running again, but in March, with the Monument Valley 50 just days away, I realized the evil virus had robbed me of my running confidence. Could I still run 50 miles? I had no idea. I had signed up for the race  when I was healthy, when I logged between 70 and 80 miles most weeks, sometimes more. For the last three months, my mileage had lingered around 45, counting lots of walking miles. It only crept above 70 a week before the race, which made my taper very short.

The couple who runs ultras together is happy together: David and I before the start

In spite of my suboptimal training, I wanted to run Monument Valley because it is my favorite race on this planet, hands down. There was no way I would miss it, but I had not pushed myself beyond a very easy pace since last year. I had not pinned on a bib since October. Because I felt unfit, apprehensive, and unsure of what the day would bring, I briefly considered joining my husband David in the 50k, but then decided to run the 50 miler, rather than racing it. My plan was to take it easy, to listen to my body, and to just enjoy a day of being immersed in so much breathtaking scenery.

Ultra friends are the best kind of friends

On race morning, runners shiver from a mixture of cold and anticipation. We greet the dawn with a Navajo prayer, just one of the many special touches making this race a unique experience that transcends pure competition.

Too beautiful for words.Photo: Quang Kevin Le

The sun peeks out over East and West Mitten when we take off. True to my race plan, and also because David and I and our friend Quang were so busy taking pictures of the spectacular sunrise that we almost missed the 50-mile start, I file into the back of the pack, happily trotting down the Wildcat trail behind other runners who do not seem to be in a big hurry.
The forecast has promised interesting weather: overcast skies, wind, a good chance of thunderstorms later in the day. In other words, anything is possible, from PR conditions to a repeat of the 2014 inaugural Monument Valley, which took place in a sand storm. A rain jacket and a head lamp are waiting in my drop bag at Three sisters, the Grand Central Aid Station. I hope to not need either, but like a good girl scout, I’ve brought everything I might use, except for the heart rate monitor that guided my recovery training. I want to enjoy the day, to run as fast and as far as I can. I don’t want to worry about data.

Off we go. Photo courtesy of Quang Kevin Le

A few miles in, my legs remember what to do. They settle into a steady pace across the sandy ground, allowing me to take in the desert scenery: deep washes, silhouettes of mesas and giant rocks in the distance, sagebrush, a few gnarled juniper bushes – a picture of serene perfection I never get tired of. We reach the picturesque Three Sisters aid station, next to a hogan and some horse corrals. The Monument Valley Ultra course is like a cloverleaf: different sections keep looping back to this hub, which makes it a crew and family friendly race.

The view from Mitchell Mesa.

Last year, the climb up Mitchell Mesa was the final part of the 50-mile course. Saving the best for last also meant that the back-of-the-packers climbed up there in the dark and did not get to enjoy the spectacular views. This year, we’re scrambling up there early in the day, on fresher legs. It’s a short climb, but a steep and technical one. It’s also an out and back section, which means that, in addition to soaking up the glorious vistas, I can see how many 50-mile runners are ahead of me: two, free, four, five . . . I think I’m in seventh place. Not too shabby. My competitive instinct, in deep hibernation since last December, finally begins to stir.

My nutrition for 30-plus miles

Back at Three Sisters,the Swedish Fish look more appealing than healthier options, so I grab a handful of these gummy treats before heading out on the green loop, aka a ten-mile sightseeing tour of iconic arches: the Big Hogan, the Ear of the Wind.

The Big Hogan, a special place worth the short detour.

An overcast sky keeps the desert from heating up, and I am moving at a decent pace, passing a few other women, without bothering to check whether they’re 50k or 50 mile runners. My competitive instinct yawns and stretches, but slumbers on. I take extra time to step in to the Big Hogan, to look up at the sky, to take pictures of horses looking at runners. I take time to savor each Swedish Fish, to feel my feet sink into the sand with each step. I feel like the luckiest human alive. I also feel strong again, for the first time since December.

Three Sisters comes back into view around mile 25, the half way point. I’m happy I didn’t switch to the 50k, happy to not be almost done. Time to refill my pack, time to grab more Swedish FIsh, time to head back out. A woman with a blonde pony tail next to me is wearing a 50-mile number. My competitive instinct is waking up with a sudden jolt, eyes wide, nostrils flaring.

Halfway there. Photo courtesy of David Silva.

A familiar voice calls my name: it’s David, passing through Three Sisters for the final time on the 50k course. A brief hug, a photo. The blond ponytail charges ahead, bouncing up the hill at breakneck pace. I wave a quick good-bye to my husband, then charge after it in hot pursuit, my fidgeting, excited competitive instinct egging me on.

Yes, it’s sandy.

I’m definitely racing now, catching up to the woman with the blond ponytail a few miles down the trail. I pass her. She passes me back later, looking invincible. I catch back up, and we run together for a while, along a sandy wash that seems to go on forever. We commiserate. We catch up to another runner, who joins us. Then, my stomach is beginning to rebel.

Maybe nothing but 50 or so Swedish Fish were not the best fueling option? I take some ginger. It doesn’t help. I slow down, telling my competitive instinct to shut up. The blond ponytail, still looking super strong, and probably smarter about her nutrition than I was, moves further and further ahead until she’s out of sight. Good for her. At the next aid station, I look past the candy. Instead, I chew a small piece of bacon, then swig some fizzy coke – a strange combination that sometimes works. My stomach quits lurching. I open a Stinger waffle that’s been sitting in my pack and nibble on it. Energy flows back into my tired legs.

No words needed.

Ten miles left to go. A Navajo man on a beautiful horse named Mustang points me in the right direction. My competitive instinct pipes up again. I’ve been running with two guys named Joe and Mike for the last few miles, but now leave them behind. Time to see what’s left in this old body. I pass a woman I have not seen before, but no trace of my nemesis with the blond ponytail.

