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Eight Seconds or 24 Hours: Rodeo Songs for 100-mile Runs

 

A six-pack of Coors Light, and this: Empty cans of addictive substances, seen on a snowy run along Highway 104 , New Mexico, last winter.

Some time ago, a post on a Facebook group for ultra runners asked to share our guilty pleasures in running music. The list of responses was long and hilarious. People confessed to everything, from Disney movie theme songs to the Bee Gees. I, of course, had to mention a silly tune about the most disgusting substance on the planet – Copenhagen, by Chris LeDoux. I listen to a lot of his songs while I run, and other than the Copenhagen one, they’re not guilty pleasures at all. They’re my go-to music, especially when the going gets tough in 100-mile races,  when the climbs are steep, when my feet are hurting, when motivation runs low.

Speed, power, and buckles – for eight seconds, or 24-plus hours.

My running friends commented on my guilty pleasure with lots of smiley faces, plus the abhorrent suggestion of offering chewing tobacco at aid stations. I also learned that my favorite running music is a little unusual, to say the least. What, you listen to country? No, I don’t. Most of it, including most of the alt-country I listen to when I’m not running, just doesn’t have enough of a beat, not even for the shuffling jog I settle into during a 100-miler. Chris LeDoux, on the other hand, sings about bucking horses, with all their speed and power. Country music makes me yawn. These songs keep me moving. 

What’s more, country music – no, most other music, period – does not have lyrics that relate to ultra running, at least not as literally as these songs do. As far as I know, Chris LeDoux was not a trail runner, but he did ride broncs and bulls, which pushes the limits of the human body and spirit in ways that sound similar to 100-mile races. Both rodeo and ultras  are considered fringe sports by the general population, and both involve earning  belt buckles the hard way.   

Earning one of these takes much longer than eight seconds, but the principle is the same. You don’t buy a belt buckle. You work for it.

Still not convinced? I’m about to run the Bighorn 100 in Wyoming, which is where Chris lived and died. I know what will be on my playlist while I’m out in those mountains, when I feel like quitting, when everything hurts, when the mud sucks my shoes off. Here are, in no particular order, 11 songs guaranteed to put a smile back on my face when I’m cold and tired and miserable, but still have 50-plus miles to go. Give them a listen – you might decide they work for you, too:

Sometimes You’ve Just Gotta Ride

 

According to my super-rational husband, this song’s logic is seriously flawed. Why do something risky and almost certainly painful, like ride a dangerous horse or run the Leadville 100, when you could just walk away? I love my husband, but think he’s wrong about this. To me, these lyrics makes perfect sense. I bet most ultra runners would agree.

The starting line at Leadville, 3:59 a.m., right before the countdown. You can’t always sit on the fence and watch the world pass you by. Sometimes, you’ve just gotta run 100 miles.

 

Re-ride

ps://youtu.be/t-h0MnXrfdk

This race is harder than it looks. Way harder. Trust me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A song about rookies who underestimate tough horses, or tough courses. I think of it as a song about my first Western States 100 in 2013, when I toed the line with just one 100-miler under my belt and just one ticket in the lottery. At the starting line I thought, “It’s all downhill – how hard can it be?”  By the time I made it to Auburn, over 25 hours later, Western States had chewed me up and spit me back out, my quads destroyed, my knees bloody, my feet covered in blisters. I felt much more humble, though. My Western States re-run two years later worked out better.

Cadillac Cowboy

 https://youtu.be/bii3k-kB-uo

Zen cowboy Chuck Pyle wrote this one. I love his music, but Chris Ledoux’ high-energy cover of Cadillac Cowboy beats the original, hands down. It’s kept me awake and putting one foot in front of the other while climbing up steep mountain passes.  Who isn’t a lover of the other side of the hill during those times?

Hope Pass. I love the other side of that hill!

Life is a Highway

https://youtu.be/OF-pyWeMLZsReady for the night.

Ready for long hours of darkness.

What I like to play after the sun has set, right when it’s time to turn on my head lamp. Though life is not exactly a highway at that point, more like ten feet of single track disappearing into the shadows, this song gets me excited about running through the night.

Riding for a Fall

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkN3smeaVDwA

A song for the dark hours before dawn, when I’m stumbling over roots, wondering whether I’m lost, imagining bears lurking in the forest, borderline hypothermic and wishing I had never heard of this silly sport. It’s slow, which matches my pace, and introspective, which matches my mood. But it’s not depressing, just real. “On a cold, lonesome evening, what the hell good’s your freedom? ”  This is a valid question I’ve pondered for miles.

“The night’s getting colder, and man, you’re getting older . . .”

Get Back on that Pony and Ride

Cowboy Up

https://youtu.be/VcO1vKw2yiU

https://youtu.be/KH4u6EtKLJA

Jemez, 2018, mile 45, after crash # 7. Time to cowgirl up!

Two songs for when you’re face down in the dirt, with both knees impaled on pointy rocks and cactus spines digging into your palms. Two songs for the times when blood runs down your shins and tears roll down your eyes, when you seriously consider limping to the next aid station and calling it quits, right before you remember that pain is just weakness leaving the body.  And right before you remember just how badly you want that shiny new buckle.

Going and Blowing

https://youtu.be/tgvqVUhW4G8

San Diego 100, 2016, flying high, not on caffeine and Copenhagen but on lots of sugar and beautiful scenery.

A song for the effortless miles that can fall into your lap after the halfway point of a 100-mile race, sometimes long after you thought there was no way you could finish. A song for the times when I turn off my lights, look up at the stars, take a deep breath, and feel intensely grateful for being out there in the middle of nowhere, chasing a silver buckle and pushing my body to the edge of what it can do. No, really – I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

Photo Finish

https://youtu.be/JoOHIBQ-jaA

A perfect tale of giving a race everything you’ve got, only to find it wasn’t enough because of circumstances you can’t control, plus a few lapses of judgment that will inevitably come back to bite you. Also a good reminder of my number one race goal: to know I’ve left every bit of energy and try I had in me out on the course. This song made me smile again at mile 92 of last year’s Western States, when I limped toward Auburn at sunrise, after muscle cramps, nausea, and several hard falls got in the way of a sub-24 finish. Yes, I should have managed my nutrition and electrolytes a little better, but mainly, if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have run so slow:

Western States, 2018. I narrowly missed the silver sub-24 hour buckle, but not for lack of trying. 

 

Cowboy Life (it’s by Ned LeDoux, but that’s almost the same thing)

https://youtu.be/oQYDoUaRAnI

I downloaded Ned’s first album last summer, right before the Leadville 100, but had not listened to it yet. I heard this one for the first time while dragging myself up the Powerlines at mile 80, in a freezing,foggy drizzle around 2 am, when my spirits needed a lift. The timing could not have been more perfect. Ned probably does not know it, but this song is about Leadville, about 100-mile runs, about ultra life, which has a lot in common with cowboy life. I finished happy, in spite of the lousy weather and in spite of the pain I was in:

Javelina, 2017. “Lonely is the highway, morning sun and bloodshot eyes . . .”

Horsepower

https://youtu.be/CKZyo1e7uYo

Maybe it’s because I’m lucky enough to ride horses for a living, maybe it’s because the lyrics resonate with both my passions, i.e. horses and running, maybe it’s just that good. This is one of my my all-time favorite running songs, right up there with Springsteen’s Born to Run.  Horsepower got stuck in my head for about 70 miles of the Vermont 100 last July. In spite of that, I still love it, which says a lot. 

 

What is your go-to music when the going gets tough, and why? I’d love to know.