The giant sand dune at mile 45. It looks a lot more intimidating in person.

Last year, we ran this part of the course in the opposite direction. I remember sliding down a giant sand dune somewhere near Brigham’s Tomb. Sure enough, there it is, only we have to climb up this monster today. Time to dig deep, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. An eternity later, I reach the top. Dark clouds gather over the Mittens in the distance. The wind picks up. The air crackles. I smell rain. I also smell the irresistible aroma of the finish line. I’m in beast mode, filled with energy. My tired legs can still move, so I keep moving, past a runner in a red shirt, up and down the sandy hills, into the afternoon sky that’s almost black by now. Two more miles, maybe.

A familiar silhouette with a blond ponytail comes into view. She is still running strong, but I feel stronger. My competitive instinct roars. I fly past, blazing down the narrow trail without looking back. Do I have what it takes? There’s no time to wonder. My legs manage a last burst of speed. The trail becomes a dirt road. The finish line is within view, but still not close. I dig deep, imagining the blond ponytail breathing down my neck. Finally, cars, people, tents. One more uphill. I resist the urge to look over my shoulder. I sprint across the timing mat. Finished. It’s done. What a race! What a day! David is waiting for me, with a hug and his camera. I feel utterly spent, happy, proud, alive. And I later find out I have placed second female in 9:00 hours.

The face of exhaustion. I left every ounce of energy out on that course.

As soon as I stop moving, I start to shiver in my T-shirt and running skirt, noticing that everyone else has bundled up in winter jackets. The tents are billowing like sails in a hurricane. I usually enjoy hanging around the finish line, soaking up the positive vibes. Today, it’s too cold, and I’m too depleted to get warm again. It’s been a perfect day otherwise. My one regret is that, because I was shivering so badly, I missed congratulating Angie, the amazing runner with the blond ponytail, who reached the finish line two minutes behind me. Angie, I hope you find my blog. Thank you for a great race. You pushed me to my limits.

Why I did not hang around the finish line. The tents did not blow away, but they came close.

And thank you, Quang, Joe, Pam, Mike, Allen, Leslie, and all my other runner friends who shared part of this beautiful race day and made it memorable. Thank you, David, for running your heart out in the 50k, for being the world’s best possible partner, and for taking such beautiful photos. It means a lot. Most of all, thank you, Navajo Nation, for sharing your sacred desert with us runners. This place made me strong again. I have won the battle with the evil virus. Monument Valley is so much more than a race. It’s a life-changing experience. It’s a healing ceremony. It’s a celebration. I now feel ready to tackle the world.

With a Little Help from my (Imaginary) Friends: Coming Back from the Virus Void

Recovery is an uphill battle: Lavaredo 119k, 2016

I am recovering from an evil virus called Epstein Barr, aka Mono. It’s taking a lot longer than I expected. For weeks, thought I had the flu, with lingering aftereffects. I kept dragging myself to work and back, without energy to do anything else. Running was not an option. By the time I finally went to see a doctor who told me I had mono, two months had passed. On the plus side, I was starting to feel better by then.

The long shadow of Epstein-Barr, aka Evil Virus

My doctor had warned me to take time off running, because I might drop dead if I didn’t. I figured that, if I was going to drop dead, it would have happened during one of the painfully slow shuffles I managed while I thought I was dealing with nothing worse than a really bad cold. By my calculations, I was eight weeks post-mono, well on the way to recovery, which meant it was time to start running again.

The problem was that I have never before taken this much time off running and had therefore no idea how to approach my return to training. I should probably admit that I’m a skeptic by nature. I question authority, then do the opposite of what I’m told. I have accepted that this trait makes me uncoachable, but now it meant I had no one I could ask for advice on how to get back into shape. No one, except the assortment of oinionated gremlins who take turns sitting on my shoulders. From there, they whisper or shout words of advice into my ears. The value of their guidance tends to be questionable, yet – without knowing precisely why – I listen to my imaginary friends with their dubious intentions much more than to my well-meaning actual ones.

 

The first one to appear this time was the Brutus, the Boot Camp Coach. He’s a mustached presence with a macho streak and a booming voice, dressed in a dark-blue track suit. Sometimes, during my rare and short-lived attempts at speed work, I invite him to help me out, but other times, he takes up his position on my shoulder uninvited and without warning, just because he thinks I need motivation. He yells. He uses colorful language. He knows how to push my buttons. He knows which insults roll right off me, and which ones stick. He also knows when to shut up.

True to form, Brutus woke me up the morning after I had decided it was time to run again, just as a wave of lingering fatigue and second thoughts made me want to push that date further into the future. “This is ridiculous!” he roared, as I crawled out of bed and stood in front of my closet. “Put on your running clothes, not your yoga pants. Ok, now the shoes. Hurry up! Get your lazy bones out the door. Move! You’ll turn into a pile of cellulite if you don’t run ten miles today. No one runs in the single digits!” My ears hurt. Propelled by his booming voice, I stumbled down my usual route. After a couple of miles, my head was pounding. I made it to mile seven, when Brutus, who generally means well, realized his efforts were pointless. He finally shut up. I slowed down to a walk. By the time I finished, my pace resembled that of an decrepit slug, creeping toward my front door where I collapsed in a heap.

A few easy miles post-mono felt like Leadville, mile 55

The next day, a Sunday, my mono symptoms were back, complete with sore throat, swollen lymph nodes, and the type of exhaustion I usually experience after a 50-plus mile ultra. I dragged myself to work and back on Monday and Tuesday, resuming a by now familiar pattern. By Wednesday, I felt ready to try again.

This time, Brutus was nowhere in sight. Instead, the Fiona the Fearmongerer appeared, in the shape of a sweet-looking, maternal figure with a soothing voice and a faint Southern twang. “You’re still sick.” she cooed. “You need to take it easy. You are not as young as you used to be. Also, you should have listened to what that nice doctor said. How about we just walk today, then maybe jog a little tomorrow? Now, you don’t want to drop dead, sweetie, do you?”

Similar levels of perceived exhaustion: Leadville, mile 94 – or recovering from Epstein Barr

I obeyed, mostly because I still felt pretty feeble. After a mere three miles of shuffling and taking walk breaks, Fiona steered me into my local health-food store. Coaxed by the treacly, seductive voice from my shoulder and my friend Jane who owns the place, I spent the contents of my checking account on herbal tinctures, olive leaf extract, Echinacea, probiotics, Lysine, assorted vitamins, and a $40 can of green powder that calls itself a raw superfood.

Fiona stayed with me for a few more suffocationg days of shuffling, walking, and swallowing supplements, but before she could persuade me to trade in my Hokas for a pair of fuzzy slippers and a set of knitting needles, I stepped on my scale, which showed I had gained three pounds. At that traumatic moment, another familiar and extremely unattractive gremlin knocked Fiona off my back.

I call him the Damien the Destroyer, because he annihilates my confidence. He’s my harshest critic. He looks a little like Gollum from the Lord of the Rings, and he talks with a similar hiss in his voice. Thankfully, Damien does not come visit as often as he used to when I was in my insecure twenties, but I can’t get rid of him completely. This time, he bared his pointy teeth, launching into his usual tirade: “You’re pathththtetic. You’re nothththing. You’re not an aththththlete. You’re an impossssstor, a fffffake. You’re no good at anyththththing . . . “ and so on. I hung my head, feeling like a worthless excuse for an ultra runner. Like an ex-ultra runner. But at least Fiona was gone.

Over the years, I have found ways to silence the Damien. I talk back now. I question him. “Oh really?” I taunted him. “I won my age group in Leadville just a few months ago! And placed second at Canyon de Chelly in October. How about that?” He can’t handle that sort of resistance. It makes him shrink and shrivel to a pocket size that can’t intimidate a grown woman. When Damien realized he had lost his power over me, he slunk away, looking small and dejected. I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that I could finally go back to running alone. Instead, Gwen the Geek joined me.

She’s much more benevolent than either Damien or Fiona, though she can be overbearing. I imagine her bespectacled, in her late twenties, slightly bucktoothed, with a no-nonsense haircut and the opinion that one can never have enough information. “What’s with this haphazard approach?” She demanded in her clipped, slightly nasal tone. “Where’s your heart rate monitor? Where’s your training plan? Get online. Do some research, for crying out loud. This isn’t the eighties . . . oh wait, you were around in the eighties. Never mind.” She had enough tact to blush a little. Gwen tends to make me overanalyze everything, which distracts from actual training, but this time she did have a point. I remembered that my Garmin has a heart rate monitor. I dug out the chest strap, which I had not used in years, and started monitoring. A mile into my run, it showed I was dead.

Meeting Death on a run

Before panic could set in, Gwen, rational as ever, reminded me that dead people don’t keep running after their hearts have stopped beating, unless they’re zombies. Good point!

My husband David, winning the Best Male Zombie award at the Deadman Peaks ultra.

I breathed a sigh of relief, felt my pulse to make sure my doctor’s dire prediction had not come true, and ran home, where I dug around the internet for all sorts of useful information. I found out that you’re supposed to wash or replace the heart rate monitor strap every once in a while because of all the sweat and grime that builds up on it. After this aha moment, I read about how to rebuild endurance gradually and slowly. I discovered heart rate zones, Karvonen zones, heart rate reserves, the Maffetone method, and heart rate variability (there’s an app for that!). Armed with enough knowledge to make my head explode, I went for my zone-two run the next day, having to walk the uphills. On the other hand, I felt human when I finished, and could run again the next day.

Light at the end of the tunnel.

Another six weeks have passed. My mileage is back in the seventies, though my pace is still slow. It’s been a long, gradual process, but I’m feeling fit enough to think about racing again sometime soon. I also feel a lot smarter. So thank you, all my shoulder gremlins, for your advice. I’m happy you’ve left for now, but without you, I’d be a lonely and ignorant runner.

Spring is in the air, and a little spring is back in my step.

It is a good time to be alive and running, even while battling an evil virus.

See you out there,

Katrin

Run Like a Girl

I’ve been a tough cookie all my life – a tomboy, a cowgirl, a horsewoman. Always the opposite of a girly girl, I have worn pants of some sort since I could walk. Yet now, at age 46, I often wear skirts while running ultra marathons – for 50 or 100 miles, for 10, 12, even 24 hours. I won my age group at the Leadville 100 wearing a skirt. I crossed the Western States finish line at the Pacer High School track in a skirt. Whenever it’s warm enough, I train in a skirt. The rational explanation I give is that I can pick up a few things at the grocery store right after running without feeling awkward or out of place, though I’m the only person wearing this type of outfit while pushing a cart through the aisles. But that’s not the only reason.

Skirts and cowboy hats are appropriate attire for burro racing. Bella and I, 2015

I was born in 1970, in Germany, into the second wave of feminism. When I was very young, women burned their bras and started dressing in power suits. I don’t remember consciously thinking about women’s rights while in kindergarten, but I did grow up a tomboy. I stopped wearing dresses and skirts when I was five because wearing jeans was much more practical for riding my bicycle or kicking soccer balls.

Love is a hugging a pony: Lily and I, 2012

Like many German girls, I discovered horses when I was in the third grade. Unlike most of them, I never grew out of this phase. Unless you ride side saddle, it’s impossible to wear anything but pants and boots when on a horse, or around horses. At age 19, I moved to New Mexico. I spent many years as a cowgirl and professional horsewoman, in starched Wranglers, buckskin gloves with holes in them, and roper boots held together by duct tape. I saved up money for a pair of show chaps made from buttery suede, and a show hat the left a dent in my forehead every time I left it on for longer than ten minutes.