Just Ledoux it,

with or without a soundtrack that keeps you smiling, 

Katrin

Fly like an Eagle: Lessons Learned From the Grand Slam 

Last summer, I earned an eagle trophy for finishing the four oldest US-based 100-mile races in the same season, which took me 101 hours and change. This adventure, also known as the Grand Slam of ultra running, had been on my bucket list for years. It wasn’t a walk in the park, but it was worth every bit of sweat, dirt and pain. I will never forget these 400 miles, with all their highs, lows, and belt buckles. 

Seventeen of us finished last year. Wow, what a ride!

It’s June 1st, which means a new crop of Grand Slam hopefuls is about to start going after that eagle. Part of me feels relieved I’m not doing it again, but another part feels a twinge  of envy. I’m signed up for Bighorn and Leadville, but I won’t run 400 miles in 56 days like last year. I do have a few bits of wisdom to share with those of you who will, though: 

  1. Start the summer really, really rested

My legs at the finish of the Jemez 50-miler. Don’t beat yourself up like this four weeks before the Grand Slam. Please be smarter than I was!

I decided to run the Jemez 50-miler four weeks before Western States as a training effort, then ended up racing as hard as I could. After Jemez, I kept training until about ten days before Western States, which, in retrospect, was my worst Grand Slam performance. Be smarter than that. Run tune-up races as long training runs instead of going all out. Taper longer than you normally would for a 100-miler. Get more sleep. Use your foam roller. Take your vitamins. Do everything you can to give your body every possible advantage before your first of the four 100s. 

2. Slamming takes more time than you think

My day job. Putting those boots back on after every 100 was the hardest part of the Grand Slam.

This is true for training, race planning, traveling, and recovery. Your body will feel tired like never before. So will your brain. The Grand Slam will take over your life. It’s best to accept this instead of trying to keep up a normal schedule. I am lucky because I work as a self-employed horse trainer, with loyal and supportive clients who did not begrudge me the extra days off I needed to run all these 100s. Even so, the hardest part of each race was putting my boots back on my blistered feet a day or two after each race and getting my aching body back in the saddle. Be ready to work as much as you have to, run a lot, drive a lot, rest a lot, eat a lot, and do little else. Be ready to keep your drop bags and piles of ultra supplies on your living room floor all summer, because you barely have enough time to re-label and re-pack them between races. Be ready to cut almost everyone and everything other than the Grand Slam out of your life, e.g. netflix, dinners out, domestic chores, and friends and family members who are not part of your crew. 

2. It takes a village – but a small one. 

Ultra husband David Silva, here at Leadville, ready to pace me over Hope Pass. The Grand Slam is a bonding experience.

Sharing the Grand Slam journey with my husband David and my friend Tammy was one of the highlights of last summer. You, too, will need a crew, but don’t get carried away. Too many crew members can make race organization more complicated than it has to be. Two people are an ideal number, especially in point to point races like Wasatch and Western States, because one will need to drive the car while the other paces you. You and your crew will spend lots of time in cramped quarters, like hotel rooms and rental cars. Because of this, choose people who get along with you, and with each other – everything else is secondary. Once you’ve picked your crew, treat them like the saints they truly are. Thank them every chance you get. Without a support system, your Grand Slam goal becomes much harder to reach. With the right people around you, it still won’t be easy, but you’ll enjoy the experience a lot more.

3. It’s a 400-mile race, not four 100-mile races

Almost there! Mile 95 at Wasatch, or mile 395 of the Grand Slam.

Normally, i.e. when not grand slamming, the difference between racing and training runs is to leave everything out on the course vs. being able to run the next day. The Grand Slam means you have to tweak this way of thinking. It’s still a race, but it happens in four stages. Run hard, but not so hard you can’t recover in time for the next part. Think of the final goal, which is the eagle and all four buckles, not just one buckle. While you’re running the first three races, think of the finish line at Wasatch as the one you want to reach. Pace yourself accordingly. 

4. Be ready to roll with the unexpected

A wasp sting at mile 5 of the Wasatch 100 slowed me down, but did not stop me. Just remember to loosen your gps watch if this happens to you.

If you DNF once, you will DNF the Grand Slam, which means no eagle trophy. You want to finish each race, in spite of the inevitable mishaps that will happen and the mistakes you will make. At Wasatch, I put my tights into the wrong drop bag, so I borrowed a pair from an aid station volunteer and continued. Be prepared to have a plan B for everything. Be prepared to eat what appeals to you instead of what you had planned, be prepared for missed pacer connections, be prepared for retracing your steps if you get off course. Have a plan, but also have a plan B. You will need it.  

7. Air travel adds a new level of challenge 

Vermont. I did ok, without lugging a hatchback full of supplies.

The Grand Slam is spread out all over the country, so be prepared to fly to at least one 100-mile race. This takes additional planning and will force you to make some hard choices. I’ve always run ultras within driving distance, because I enjoy road trips, and also because my little hatchback easily holds the astonishing amount of stuff I need, or think I need, to run 100 miles. Air travel will force you to rethink your drop bag strategy. You will find that you need less stuff than you usually take along, but even so, it’s a good idea to pay the exorbitant fee for an extra suitcase. 

The second sunrise. Savor theoe moments.

But when I finally crossed the finish line at Wasatch, when I finally got to hold that eagle trophy, when I finally could rest, I found I didn’t really want to. The most important lesson I learned was this: the human body  is way more resilient than we think. As the summer went on, recovery became easier instead of harder. I felt progressively stronger, instead of more and more run down. This came as a complete surprise. Wasatch, 19 days after a respectable Leadville finish, was my last and best race. I realized that one 100-mile race is good training for another. So, feel confident. The Grand Slam will push you to your limits, but you will find that those limits are much more elastic than you might believe. Use the Grand Slam as an opportunity to explore  what your body, mind, and spirit can do. Ken Chlouber, in his famous pre-Leadville speech, is spot on: You can do more than you think you can, and you are tougher than you think you are.

Really.

Above everything else, run happy.

Run smart, run strong, and enjoy the journey! 

Why Race?

I ran 400 miles for that eagle.

Last summer, I completed the grand slam of ultra running, aka four tough 100 mile races in 75 days. I won four shiny belt buckles and an eagle trophy, which made me proud. At the same time, I felt burned out after crossing the last finish line in the Wasatch mountains. I was tired of training, tired of tapering, tired of planning race weekends, tired of studying course maps and elevation profiles, tired of spending so much money on entry fees and hotel rooms, tired of  alarms ringing at 3 am, tired of driving for endless hours, racing for a day, then driving home so sore and banged up that I fantasized about getting a temporary handicapped sticker for my car. After an epic summer of racing, I was tired of racing.

The last leg of the grand slam: Wasatch, mile 91

 

Besides, I am 48 years old. Birthday  # 50 is looming large in the not-so-distant future. My hard-fought trophies for wins and placings are collecting dust. Now, my formerly decent pace is becoming snail-like. I have nothing to look forward to but a steady decline, an inevitable spiral down into an yawning abyss of ever-slowing personal worsts. My racing future looks bleak. Why not walk away from it all with some semblance of dignity while I still can? Why keep torturing myself for no good reason? Why not just run when I feel like it, without the added pressure and expense of racing?   

Post-Grand slam feet.

These dark thoughts swirled around my head after Wasatch, in mid-September, when, after a  summer of joy and magic, real life came rushing back with a vengeance. I took a break from running, the longest one since I started my ultra journey ten years ago. I didn’t run a step for three weeks, then shuffled along for a few miles at a time for another month or so. But by December, my mileage started inching back up, little by little. Now it’s the end of January. I am excited to race again this spring and summer, in spite of everything. Why? 

Finding joy in a training run is easy – after the first mile or two.