Dressage is funny sport: showing Dorina to a win at the RMDS Futurity, Parker, Colorado, 2008

I switched from training Western horses to training dressage horses in my thirties. I splurged on skin-tight white breeches and a pair of tall, black boots that made my feet hurt. My current horse endeavors combine Western and dressage, so I wear a much more comfortable compromise outfit in the form of riding jeans and jodhpur boots. Because I am now in my mid-forties and a little wiser than I was in my twenties, I also, at least sometimes, wear a helmet.

My current riding outfit, including helmet.

All this is a long-winded way of saying that skirts and dresses were never part of my wardrobe – until I turned 40. That year, I experienced a serious midlife crisis. Running longer and longer distances was, and still is, the best way to deal with such an affliction. Like anyone else who suffers from a midlife crisis, I reexamined my past, my horse passion, my child-free state which until then had seemed a blessing. I convinced myself that I had missed out on life outside the barn, on life as a normal woman, whatever I thought that was.

Because I wanted to catch up, I quit riding and went back to grad school. I became familiar with applying mascara and eyeliner. I started getting hair cuts on a regular basis. I started taking bubble baths and painting my toenails. I bought a couple of dresses, which I wore once or twice, then gave up on. I didn’t feel like myself wearing them, and besides, it was just too much work. Writing a thesis about postcolonial literature seemed less of a hassle than developing the set of skills I now discovered I lacked: I had never learned how to sit down and get up in a skirt, how to coordinate different parts of an outfit, or how to walk in any heels higher than an inch or so.

Vertical climbs are o problem in my power suit: Wavine Cyrique, Dominica.

My midlife crisis took its course. I appreciate my child-free state now more than ever. I switched careers. I felt miserable. I switched back to working with horses. A lot has changed in the last five years, but two things stayed the same: I kept running, and I kept wearing running skirts. During my makeover frenzy, I had bought a couple of these items, which felt much more comfortable than the real-life skirts that had graced my closet briefly before finding their way to the thrift store. For one thing, running skirts have built-in shorts, which makes the sitting down and getting up part a breeze. For another, they go with the rest of my running wardrobe and are as comfortable as running shorts, but a lot cuter, and a lot more versatile. My running skirt is appropriate attire for anything except, maybe, an office job, or riding horses. I don’t have an office job anymore. For everything but my horse work, I can wear running skirts.

Invincible: Second-place female at the Cedro Peak 45-miler, 2016

According to one of his campaign staffers, Donald Trump has one simple directive for his female staffers: “Dress like women.” These words prompted a flood of outraged responses from women across the US, who by and large feel that, by wearing anything they choose to while female, they already dress like women. I agree with them, because their logic makes sense and because I despise Donald Trump. At the same time, as a woman and as a runner, I know it’s not that simple. Most women go through their girly phase in their teens or early twenties. I did not. For me, right now, my running skirts give me the right balance between toughness and cuteness. They allow me, at age 46, to connect with my long-neglected inner girly girl, without having to learn the rules of skirt etiquette, without squeezing my feet into uncomfortable shoes.

Yes, shorts are fun, too: Lavaredo Ultra Trail, Italy, 2016

Yes, running shorts can be fun, too. I own some. But my skirts are my superhero outfit, my power suit. I feel unstoppable when I wear them, and I will keep wearing them when I’ve reached the the 75-plus age group.

The highest point n New Mexico: Wheeler Peak

It’s a good time to be alive and running, in a skirt, in shorts, or in anything else you choose to wear.

Still a cowgirl most of the time, e.g. while helping out at Antelope Canyon Ultra, February 2017

See you out there,

Katrin

Dr. Google, MD

After an ultra season that included two age-group wins in the 100-mile distance and some other fast times I was proud of, my training came to a grinding halt. This winter has been a personal running disaster. In late November, I started feeling sluggish and unmotivated. I blamed  Donald Trump. In early December, I caught what I thought was the flu. It lingered. After a week of total sloth, I still felt tired all the time, out of breath for no apparent reason, unable to run – no, shuffle – for more than a couple of miles before I had to stop and gasp for air. I slept nine hours a night, but did not feel rested in the morning.
I tried to run through it. I though it was all in my head. I headed out for my usual thirteen—mile loop almost every day, but ended up walking a large part of it most days.

About my speed this winter.

By mid-January, I finally felt a bit more energetic, then promptly caught what I thought was another flu-like illness. It also lingered. My mileage remained stuck in the thirties and forties, counting the walking miles. I normally run 75-85 weekly miles and don’t walk any of them. I felt unfit, frustrated, and somewhat concerned.

By now, you might ask why I did not go to a doctor. A valid question, The answer is that doctors terrify me. The last time I saw one was in 2014, right before Leadville. She diagnosed me with strep. I tried to run anyway, and DNFd at mile 50. It goes without saying that I blamed the doctor. Since then, I have tried to avoid members of the medical profession, because just the thought of a doctor visit triggers PTSD-like flashbacks.

Leadville 2014, on my way to a DNF at Winfield.

Until last week, that is. Two weeks after my flu symptoms had gone away, I still felt lethargic. Any time I tried to suck it up and just run, my heart rate shot up into unfamiliar territory, like 170 or 180, which did not seem right. The number scared me enough to seek professional help.