For one, because it’s good to have a goal. “Just running” is not the same as training. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy running for its own sake, but joy is sometimes not enough to get me going, especially not after riding horses all day. The physical nature of my job means the reasons most people run matter less to met than to many others. I get to play in the great outdoors regardless of whether I run or not. Working with horses means I get plenty of exercise, even without running a single mile. I run because running makes me happy, above all else, but it’s sometimes hard to remember this best and simplest of reasons until I’ve been out there for a couple of miles. Seeing a race in my not too distant future adds the extra incentive I often need to nudge me out the door and over that first-mile hump. 

First Masters Female at the San Diego 100. I’m a cougar now!

On closer examination, not racing anymore because I’m too old to compete with the thirty-somethings also seems like a silly reason to quit. My PR days may be behind me, but my dreams are not. The goals I set now may be different from what they were a few years ago, but I still have some. Age groups are a wonderful invention. Competing against 40-year old whippersnappers at 49 this year will be tough, but starting over on the young end among the 50 to 59 year olds in 2020 is something I Iook forward to. So is the ten-year buckle at Leadville. So is a 200-mile race, maybe. So is another Boston-qualifying road marathon, for which I’m allowed to take an extra five minutes next year. Being a runner really sweetens the aging process. 

Making new friends is easy while running 100 miles: Andres and I at the Vermont 100

Even if I didn’t have those goals, I’d still want to be a part of the ultra crowd. A weekend at a race is a celebration, a time spent doing something I love with people I care about. As a horse crazy hardcore introvert, I’ve spent most of my life not fitting in – in school, in grad school, in the horse show world, in the couple of “real” jobs I tried to hold down without much success. All of this changed when I discovered ultra running. I found not only a sport, but a tribe. I found a place to call home. I found acceptance and support. Suddenly, without trying to be someone I was not, I had friends who found nothing strange about spending  most of one’s spare time alone in the middle of nowhere, in hot pursuit of a silver belt buckle. Not everyone who runs ultras operates on a similar wave length, but enough of us do to create a real sense of community. I look forward to being a part of this culture and give back to it in any way I can until I die. 

No, I’m not nearly as fast as Katie or Alyssa, but fought hard and fair to finish in third place at the Jemez 50 last year.

Ultra races are also a healthy way to indulge my competitive side. There’s an aura of authenticity that makes racing fun. Unlike in judged equestrian sports like dressage, where lots of money can buy you shortcuts to the podium in the form of talented, well-trained horses, it’s impossible to pretend you’re better than you really are in ultra running. It’s a pretty level playing field. You can buy the best shoes, the fanciest GPS  watch, and the most high-tech hydration pack. You can hire the best coach, but she can’t run the race for you. At the end to the day, you still have to gut it out until you reach the finish line on your own two feet, hurting or not, blisters or not. It’s  a competitive sport, but it’s a clean, fair, friendly  kind of competition – something I look forward to, not the snarky, petty kind of competitive environment so common in the horse world. 

I missed the silver buckle, but I left it all out there! 

At the end of the day, racing helps me discover my limits. When I just run, I’m never pushing very hard. I’m always leaving some energy and strength for the next day. Races are different. They make me leave it all out there. As I get older, this is my main goal: to leave it all out there, to give the course all I had in me on that particular day. Where I place is unimportant in comparison. This is why getting older and slower does not scare me. I still feel amazed at what my body can do. I’m in awe at the beautiful places we get to explore, the camaraderie, the kindness of volunteers, the deep conversations with strangers who become friends over the course of a day out on the trail. This is why I won’t quit racing. 

Pushing limits, finding joy: racing is a celebration.

 

Do you race? If you do, why? If you choose not to, why not? I’d love to know.

Run happy, whether you’re racing or not,

Katrin

Ultras We Need but Don’t Have Yet

My grand slam trophy. With so many ultra to choose from nowadays, running the four oldest 100s in one summer felt really special.

In recent years, ultra running has exploded in popularity. Most non-runners still consider us a little bit insane, but Runner’s World magazine now includes articles about training for a 50-miler instead of dismissing us as some kind of lunatic fringe. With all this popularity come a lot more race opportunities that allow us to indulge in our addiction more consistently. It’s easy to find ultras in any part of the world, any time of the year, on any type of terrain, with distances from 50k to 200-plus miles. But even though we’ve got so much to choose from today, I feel that some races we need don’t exist yet:

The Earn Your Urn 100

I came close to earning my urn, but survived!

A race for the responsible ultra runners who think ahead! Awards are meant to hold what’s left of you once you expire. Each urn is lovingly hand crafted and 100 percent sustainable, for you to take home until you need it. In the event that you die on the course of the Earn Your Urn, cremation following the event is complimentary. Your ashes will then be scattered on the trail, which will improve the footing for next year. The empty urn will be recycled for the next runner who draws his last breath during this race. Run on, knowing that your long-suffering loved ones at least won’t have to worry about how to dispose of your remains!

(If you are opposed to cremation for religious or other reasons, you may elect to be measured for a rustic custom-made pine coffin at the pre-race check-in)

The “I Am Now an Ultra Runner!” 26.3

If this sort of terrain is not your thing, don’t worry! You can still be an ultra runner.

Are you no longer satisfied with running marathons? Are you longing to call yourself an ultra runner, yet terrified of signing up for one of those races that sound like they will result in your almost certain demise (see above)? Are you secretly a lot more normal than those crazed, obsessed100-mile runners you’ve met? This race is for you! A flat, smooth, suburban marathon with an extra city block added at the end. Guaranteed to not require more effort or training than a regular 26.2. Bask in your ultra running glory while preserving your sanity, your quads, and your work-life balance. Cross  “Run an ultra marathon” off your bucket list with a clear conscience, but without unnecessary suffering. 

The Head Trip 100

Not a hallucination: this guy really ran the Javelina 100 in a Fred Flintstone costume. Wow!

Are all the things you see that aren’t really there your favorite part of running ultras? This race will deliver more intense hallucinations than any other, guaranteed or your entry fee back. Aid stations will not only stock expected items like gummy worms and ramen noodles, but also an assortment of THC, LSD, magic mushrooms, and assorted bottles of Tequila. Pain is totally optional in this race! 

(Disclaimer: race management is not responsible for any bad trips runners might experience, nor for runners getting too confused to find the course flags. We can help you find yourself, but we can’t help you find the trail if you’re too stoned to pay attention). 

The Hunting Season 50

Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin at the finish line of the Leadville 100. Ken’s shotgun does not kill runners, it just destroys their hopes and dreams of finishing if they’re still slogging up the Boulevard when they hear the blast.

Because running an ultra is not exciting enough on its own, we throw in extra thrills. Sign up for this race if you want to dodge arrows and bullets over the course of 50 miles. Any plain old ultra  makes you feel glad to be alive – this one will make you positively ecstatic, if you survive it.  Held every October on multi-use public lands in the middle of nowhere, the Hunting Season 50 promises a fun day for participants and spectators alike. Though a herd of 250 ultra runners will be moving through the forest on race day, no permits for hunting them will officially be given out. This doesn’t mean no one will try. Wear bright orange. If you don’t (and even if you do) you might leave the course strapped to the hood of someone’s Dodge Ram. The “Best Carnage” award is given to the runner finishing with the most shotgun pellets embedded under the skin.   

The Back to Basics Ultra

Ultras are not for sissies.

Are you one of those ultra curmudgeons who think modern races have become way too easy, and modern runners way too self-indulgent? This one’s for you! Course markings are few and far between, so pay attention and carry emergency supplies that allow you to bivouac in the woods if you have to. Aid stations will be spaced 20-plus miles apart. They will stock water until they run out, plus a box of saltine crackers if you’re lucky. Be prepared to carry your own food, hydration, and anything else you might need. Better yet, be prepared to catch wild squirrels and eat them on the run. Awards are made from sticks and mud found on the course. The timing system is a sun dial, so if you’re out on the course after dark, your finish time will be very approximate. Enjoy! 

The Safe Bet 100

Yes, I got into Western States last year – worth all the pain and suffering, and then some. Definitely.

Finally, a 100 with lottery odds so low that you can throw your name into the hat with confidence, secure in the knowledge that you will not actually have to run this race anytime soon. Of the 150 available spots, most are reserved for qualified elite runners, close friends and family members of the race committee, or race veterans who run have run it every year since 1987. You can’t, of course, be 100 percent sure you won’t get in, but 99.9 percent is almost as good. If you feel the pressure to sign up for a 100, but know that you won’t have enough time or motivation to train for one, this lottery offers an easy way out. All you have to do is fake disappointment. Hey, at least you tried!

(Any similarities to actual races are purely coincidental)

Which other races do we need? Please feel free to add to the list! 

May everyone run happy in 2019!

Don’t Stop Me Now: My Grand Slam Finish at Wasatch 

“Hug me. Time to get comfortable getting uncomfortable.” My favorite aid station sign, and sound advice for finishing Wasatch

The Wasatch 100 is the last race of the Grand Slam of ultra running, and the toughest by far. Back in January, running four 100-milers between June 23 and September 8 had seemed like a brilliant idea, but by the time I line up in darkness on a dirt road in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains  near Salt Lake City, I am plagued by serious doubts about the wisdom of my decision, and about my sanity in general. With Leadville just 19 days behind me, I feel lingering fatigue in my bones and lingering soreness in my hamstrings. The Wasatch elevation profile looks daunting: it starts with a steep, long climb, then continues going up and down, but more up than down  – 25 000 feet of up. Leadville and Western States rack up about 18 000 feet of elevation gain, Vermont only 17000.  Wasatch is definitely the hardest course of the four. Its only saving grace is the generous 36-hour final cutoff. I hope I won’t need all of those 36 hours, but it’s reassuring to know I could if I had to. The other thing I’m happy about is the weather forecast: after running a cold, rainy Leadville, and after reading piles of Wasatch race reports full of  dire warnings about freezing conditions, I look forward to a hot day.

4:45 am

On Friday morning, I know won’t see my crew, i.e. ultra husband David and ultra BFF Tammy, for several hours because the first crew-accessible station is over 30 miles away. We huddle in a group hug just before I find my place in the middle of the pack. At 5 am, we take off, leaving the lights of Salt Lake City behind us, and below us, on our way to the finish line near the Deer Creek Reservoir, 100 steep, rocky miles south of here. Wasatch is affectionately nicknamed “100 Miles of Heaven and Hell.” We look forward to the joy and the pain of the next 30-plus hours, to the highs and lows we will experience while putting one foot in front of the other. It sounds like a reasonable plan to this crowd of 300 hardy ultra runners and their crews. It may sound like insanity to our non-running friends, but we know they’re just jealous.

I settle into the conga line on the steep, narrow single track up Bair Canyon, climbing at a steady pace. It’s still pitch dark. I feel relaxed, mentally preparing for all the tough miles ahead, when a disembodied voice somewhere ahead of me starts screaming “Run!” Wasp attack! The only problem is, there’s nowhere to go. I’m trapped, sandwiched between runners in front and behind me, a steep drop to my right, a nearly vertical uphill on my left, running through a swarm of angry insects.

A sharp pain on my left wrist makes me yelp, even before I remember I’m allergic. Last time I got stung by a wasp,  my face looked like a cauliflower. I can feel my hand swell up already. Others around me suffer, too. We compare, we curse, but we keep moving because there’s nothing else we can do. I take off my wedding ring and loosen my Garmin, but I don’t stop. Up, and up some more, we climb into the first hint of daylight, which allows me to see that my hand has ballooned to about three times its normal size. It’s a good thing I don’t need it for running

 

A study in contrast

 

Finally, I reach the top and see Salt Lake City from far above in the pink glow of early morning, a view worth the climb, even worth the pain from the wasp sting. At the first aid sttion, mile 11, the volunteers take a look at my grotesquely swollen hand. They  sound concerned, but agree that, since I got stung two hours ago have not died yet, I likely won’t. Thankfully, ultra runners treat medical issues with a lot of common sense. I run on, happy that the evil wasp who tried to sabotage my grand slam finish failed. Mission not accomplished, you stupid insect!

Views lie this one make Wasatch heaven. The climbs make it hell.

On the downhill section that follows, I catch up to Sean Bearden, host of The Science of Ultra, which happens to be one of my favorite podcasts. He and his buddy Isaac let me join their animated conversation. I enjoy their company, but these two run 8 minute miles, which is way too fast for me, so I eventually let them go ahead

I could have taken hundreds of glorious view pictures, but they don’t dod this course justice. You just have to run it!

By mile 30, I fall in step with my old friend David Hayes, who is back to running 100s after heart surgery and looking strong. We haven’t seen each other in a long time, so time flies in deep conversation as we run along a beautiful ridge trail and into Big Mountain. My hand looks like one of the pink balloon sculptures that point the way to the aid station. David and Tammy are as happy to see me as I am to see them. They look at my sausage-like fingers with alarm, but try to sound like everything is normal, which is exactly what I need. Best crew ever!

 

Balloon sculptures that look like my hand

The sun is high in the sky by then. It’s getting warm, though not nearly as hot as it did at Western States. I know what to do: time for ice on my hand, under my hat and in my bra, time for cold ginger ale, and watermelon dipped in salt. After so many 100 mile races, the three of us are a dependable team. David and Tammy cool me down, then send me on my way.

Ultra BFF Tammy. Words can’t express how grateful I feel to know her.

I reach Lambs Canyon, mile 46, in the late afternoon. I pick up my lights, but it’s still early, still sunny, still too warm for long pants. I figure I have an extra pair at Big Water, so I stuff a half zip into my pack and go on The trail leads up another long climb. My legs feel heavy. Time to pull out my head phones for the first time. Slow, acoustic tunes for a slow pace keep me company as I make my way up the mountain in lengthening shadows under the canopy of an old forest. I feel serenity wash over me, from that deep well 100 mile races uncover inside many of us. Left foot, right foot, breathe in, breathe out, to the soundtrack of Mark Knopfler’s guitar, Ryan Bingham’s haunting lyrics, and rustling leaves. Here and now is just where I want to be until my bubble of quiet joy bursts when I catch up to a pig-tailed figure in a blue skirt. It’s fellow grand slammer Bibo Gao, who is usually hours faster than me. My competitive instinct opens one sleepy eye, then wakes up with a jolt. Here and now is no longer good enough – I want to pass Bibo, so I switch my playlist to faster rhythms, kick my feet into a quicker gear, and pull ahead.

At Big Water, mile 54, it’s getting dark and chilly. Time for warmer layers. Digging through my drop bag, I realize it contains no long pants. I must have taken them out during one of my last minute reshuffle sessions. Before I can panic, a volunteer named Kathy finds an extra pair in her car, which she graciously lends me. This type of kindness is common in the ultra crowd and one the biggest reasons I love running these races. On I go, thankful beyond words, through the dark mountains, toward Brighton, where my crew is waiting. 

By mile 67, my legs feel like bricks and my eyelids are drooping. I have a hard time finding the Brighton aid station, hidden in a small town. I stumble around paved streets and dimly lit parking lots until I finally see someone with a head lamp move into a building. I follow. A good decision! Once inside, it’s a warm piece of heaven, with my smiling, saintly crew, real bathrooms and volunteers handing out disposable toothbrushes. I remember hearing that it’s easy to spend way too much time here, and can see why. It’s a good thing I can depend on David and Tammy, who  know they have to kick me out of my chair in five minutes max. I change into a slightly warmer pair of tights, eat a quesadilla, and it’s time to go. Tammy will pace me from here to mile 90, a welcome change from the many solitary miles behind me. We take off in a happy mood

Dressing a little too warm through the night is better than hypothermia

Soon, I regret the warmer tights. The night is not as cold as I thought it would be. I feel overdressed, but otherwise pretty good as we hike through an old forest, darkness wrapped around us like a velvet blanket. Next to a huge old pine tree, we stop and turn off our lights.  I hug the tree. I hug Tammy. We look up at the stars, filled with wonder and gratitude. 