I walked into the doctor’s office feeling immediately worse. Even the potted plants in the waiting area looked sick. The main reading material consisted of Prevention magazines. Leafing through a couple of them did nothing to alleviate my mounting anxiety. The MD, a very overweight individual, took my vital signs. She wanted to know what was wrong. When I said I felt tired after running a few miles, she seemed to think that was normal. She also said that my resting heart rate, which hovered in the low seventies, was fine. When I told her this was more than twenty beats above where it should be, she looked skeptical. She asked me a ton of questions, like when was the last time I had blood work done? My answer, which was an emphatic “Never!,” seemed to astonish her.

I bravely agreed to have blood sucked out of my arm via a needle that looked large enough to double as a drinking straw. I was informed that the results would not be available for a week. In the meantime, I consulted Dr. Google.

How I envisioned my near future

It’s been an interesting process. Googling my questions opened up a bewildering universe of online medical advice. There are articles, blogs, tons of websites, forums, and even symptom checkers. I looked for answers. Instead, I found a tangled web of conflicting information. Alternative facts may be a new phenomenon in the political arena, but in the realm of of medicine, it’s a different story. Wildly divergent opinions, each claiming truth based on scientific studies, seem to have coexisted peacefully for years. I did what every sane, reasonable ultra runner would do in such a situation: I totally freaked out. I thought I was heading for an early grave. I thought I had heart arrythmia, and anemia on top of it. I thought I suffered from lupus, lyme, lymphoma, or a combination of them. I felt the symptoms of every disease I read about, developing a whole new level of respect for medical students in the process. How do they manage three years of studying these things?

Just before my overactive imagination wreaked more havoc, it was time to go back to the doctor. She told me my blood work was fine, except that I had tested positive for the Epstein-Barr virus, with an active infection in the recent past. In other words, I had, or was recovering from, mono, aka the kissing disease.

Most people get this by the time they graduate from middle school. As a late bloomer more interested in horses than in boys throughout my adolescence, I had apparently avoided it all the way through high school and college. Now, at 46, the virus had finally caught up with me, and attacked me with a vengeance. Recovering from mono takes as long as it damn well pleases. There is no treatment other than taking it easy. I was bummed. At the same time, I was relieved. Epstein-Barr, though nasty, is neither deadly nor chronic. Plus, I could say good-bye to the sneaking suspicion that I was just being a lazy hypochondriac.

2016 Antelope Canyon. No, I’m not being lazy. I just ran 50 miles.

So, instead of planning my spring races, I will focus on slowly rebuilding my fitness, and return to racing when my body feels ready. I will try to be patient. I will try to be smart. But I already blame the doctor for my Antelope Canyon DNS in two weeks. I have also learned two valuable lessons:
When you can’t run, shuffling along for a few miles is still better than walking. When you can’t shuffle, walking a few miles is still much, much better than sitting still.
Never, ever take your health and fitness for granted. When I can run real mileage again, which I hope will be soon, I intend to cherish every second.

Light at the end of the tunnel

In spite of everything, it is a good time to be alive and moving, even at a snail’s pace,

Katrin

Frozen Beards and Inner Pig-Dogs

 

Most people think I’m pretty tough. They’re partly right: I have finished ten 100-mile races, plus tons of other gnarly ultras. The oxygen-deprivation inducing altitude of Leadville does not scare me. Neither does the deadly combination of infernal heat and interminable hills called Western States. I have finished races bleeding, limping, and hallucinating, but I’ve finished all but two. I am not what most people would call a wimp, yet I turn into one when temperatures dip below, say, forty degrees. Winter weather is my kryptonite. It strips away my tough-cookie attitude and sends me, shivering, indoors to the nearest treadmill.

a Freezing morning at the start of the 2015 Grand Canyon Ultra. I am trying to be brave.

I know that’s pathetic. My Facebook feed shows enough frozen-beard pictures to shame me into trying to change my ways. There are, from the looks of it, tons of people who run in minus 20 degrees Celsius, and a few who run in minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit. But until this winter, I was not one of them.

67 years old and way tougher than this winter wimp: Bobby Keogh

My resolution for the 2016/2017 winter was to make over my wimpy ways. The timing was partly because of the plethora of frozen-beard pictures flooding my facebook feed, and partly because renovations at the local rec center meant I did not have ready access to a treadmill. So I bought some warm tights and fleecy gloves, and thought I was ready for the cold.

I admit that winters in Northern New Mexico are not, at least from what I’ve heard, as cold as winter in Minneapolis or Fairbanks. Still, New Mexican winters are no joke. We have mountains, and we do get snow. Especially after the sun sets, temperatures plummet into the teens, or even the single digits. The wind chill factor makes it feel even colder. The first cold front of the season hit in late November. It wasn’t minus 20 degrees, only about 25 plus (Fahrenheit, not Celsius). For me, that’s beyond humanly bearable, but I remembered my good intentions, so I bundled up, and headed out into the arctic.

I survived a night in this setting! Grand Canyon Ultras, 2015

The cold hit me like a brick with about a thousand needles stuck in it. My face froze into a grimace of agony. My eyelashes became stuck in the open position, like in the torture scene of Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. The water in my bottle turned into a slushee. But I ran. I ran for a couple of hours, and I was proud beyond limits when I got home, where I turned the heater on full blast, then stood in front of it before stepping into a scalding shower until the hot water ran out.

 

For three weeks, I ran in any kind of weather. I ran after work, on dark, deserted country roads, carrying a head lamp wrapped around my water bottle. I ran in 35 mph winds that turned 13 easy miles into a serious resistance workout. I ran in a freezing drizzle that chilled me to the core and turned the roads into solid, slippery sheets of ice. I felt tough. I felt like I had conquered my wimpy self, or, like we say in German, my inner pig-dog, my Schweinehund. I picture this creature as a thin-skinned, chihuahua with a round, pink face and a snout like an electrical outlet, wearing a shapeless wooly sweater, long johns and thick socks who spends all day curled up in front of a blazing fire and snoring loudly. I thought I had kicked the pig-dog into submission, finally. I felt very smug as I trotted along icy roads and trudged through several inches of white stuff. I was sure I had reached the next level in the game of Becoming Badass.