(No picture can capture that sort of moment. You just have to imagine it.)

After that little break, more climbing lies ahead – steep, rocky climbing, for several miles. I remember this part form the elevation chart, which doesn’t make it any easier. My glutes tell me they’re done for the day. My hamstrings threaten to cramp. The urge to whimper and complain becomes almost overwhelming, but I keep it in check while I keep putting one foot in front of the other. “This is the last climb” becomes my anti-whining mantra. 

At the top, near mile 70, we reach the highest point of the course and finally begin descending. Soon after that, the smell of bacon greets us. Am I hallucinating? No, it’s the Pole Line Pass aid station, where all sorts of goodies sizzle on a grill. What a welcome sight! Munching on a rolled up pancake, I believe that the worst is over. Tammy and the saintly aid station volunteers reassure me that it’s all downhill from here

How I imagined the rest of the course. Wishful thinking!

I take off,  expecting an easy cruise to the finish. Instead, I see another steep, technical climb rise before me. My hopes are crushed. The aid station volunteers are not saints, but cruel, vindictive sadists! Tammy is not really my friend – she lied to me! I start crying. I yell at the mountain. It does not care. Tammy tries to push me up the rocky incline, nicknamed “The Grunt” as I find out later. I tell her that I won’t go up there, that she can’t make me.  Oh, what pacers have to put up with. “Come on, small steps . . . We’re almost there!” she coaxes, like I’m a skittish horse. “You don’t know that. You’re lying to me!” I mutter, but I do start climbing, in spite of my loudly protesting leg muscles. We pass another runner who sits on a rock next to the trail, head in her hands, sobbing. Shared misery makes this tough stretch a little easier. At least I’m not the only this course has reduced to tears! Tammy tries to get both of us to move, but succeeds only with me. After just a few more agonizing steps, we reach the top of The Grunt. I breathe sigh of relief as I apologize to Tammy for my meltdown, thankful that everything that goes down on the trail between a runner and her pacer stays on the trail.

 

Downhill, at last.

Finally, the last major climb is over, this time for real. Finally, this beast of a course goes downhill, but it’s not the kind of downhill I had envisioned during the endless uphills of the last 80 miles or so. No, It’s a steep, quad-busting downhill, decorated with loose rocks the size of watermelons. I have twenty more miles to go until I’m an official grand slammer. I don’t want to miss the goal I’ve worked so hard for because of a busted knee or twisted ankle. On the other hand, super pacer and Wasatch veteran Tammy now mentions casually that sub-30 hour finishers earn a blue buckle, shinier and prettier than the standard sub-36 one. The sudden, irrational desire to win that particular piece of belt jewelry now burns in my gut with an intensity only ultra runners and rodeo cowboys can understand. My hamstrings are too sore to move uphill at anything faster than a turtle-like pace, but I still can run downhill, so I do, trying hard to stay vertical

New day, new energy from morning light and good music

Tammy soon falls behind my suddenly energized pace. She encourages me to go on ahead, which I eventually do, in hot pursuit of that shiny buckle. At the Pot Hollow aid station, Mile 85, it’s getting light already. I look at my Garmin. It’s dead. I look at my phone. It’s 6:30 am. I freak out for a moment, calculating that I have not that much time to spare for a sub-30 hour finish. My brain is too mushy for exact calculations, but I know it’s time to dig deep! For the second time in this race, I put on my headphones, this time blasting my power playlist. I’m glad I saved my performance-enhancing music for mile 85. With help from Freddie Mercury, Chris Ledoux, and the first hint of a glorious sunrise, I scrape up  enough energy to powerhike the uphills, then run the a non-technical, dirt road downhill all the way to mile 90.

Home stretch, mile 90: new socks, sunlight, and smiley faces on my leg. David has a sense of ultra humor.

David meets me at the aid station, full of energy and ready to pace me to the finish line. What a welcome sight! It’s getting warm. I change back into the running skirt from my drop bag, drop off my lights, put on a hat and sunglasses, and off we go, ready to dig deep for the last ten miles.

Almost there!

Ten more miles, mostly smooth and downhill, between me and the eagle trophy. We run a couple of sub-10 minute miles. One last aid station, one last slice of watermelon. Some white-faced Herefords stare at us through a barbed wire fence. We cross railroad tracks, then the trail tuns left, along a lake, which seems to go on forever. I fantasize about what I want most right now: a comfortable bed, a shower, a belt buckle, an eagle trophy. How much do I want these things? Enough to keep moving. Not enough to keep running.

The reward for 400 tough miles

Another 5k or so. I’m convinced this race will never end. My legs feel wobbly, my brain like a bowl of mashed potatoes. I put my headphones back on for the last time, blasting Don’t Stop Me Now on autorepeat, three times, five times. Thank you, Freddie Mercury! A last loop through a park, then half a mile up a paved road, then, finally, the finish line! I did it! The clock says 28:34, good enough for 5th woman.

Done! Nothing feels more amazing than finishing a 100 miler, except, maybe, finishing the Grand Slam.

17 of us, from many different walks of life, united for an epic summer

We go back to the hotel for a brief nap, but then decide to return to the finish line for the last hour, the golden hour. It’s the best place in the world to hang out. Our friends, Our people. My -our – eagle trophy, finally, after 101 hours and 48 minutes of running. Only 187 of the 300 Wasatch starters persevere to the end, but all 17 of the grand slammers who started reach the finish, a remarkable feat. We are exhausted and dirty, but beaming.  Seven of us are women, which must be a record. In 2017, not a single woman finished the slam.

My Grand Slam feet.

The Wasatch 100 is a tough beast. A curmudgeonly old 100, with a down to earth vibe. It made me cry, but it also made me tougher. Thank you, RD John Grobben and all of the amazing organizers and volunteers who spent so much of their time keeping us safe, motivated, and hydrated. Thank you, Tammy, for your wisdom, your support, your friendship, and most of all for putting up with my whining on that evil last climb. Thank you, most of all, to ultra husband David Silva, without whom I would not be an ultra runner, much less a grand slam finisher. You mean the world to me!

Worth all the blood, sweat, tears, and entry fees.

My once in a lifetime adventure is over. I already look forward to new challenges in 2019. Suggestions are welcome!

Postscript:

There’s a reason this race report is almost three months late. A week after the Wasatch 100, ultra husband David Silva had brain surgery for a subdural hematoma. He was extremely lucky. Now he is back to running and to planning the next season of ultras, but it took me a while to get my PTSD under control and my groove back.

Lessons learned:

David, best ultra husband ever.

  1. Please take head injuries seriously, even if they don’t seem like a big deal at the time they actually happen. 
  2. Live well. Love well. Life is fragile, and shorter than we like to think. It’s definitely too short for regrets. 

Leadville 2018: The Rush is Still the Same

 

“Remember how it felt

Throwing caution to the wind

Hanging on the ragged edge

Now it’s coming back again

Feel the cold sweat trickle down

Hot blood in your veins

A little past your prime

The rush is still the same”

(Ned Ledoux, singing about “Cowboy Life,” though it might as well be called “Ultra Life.”  This song pushed me up the Powerline climb in the freezing rain at 2 am. Ned probably does not realize he wrote a song about the Leadville 100, but I’m glad he did!)

Around 2:30 am on the third Saturday of every August, there’s a moment when I feel tempted to crawl back into bed instead of lacing up my shoes to run another Leadville 100. A little voice in my head whispers that I’m getting too old for this kind of silly adventure, that choosing to endure so much pain defies logic and reason, that there are more sensible and less self-destructive ways to add another piece of belt jewelry to my collection.

A girl can never have too many buckles.

The Leadville 100 is  an intimidating race. I’ve started six times and finished five, but every year, I wonder what kind of unpredictable trick the altitude will play on my body. Every year, the thought of climbing back over Hope Pass on the steep side after the half way point makes me break out in cold sweat

Those pointy batman ears go up to 12 600 feet.

The finishing rate at Leadville is between 35 and 50 percent. Every time I start, I wonder: will I finish this race, or will it finish me? But every year, these worries melt into a surge of pure excitement during the final countdown, when 700 GPS watches beep as one, 700 head lamps beam into the darkness, and the shotgun blast at 4 am sharp sends all of us silver buckle dreamers down 6th street at a pace way too fast for what we’re trying to accomplish. With enough luck and grit, we hope to make it back here sometime Sunday morning. 

And we’re off to chase a silver buckle.

This year, Leadville feels even more daunting than usual because I am doing the Grand Slam of ultra running, meaning I tackle the four original 100-mile races in one summer. Leadville is my third 100-mile run in 56 days, with Wasatch following just 19 days after. I can still feel the lingering effects of Western States and Vermont in my quads. For the first time, the big sub-25 hour buckle is not my goal, but a sub-27 should be doable. 

He finished in under 25 hours. And he completed the Leadman series. Dave Mackey is as tough as they come.

The wave of excitement fades into quiet determination as I settle into a steady rhythm down the long dirt road affectionately known as the Boulevard and then the rolling single track around Turquoise Lake as daylight inches up on the horizon. I keep my easy but consistent pace on the climb up Hagerman road and down the power lines. Dave Mackey runs right in front of me, looking strong, which makes all of us with two legs feel like slackers. This image stays with me the rest of the race, a powerful motivation.

Outward Bound, mile 25. The rain hasn’t started yet, but it soon will.

My crew, i.e my amazing ultra husband David, plus Tammy, Bobby, and Chris wait for me at Outward Bound with sunscreen and cold ginger ale. I’m well behind the overly optimistic sub-26 hour splits David has written into my pace chart, but unlike last year I continue at my sustainable pace instead of trying to make up lost time. My goal is to not just finish Leadville, but to finish Wasatch. “19 days!” becomes my mantra, a useful reminder to run smart. 

The predicted rain starts right after Outward Bound and continues on the rolling descent toward Twin Lakes. My favorite section of this course feels different this year, but no less beautiful: glistening aspen leaves, the smell of wet earth. My rain shell does not hold up to the promise on its label; I’m soon soaked to the skin, but it’s ok as long as I keep moving.

Lots of positive energy at Twin Lakes.

The rain stops right before Twin Lakes, where my enthusiastic crew makes sure I’m ready for the first climb up Hope Pass. Because of the cooler weather, I actually feel hungry, my shivering body crying for calories. I have learned from my epic Western States bonk that I should listen to it, so I munch on potato chips and tortilla pieces with a little cheese. I will need the energy for the mountain just ahead. 

Twin Lakes is the calm before the storm. From here, the trail leads through the Arkansas river and then straight up Hope Pass, the crucible of this race.  Because I have not done any altitude training, I feel apprehensive about the steep climb ahead. One foot in front of the other, keep breathing. Near the treeline, lead runner Rob Krar comes flying down, a blur of beard and speed on his way to almost breaking the course record.

Llamas and watermelon at Hopeless. What more does a runner need to be happy?

As it does every year, the Hopeless aid station puts a smile on my face: grazing llamas, watermelon slices, and a group of volunteers so cheerful that even those of us who have suffered mightily on the way up can’t leave grumpy. One more push to the top of the pass, where I pause and look behind me, feeling grateful. The view is dramatic – dark clouds over Twin Lakes, specks of blue sky, shadows and light. But it’s cold and windy, so I start heading down the steep, rocky Winfield side. My mantra changes form “19 days!” to “Don’t crash!” 

Near the bottom, the lead woman passes me on her way back up. Two minutes behind her, a familiar face: fellow New Mexican Katie Arnold, in hot pursuit and, as I find out later, on her way to a spectacular sub-20 hour first place. Go Katie! 

David, getting ready to pace me over Hope Pass: one of our most romantic dates in 25 years of marriage. Thank you, sweetie!

My only real low point comes right before Winfield, on the pretty stretch of rolling single track that adds almost two miles to the course, which feels unnecessary and mean. I reach Winfield in a crabby mood, cursing the race director and any of the other sadists responsible for the bonus mileage. But once I cross the bridge into Winfield, I shake off the irritation and feel lucky to be here, to see my crew, to have made it to the half way point. As a bonus surprise, David is ready to pace me back over Hope pass. We joke that this is the most romantic date we’ve had in months as we head on out and up. 

It’s a grueling climb, but we get there eventually.

II

“No it ain’t for the money

Though money has its place

Yes it’s just a feeling

Of being in the race

Out beyond the limit

Where you’ve never been before

And when it all comes together

That’s what you’re riding for”

(Except for the line about money, which makes no sense to us at all, this song is as true for ultra runners as it must for rodeo cowboys)

David, on fresh legs, keeps dashing ahead to take pictures, which makes me feel like a superstar.  A parade of familiar faces comes toward us on their way into Winfield: Jared, John, Shana, Eric, Zach, Laura, Francisco, Toby. Words of support and encouragement pass back and forth. I realize how at home I’ve come to feel in this crowd since 2012, when I toed the line for the first time. I remember sitting at the the pre-race briefing that year, listening to Ken Chlouber and Merilee Maupin calling the entire audience their Leadville family. I remember rolling my eyes and, thinking, cynic that I am, “yeah right!”   In 2018, on my way to earn buckle #6, that pre-race speech sounds like an honest truth. Coming to Leadville feels like a family reunion, one I look forward to every summer. 

Back on top!

David and I hike up the grueling, impossibly steep backside of Hope Pass, across the rock slides (how on earth did Dave Mackey negotiate those?), until we gasp for air above the tree line. Unlike last year, I don’t have to puke, cry, or stop. Maybe no altitude training is what works for me

Mile 60, almost back at Twin Lakes.

We reach Twin Lakes at sunset. Ultrahusband David, who has been injured and not running much for the last few months, looks exhausted, so I reassure him and the rest of the gang that I don’t need a pacer for the last 40 miles while they help me change into warm layers, doctor my blisters, and hand me my lights.   

It takes a village: I could not have done it without my super crew.

Daylight and warmth: two distant memories by the time I reach mile 80

Darkness falls on my favorite section through the aspens. Last year, I ran a bunch of sub-10 minute miles form Twin Lakes to Outward Bound, then blew up at mile 80 and lost my vision at mile 90. I staggered across the finish line wrecked and nearly blind, which was not fun. This year, I run smarter. The night air is cold enough to see my breath. I add another jacket to my bag lady outfit at Outward bound, but don’t spend much time at the aid station. It’s way too tempting to sit down near the heater, which is not what I need to do if I want to finish.

More rain starts falling on my Powerlines climb at mile 80 – a cold, driving rain in near freezing temperatures. It’s after midnight. I know there are five false summits before the real one, so I do what any sensible ultra runner would do: I put on some music, put my head down, and keep climbing, cold and soaked to the skin, but strangely happy, with rodeo songs in my ears and the image of Dave Mackey etched into my brain. Other than that, I am alone. The runners chasing the big sub-25 hour buckle are past May Queen by now, those who just want to finish still on their way to Outward Bound. In between, it’s down to the mountain, the rain, and me, with the power lines humming above. In the damp, dark middle of the night, I realize with a jolt of gratitude how lucky I am to be doing what I’m doing. I turn off my lights and stop for a few seconds, looking up at the jagged clouds and soaking up the magic of this moment, until the cold gets me moving again. 