In the midst of all that self-congratulation, I woke up one morning with a sore throat. I ignored it. I pretended everything was fine, but still swallowed a prophylactic handful of vitamin C and chased it with a nasty-tasting Echinacea drink. I ran that evening, though my lymph nodes had swollen to grotesque proportions and my legs felt like two stacks of bricks. The next day, I spent flat on my back, coughing and wheezing and piling up used Kleenex covered in green snot. My bed was the only place where life felt bearable. Chicken soup with green chile was the only thing that tasted good. This bug hit me on a Saturday. On Monday, I dragged myself to work, where I accomplished the bare minimum between coughing fits. I crawled back home in the afternoon, and did not move for the rest of the day, which, to make things worse, was beautiful: sunny, calm, with temperatures in the fifties. Tuesday l did the same thing. Running did not cross my mind. I tried every natural remedy from eucalyptus oil to power greens, then finally bought an economy-size bottle of NyQuil. After swigging a few shot glasses of this stuff, things improved, little by little. But even though I am finally running again, I have learned my lesson.

Good-bye, arctic conditions. More power to you, my intrepid friends who don’t mind frostbite. I admire your frozen beards more than ever, but from afar, meaning: through a double-pane window, from aboard a treadmill inside a heated gym, with my gloating, grinning, sweater-wearing inner pig-dog perched on my shoulder.

Trail Runners of the Caribbean: Dominica

   

I’m sliding down an almost vertical trail, grabbing tree roots for balance when I can. Under my mud-covered shoes, the slippery ground makes it difficult to find traction. Above my head, a pair of Jaco parrots are screeching.

The canopy of rain forest gives way to a clearing filled with banana plants and grapefruit trees. A brief tropical shower has washed the sweat off me, and some of the dirt. Now, the sun is out again, its brightness filtering through overhanging branches. In the West, the distant peak of Morne Diablotin rises, still shrouded in mist. Toward the East, the turquoise expanse of the Atlantic ocean peeks through a panorama of jungle-covered ridges dotted with pastel-colored farm houses. My husband has stopped to take pictures at a river we crossed a while back, so I am alone for the moment. The parrots have stopped screeching. Silence falls when, suddenly, a tall, dreadlocked figure wielding a machete steps out of the bush and walks toward me.

No, this was not the end of me, though. On the Caribbean island of Dominica, most people, including Molly, our 70-year old landlady, carry these long, curved knives that look like menacing and effective murder weapons.

But they don’t often use them to attack anything other than coconut shells, or the dense vegetation that encroaches on trails, crops, and gardens. That day, the banana farmer waved a friendly hello. I stopped to return the greeting, when he saw my husband running up the trail behind us.
“Is that man chasing you?”
He asked, sounding concerned.

I reassured him of David’s benign intentions. After a brief conversation about the beauty of the island, we continued on our respective journeys through the jungle, he to his hillside fields and we back to our eco-lodge.

Not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, Dominica, aka the Nature Isle, is a rugged, wild sort of a place that defies Caribbean stereotypes. Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed here. If you’ve seen Johnny Depp trying to escape from his captors, running along stretches of black sand and jumping off cliffs, you’ve glimpsed Dominica in a supporting role. There are no white-sand beaches covered in lounge chairs and umbrellas, no all-inclusive five-star resorts, no duty-free shopping malls. On days where cruise ships dock in the capital of Roseau, tourists swarm around a couple of attractions that are easy to get to from paved roads, like the Emerald Pool. Otherwise, it’s a fairly quiet place, even in the high season, i.e. over Christmas and New Year’s.

For trail runners who don’t mind a little, or a lot, of sweat and mud, Dominica is an ideal destination. The scenery is breathtaking: mountain ranges, rain forest, waterfalls, a boiling lake, 365 rivers, hot sulphur springs.

Hundreds of miles of trails link these natural wonders, criss-crossing the island. Some are short, easy jaunts, others grueling challenges that require scaling down cliffs while hanging on to ropes.

The star attraction is the 110 mile long Waitukubuli National Trail. Its fourteen segments traverse the island from South to North. We have traveled to Dominica four times, and we still have many miles of trail left to explore.

Other tropical destinations may have some run forest, but no trails. Or if they do, poisonous snakes and other predators make exploring these trails without a local guide impossible. Dominica is a wild and rugged place, yet a very safe one. The scariest encounter I’ve had was with a boa constrictor. These snakes look scary, but are harmless to humans. Otherwise, the only natural hazards we encountered were slippery rocks, mosquitoes, and razor grass. The people are genuinely nice. In four trips to the island, we have encountered only one unfriendly landowner who chased us off his property when we accidentally trespassed. We found out later that he is from New York, not Dominica.

Instead of doing what most tourists do, which is spending just a few hours on Dominica as part of a cruise, consider staying a week or more. It’s easy to find a cabin or yurt on Airbnb and rent a four-wheel drive vehicle to get there, driving on the left side of bumpy, steep, and narrow roads. There are few road signs, but you can ask anyone you see for directions.

If you’re curious about this amazing destination, please message me. If you go, enjoy the trails, and the black-sand beaches. Also, be sure to . . .

1. Be ready for muddy conditions. Much of Dominica is covered in rain forest, which means it rains a lot. Use ziploc baggies for your phone, camera, and extra socks.

2. Drink the water. Yes, really. It will refresh you, not make you sick. Every village has a public tap where you can refill bottles and packs. It is also safe to drink from any of the 300-plus rivers.

3. Stuff a swimsuit into your pack, though many places are so remote that you can get away without one, too. Chances are you will find a secluded beach or a swimming hole, maybe under a waterfall. Jump in, the water’s fine.