At the summit – the real one, finally – friendly ghosts of Space Camp offer standard and not-so-standard aid station fare, including “pretzels, potato chips, ginger ale, CBD, THC.”I’m tempted to experiment with Colorado-style pain relief, but the rational part of my brain still functions enough to stop me in time.  

III.

“Lonely is the highway

Morning sun and bloodshot eyes

Through all the aches and pain

The hunger’s still alive”

 

“Lonely is the highway, morning sun and bloodshot eyes”

May Queen. My Garmin has died. My quads hurt. I have no idea what time it is, and I don’t care. It’s dark. It’s cold. I have 12.5 miles to go. The hard climbs are over. The rain has stopped. This is the last time I see Tammy and David before the finish line. One last group hug. One last change of batteries. One last cup of Ramen noodles, one last handful of potato chips. I’m scraping up my last reserves of energy, determined to finish.

Nothing feels as good as crossing the finish line of a 100 mile race. Nothing.

The single track around the lake has become longer since yesterday morning, I swear it. The last steep, short downhill, the railroad tracks, then finally the Boulevard, which seems to go on forever. I keep moving at a powerhike, try to break into a shuffle here and there, but can’t keep it up for long. The sky lightens to grey, then pink. I feel pain all over – in my hamstrings, my quads, my calf muscles, my feet. Even my arms and shoulders hurt from wearing my pack for so long. Even my throat hurts, from breathing so hard in thin, cold air for so long. I know I have chafe marks in unmentionable places, plus blisters between a few toes. But underneath all the agony, joy has settled even deeper into my bones. I will  get there. I will finish Leadville for the 6th time. I am alive. I am upright. I am still moving. I have made it through the rainy, chilly night. I have made it across the mountain and back. The promise of a sunrise peeks over the horizon. I know, in my heart and every cell of my depleted body, that all will be well with life, with the future, with the world. In a nutshell, this feeling is why I love running 100s. 

Ken and Merilee, doing what they do best. Thank you!

Finally, pavement, which means the finish line is less than a mile away.  A volunteer directs runners to the left. I turn right. He yells “No, THIS left!” My brain seems to have turned into mush, but I’m almost home. I run (well, ok, I shuffle) from the top of 6th street all the way to the red carpet, into the waiting arms of race co-founder Merilee Maupin. “Welcome home!” are the two sweetest words I’ve ever heard.  More hugs – David. Tammy. Chris. Bobby. Ken Chlouber. My family. My people. I’m home. I feel so happy I start crying. 

Husband, pacer, crew chief, cheerleader, photographer – David Silva, just an all around good kind of a guy.

2018 was not my fastest, Leadville 100 by a long shot, but I feel human at the finish line, which I have crossed as 10th place female, in a respectable time of 26:24. The next day, I am able to climb up the podium  to accept my second in age group award, behind race winner Katie (over 6 hours ahead of me!). Now, it’s time to get ready for Wasatch. I have no idea how I will run another tough 100 19 days after finishing Leadville, but there’s only one way to find out. 

A pretty addition to my buckle collection

Thank you, Ken and Merilee and everyone involved in race organization for putting on such an epic event (in spite of the two extra miles). Thank you, everyone who volunteered, cheered, and high fived along the way – you made a difference! Thank you, Tammy, Bobby, and Chris for giving up your weekend to lose sleep, hang out in the rain and cold for hours and hours, change dirty socks, and perform the other glamorous duties of a good crew member. I will owe you three for the rest of my life. And, as always, thank you, David, for being the amazing crew captain/photographer/pacer/cheerleader/husband combo model that you are. I am the luckiest woman alive. 

. . . and last but not least a special shoutout to Ned LeDoux for the song that sums up what the Leadville 100 is all about. I remember him playing the drums at his dad’s concerts many years ago, but had no idea he could sing. Looking forward to the next album already!

 

 

A Matter of Horsepower: Vermont 100

 

“I was born in a hurry but there wasn’t any place to go

Nowhere fast seemed better than nowhere slow

I never really got the hang of hanging around

When you get down to it

I guess I always knew it

What it is that makes my world go round

It’s a matter of

Horsepower

For 8 seconds or miles per hour” 

(Chris Ledoux)

(This song got me out of bed at the unlikely hour of 2 am on July 21, then stayed stuck in my head for approximately 75 miles of the Vermont 100. I couldn’t get rid of it, and didn’t want to, though, by mile 20, I had changed the lyrics to “for 8 seconds or 24 hours.”)

 

Just another day at the office.

One of the many reasons I love 100 mile races is their connection to my other life as a horse trainer. Western States and a few other 100s began as endurance rides. Now, the Tevis Cup and Western States are two separate events, held on separate weekends. Other than the silver belt buckles runners earn for finishing,100 mile foot races show little evidence of their equestrian roots. The Vermont 100 is, as far as I know, the only event that still allows horses and runners to tackle 100 miles together, with equine and human endurance athletes sharing a trail. I’m excited to run this race, though not nearly recovered from my rough time at Western States four weeks earlier. 

I’m home.

On Friday, the start/finish area at Silver hill meadow is teeming with horses and trailers. People are wearing running shorts or riding tights, Hokas or half chaps. My kind of crowd – I don’t have to decide which of my two favorite universes I want to belong to for the weekend.

Chilling and soaking up the horsepower on Friday.

While David lines up at the starting line of the 5k offered for crew and family members, I enjoy the peaceful scene, breathing in the familiar horse aroma and feeling grateful for the company of these beautiful animals I get to work with every day, but usually miss like crazy on running weekends. I’m at peace. I’m home. I know, deep down, that this race will be a good one.  

 

The Taftsville covered bridge, mile 15. A sight to remember. .

We wake up in our Airbnb on a local alpaca farm at the unlikely hour of 2 am and make it back to Silver Hill in good time for the 4 am start.

I ran on horsepower . . . maybe with a little bit of alpaca power mixed in.

David and I review the plan for the day one last time. He will meet me at the crew-accessible aid stations, then pace from mile 88 to the end. My A-goal is a sub-24hr finish, my B goal any finish, my dream goal a sub-23. A last cup of coffee, a last kiss and hug from my ultrahusband, and we 100-mile hopefuls take off into the pre-dawn darkness, knowing that most of us will see the sun rise, set, and rise again before we stop. We run through leafy forest as the sky lightens to grey, then blue.

The course meanders along dirt roads, up and down rolling hills, through a park-like landscape. We cross a couple of old covered bridges which make me feel like I’m running through  fairy tale.

 

Endurance athletes, all of us.

  Manicured farms peek out behind wooden fences, cows graze in lush pastures. A few hours into the run, the first horses pass us at a brisk pace, looking focused and businesslike, just like their riders. I never see this lead pack again, but do end up running with the same group of mid-pack horses and riders the rest of the way. We fall into a rhythm: they pass me on the uphills, then I pass them on the downhills, or at their vet check points. The youngest rider of this group is just nine years old. She and her grey Arabian always look happy and energetic, which makes me just as happy and energetic – the ripple effect of horsepower.