4. Bring a headlight, even if you think you won’t need it. I learned this one the hard way. Darkness falls quickly in the tropics, especially under the rain forest canopy.

5. Last but not least, be ready to slow down. Way down. Most of the trails on Dominica are steep, slippery, technical, or all of the above. It’s pointless to worry about mileage. Stop often. Look around. Feel the trade wind drying the sweat on your skin. Take a picture. Talk to the farmers.

Have a ginger shandy at a bar in any of the villages and chat with the locals. Climb the mountains. Swim in the rivers. Feel like the luckiest person alive. 

I did, every day we were there.

It is a good time to be alive and running, in paradise or anywhere else,

Katrin

Paying it forward

A family affair: Leadville 2013, with my husband David and stepson Bobby

A family affair: the finish line of Leadville 2013, with my husband David and stepson Bobby

Wanted:

All around temporary factotum, willing to perform a variety of tasks, e.g wiping grime off sweaty, stinky feet or giving motivational speeches at 3 a.m. to an audience of one. Must be in excellent physical shape and able to stay awake for 30-plus hours on a diet of cold coffee and pretzel sticks.

 

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Michael and Sara Henson, my saintly crew at Western States 2015

Desired qualifications:
Experience working with stubborn creatures, like mules or donkeys. Cheerleading background. Should be proficient in sport psychology, reverse psychology, guilt tripping, and the accurate translation of grunting sounds into standard English. Mildly sadistic inclinations preferred. Telepathic talent is a plus. Ability to tell straight-faced lies is essential.

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Skills needed include but are not limited to:
Deciphering cryptic directions, both on foot and while driving down bumpy dirt roads. Dragging folding chairs and heavy duffel bags for long distances. Popping blood-filled blisters without gagging. Treating twisted ankles and punctured knees with no medical supplies other than duct tape.

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Compensation:
In return for all this, we offer
A night or two of free lodging, usually on the floor of a cramped hotel room or on a folding chair at an aid station in the middle of nowhere.
A couple of sweaty, smelly hugs, and maybe a cheap T-shirt with the race logo.
Vague promises to repay the favor someday.

Pacing Suzanne Lewis at the 2015 Hardrock 100

Pacing Suzanne Lewis at the 2015 Hardrock 100

Put into such blunt terms, why should you, or anyone else, ever agree to crew or pace a friend in an ultra, or to volunteer at one? In spite of the grueling nature of the job, there are a few good reasons, other than to fulfill the service requirement that’s part of the entry process of many 100-mile races:

Because running an ultra is not the only way to experience ultra running. Maybe you still find the thought of a 50 or 100-mile race intimidating. You’d like to sign up, but as your fingers hover over the registration button, dire warnings you’ve heard from friends and family members echo in your ears and make you hesitate. You recall all the conflicting information about whether running 100 miles is a healthy thing to do, or a particularly painful and slow form of suicide. You feel unsure whether to categorize ultra runners among normal, sane people or lunatic fringe groups. So don’t believe what others tell you. Do your own research . Be there for someone doing it. See what it’s like. Watch your runner hallucinate, throw up, regress to early childhood in speech patterns and food preferences. It will help you make an informed decision.

Allen and I at mile 60 of the 2012 Leadville 100.

Allen and I at mile 60 of the 2012 Leadville 100.

Because getting into your dream race is not the only way to experience your dream race. Maybe you are itching to run Western States or Hardrock someday. Maybe your name did not get drawn in the lottery for the fifth year in a row. Maybe real life derailed your efforts of training for your first 100-miler. Instead of pouting or threatening with lawsuits, do something much more constructive. The next best thing to running your dream race is to crew or pace someone running your dream race. You’ll get to know the course, and you’ll observe from up close what it does to the individuals who did get picked. Chances are this will make you feel better about your lack of lottery luck.

Hardy Hardrock Volunteer Allen Hadley

Because it feels good to give back. If you’ve ever finished a race of any distance, you had some some help along the way. The longer the race, the more help runners require to reach the finish line. It’s a simple equation, with the likely result of you owing a favor or two to the trail running community. The opportunities to get involved are endless. For example, “crew” is the official title of someone who helps a runner reach the finish line my meeting her at aid stations along the course. Sometimes, a crew member becomes a “pacer” in the second half of an ultra, i.e someone who runs (or more likely shuffles, or even walks) alongside the runner, usually after mile 50, when it’s too dark to enjoy the views. “Volunteer” describes a saint-like human who helps all the runners in a race reach the finish line, not just one. “Volunteer” does not mean you do anything voluntarily — others may guilt-trip, coerce, bully, or manipulate you into sacrificing your weekend, which is, come to think of it, just as often true for crewing and pacing. Do it anyway. You’ll be glad you did, and you’ll appreciate your future crew members, pacers, and aid station angels much more than you would otherwise.

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Yes, it’s a dirty job.

Because you get to be someone’s hero for a day. Pacing and crewing requires creative problem solving, sometimes in unorthodox ways. You don’t have to go as far as my friend and mentor Allen Wrinkle, who once determined that the fading runner he was pacing needed real food instead of more gels at mile 90. Like a modern-day Robin Hood in running shoes, he proceeded to wrestle a bucket of fried chicken from a little boy who was camping near the Kodiak 100 course with his family and about to enjoy his lunch. I don’t know if the little boy ever recovered from the trauma, but Allen’s friend devoured the chicken, finished strong and felt immensely grateful. In return, he felt like a knight in shining armor. Good pacers are boot camp coaches, spiritual guides, nutritionists, stand-up comedians, even singers of commercial jingles, depending on the physical and mental state of their runner. Pacing and crewing will get you out of your comfort zone. Pace someone and be all you can be!

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Allen and I at the finish of my first 100-mile race, Leadville 2012

Because helping someone reach a momentous goal is a bonding experience. Running ultras pushes us to the limits of our physical and mental endurance, often beyond them. Running ultras strips us raw. Getting to know someone at their most vulnerable emotional state means getting to know them without pretense, without filters, without the ordinary limitations of many more conventional social contexts. That’s why so many lasting friendships grow out of trail races. And really, that’s why it’s not enough to run ultras. Sharing the highs and lows of the trail with others by crewing, pacing, or volunteering is part of what makes our community come alive. Yes, a race is a competition. But more than that, a race is an opportunity to connect.

Leadville 2016. No, I did not get here alone.

Leadville 2016. No, I did not get here alone.

It is a good time to be alive and running, or pacing, or crewing, or volunteering. See you out there,
Katrin

Election Blues? Help is Out There!

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I used to think I did not need professional help to work out my emotional or existential issues. I don’t believe that anymore, especially not after the last election. Like most people I know, I obsess and worry and fret, mostly over things that are not going to change, at least not because I worry about them. Even worse, I then worry about how worrying makes me waste precious moments of life, which is already too short anyway, etc. etc. I end up trapped in this vicious cycle of anxiety like in a spinning hamster wheel, sometimes to the point of waking up in the small hours, worried about the future of humanity, or about something less monumental, like toenail fungus. I used to think I could cope with all these issues, through a strategy of hoping they would go away on their own and self-medicating with chocolate and wine when they would not.

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I have long since learned that it’s ok to ask for help with solving life’s problems. Like toenail fungus, most of them won’t go away on their own, no matter how much I try to ignore them. I have learned that it takes courage to face my worries and my demons like a grown-up. So, like many of my now middle-aged friends, I have found a great therapist whom I meet on a regular basis. For the last decade, she has helped me unpack my emotional baggage. She can deal with anything and everything that bothers me, from work-related stress, marital disagreements, and midlife crises to election anxiety, or a sudden proliferation of crow’s feet. In short, she has made a huge difference in my life and my happiness level. I highly recommend her, but realize she’s not everyone’s idea of the ideal mental health professional.

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If you decide to give her a try, it won’t be difficult to see her. She always takes new patients, and her schedule is pretty flexible. She gives me appointments whenever I can fit them into my schedule, sometimes on very short notice. She doesn’t even mind when I show up late, and she always lets me stay longer if I want to. I often want to, and I sometimes stay much longer than anticipated.

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You should know that her flexibility has its limits. It is more difficult to get appointments with her after dark, or during snow storms. It’s not impossible. It just takes more planning, like stashing a headlamp and a set of microspikes in your car. The only thing my therapist will not do is a home visit. You have to go see her, not the other way around.

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Also, she’s a good deal money-wise, at least to a point. Compared to the therapists some of my friends unburden their souls to, mine is pretty inexpensive. Not free, but also not astronomical. In spite of her sensible prices, her office is tastefully, even extravagantly appointed, with color schemes and flower arrangements changing so often it never gets boring to hang out there. One word of caution before you rush to book your first appointment: while her basic treatment plan does not cost much, she will try to sell you extravagant add-ons, like intensive multi-day group retreats in beautiful places. She will use sneaky social-media-based marketing strategies for this purpose, so watch your wallet.

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My therapist is so popular because her patience seems endless. She lets me work through my problems at my own pace. She never judges, never criticizes. But listening is only part of the program. Mt therapist does not just prescribe antidepressants. No, she feeds them to me during our sessions, in generous doses. These amazing meds have no side effects, other than, sometimes, sore quads the next day. But she does not hand them out the moment her patients walk in. Usually, it takes at least 45 minutes of intense therapy before it’s medication time, but the effect is worth the wait.

It's easy to smile in this place
I know what you’re thinking, and you are right. This stuff might be addictive, but honestly, I don’t care because it makes me feel so . . . happy. So serene. So at peace with the state of the world. So intensely alive. You get the idea.

Photo courtesy of Myke Hermsmeyer (mykejh.com)

Photo courtesy of Myke Hermsmeyer (mykejh.com)

Don’t get me wrong: seeing my therapist is not always easy or fun. There are times when my therapist gets demanding. Sometimes, she gets tough with me. She can make me suffer, like when she literally brings me to my knees. Some of her methods are, to say the least, unorthodox. They include oxygen deprivation, exposure to extreme temperature changes, induced hallucinations, and a kind of mindfulness training with shock-type negative reinforcement that results in bleeding, or in other forms of physical pain.

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Some would call her approach abusive. But to be fair, I can abuse her right back, at least verbally. She does not seem to mind at all when I curse or insult her.

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Ok, ok, I can tell you’re not convinced. This comes across like my therapist needs to see a therapist. Like she’s a borderline mental case herself. Let me assure you, she is not out to hurt me, though my family and my old friends have expressed concern about my relationship with her. They call it inappropriate and obsessive. They accuse her of encouraging my OCD tendencies, along with my antisocial side. It’s true that I spend way too much time in therapy. I also admit that I sign up for way too many of those expensive weekend retreats I mentioned earlier. Yes, I see less of my friends and more of my therapist than I used to, especially when the days are long and the weather is warm and sunny. But I’ve also made many new friends who, by coincidence, see the same therapist. I don’t think my old friends have anything to worry about, though they accuse me of being in denial when I try to reassure them. But the good thing is, because of all that therapy, I worry much less about trivial stuff, like what other people think of me.

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It’s a good time to be alive and running, for therapeutic reasons, or for any reason.

Katrin

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PS I would like to thank the TAUR member who posted a lovely photo of a forest trail, with the caption “I went to see my therapist today” some time ago. Your post inspired mine, and you deserve most of the credit.