The Vermont 100 has a strict no-headphones rule, understandable because of horses, runners, and sometimes cars sharing the course. I never listen to music for long stretches of an ultra, but I do like using it strategically, during tough spots. Twenty minutes’ worth of high-energy songs  can pull me out of a funk when nothing else works. I use my playlist like a performance-enhancing drug, so before the race I worried about having to do without it. It turns out everything was fine, because of hoofbeats on the dirt roads and Horsepower playing over and over in my head – the only drugs I really needed. As an added bonus, the no-music rule makes conversations with other runners even easier than they normally are. I end up next to a guy in a blue shirt starting around mile 20. We start talking. As it turns out, Andres and I have similar paces and goals, so without trying, we run together for much of the race, pulling each other out of dark stretches and enjoying the high points.  

Horsepower at mile 27. We soak it up.

Mile 27 finds us on top of a green hill, with views of more hills in the misty light. The clop-clop of hoofbeats crescendoes behind us, then our four-legged ultra friends thunder across the meadow, leaving us in the wake of their power and joy.  We soak it up. As two seasoned 100-mile veterans, we know that we will have to remember this moments and others like it once the pain sets in during the later miles. . 

Pure joy at mile 27

After that, I don’t have to wait long for a low point. Around mile 40 I feel sore spots in my quads, still lingering from my rough finish at Western States four weeks earlier. While Andres saunters on ahead, I struggle through the next seven miles. I imagine dropping out – of this race and of the Grand Slam. I imagine the pain getting worse from here on until I’m reduced to a crawl by mile 70 and miss the 30-hour cutoff. The song in my head goes silent. I stop feeling the Horsepower. 

Every 100 has a tough stretch . . . or several. This one was pretty short.

By mile 47, I jog into Camp Ten Bear, feeling terrible. David has set up a chair into which I collapse, almost sobbing. He says I still look good, convincing liar that he is. I look at the unopened clif bloks in my pack, and do something sensible for once: realizing I need calories plus electrolytes, I start munching potato chips and pretzels, washing everything down with iced ginger ale. Soon, the magic combo of sugar, salt, and bubbles restores my energy levels. I leave in much better spirits. 

Parrotheads should run aid stations at every 100. It was impossible to leave grouchy from here.

After mile 50, I share miles with Charlotte, who is running her second 100 at age 27, and Diego from Arizona, who reads my blog. I start to feel stronger, absorbing horsepower from the group of Arabians who trots past us on the uphill miles. Our little group reaches the Margaritaville aid station in good time, and in good spirits. The exuberant local parrotheads spread such good cheer and mix such excellent frozen concoctions that even those runners who shuffle in looking like death warmed over leave happy. I grab more potato chips and a piece of grilled cheese sandwich, which I dip in salt. Yum! 

Another themed aid station. Thank you, cowboys and cowgirls!

My stomach, which can be so finicky, so uncooperative, during 100 mile races, responds with enthusiasm to gooey Vermont cheddar oozing out between toasted bread. I’ve learned to go with what I crave during ultras, even when it seems counterintuitive, so I continue on a steady diet of salt-dipped grilled cheese squares from every aid station. An unlikely source of energy, but it works.  

We’re reunited!

By mile 65, I catch Andres again. We run into the Spirit of 76 aid station together, where David crews for both of us. I want to run this race by feel, without getting obsessed with a time goal, but by now I’m curious: is it still realistic to aim for sub-24? It is, as it turns out. I glance at my pace chart, realizing with a happy jolt that I am well ahead of my splits. 

Darkness falls. We turn on our lights. The rain in the weather forecast is nowhere in sight. We run under a canopy of stars, next to horses decked out in reflective gear.  I feel so good that I pull ahead of Andres and begin to pass other runners. Horsepower is still playing in my head, still fits my race: 

“Well the view looks better from ahead than it looks behind

I got a need for speed and I don’t mean the drugstore kind

Some people like a life that barely moves at all

I say more power to ‘em

Then I fly right through ‘em . . . ”

Ok, time to be honest here: I’m probably shuffling more than flying by then, but I’m still shuffling past runners who are moving at an even slower pace than mine. 

The horses had their own aid stations. I don’t think they served margaritas.

At Bill’s, mile 88, there’s no sign of David, which is not really surprising. He has said all day that the aid stations are difficult to find, and I imagine it’s even more difficult in the dark. Besides, I am now so far ahead of even my 23-hour splits, that I don’t really expect him.

My ultra husband, ready to pace. His intentions were good, then he got lost in the maze of unnamed, unmarked dirt roads.

Plan B means running to the finish without a pacer to motivate me. I don’t mind. I don’t need motivation because I’m still flying high on horsepower and grilled cheese.  Polly’s diner at mile 95, the last aid station. I have no idea what time it is, and I don’t care. I can still run (or, more likely, shuffle), so I shuffle on, ridiculously happy under the canopy of trees and silvery moonlight, with hoofbeats echoing in the distance. 

Andres and I, still smiling after 100 miles

Mile 97, one last climb to the finish. I hear footsteps behind me. It’s Andres, catching up once again, which makes me even happier. We share the last couple of miles, thank each other, promise to keep in touch. Gentleman that he is, he lets me cross the finish line ahead of him. We hug the extraordinary RD Amy, we hug each other. The clock says 21:38. Are my eyes not working right, like at Leadville last year? I blink. The clock still says 21:38, which means I’ve gone faster than my wildest expectations. David walks up just then, hears that two runners have just finished, and doesn’t realize one of them is me until he sees me sitting there, beaming. Of course, he did not expect me this soon. More hugs, more congratulations. A beautiful day is ending. 

Sunday morning. Good-bye, Silver Hill meadow!

 

What went right at Vermont? Why did I finish upright and strong, not a barely crawling, blood-covered wreck like at Western States? “Easy 100” is an oxymoron, I know, but this one comes close: no super steep climbs, no technical singletrack, no river crossings, no scorching heat, no altitude. Just rolling hills, beautiful green meadows, aid stations every few miles, a well-marked course. But more important than all those things was the energy from the hoofbeats thundering around me all day. I ran the Vermont 100 on horsepower and grilled cheese – a combination that worked for me. 

Post-race, pre-shower legs.

Thank you, Amy, for organizing such a first-class event. Thank you, amazing volunteers at the many aid stations – you rocked! Thank you, Diego, Charlotte, and Andres, for shared miles, shared  joy, and shared misery, for the laughs and the deep conversations. And, as always, thank you, David, for driving around unnamed, unmarked dirt roads all day and most of the night, for changing my filthy socks, for drawing smiley faces into the dirt on my legs, for encouraging me when I wanted to quit, for making me laugh when I wanted to cry.  You’re the best ultrahusband any woman  could wish for. 

And no, I’m still not sick of that song, though I slightly adapted the lyrics: 

“I’ve been thinking about

 Horsepower

For 8 seconds or 24 hours 

It’s the way I am and it’s a fact I can’t ignore

Yea, big four-legged, fuel injected

Running wild, radar detected

This woman can always stand a little bit more

Horsepower”

Run happy, on horsepower or anything else that works for you, 

Katrin

Fair Warning:  Hard Things About Running 100 Mile Races You Might Not Expect

Nothing compares to the joy of crossing a 100-mile finish line. Nothing.

I love 100 mile races for a long list of reasons: Because they’re a shortcut to experiencing the full range of human emotions in 24 hours or less. Because they have made me appreciate my body with all its imperfections more in my late forties than I ever did it in my twenties. Because they have pushed me beyond my physical and mental limits, to places I had no idea existed inside me. Because they fill me with awe at the natural world, with gratitude for the messy, haphazard state of humanity. Nonetheless, they’re not a walk in the park. Running 100s will hurt, in all sorts of ways. Everyone who thinks about signing up for a 100 miler hears about blisters, muscle cramps, nausea, chafing, and hallucinations. However, in addition to those known hazards, there are other, less widely discussed sources of suffering: 

Leadville 2016, mile 92. I saw zombies lurking in the forest around Turquoise Lake.

  1. Paranoid Delusions 

Confession time: this ultra runner does not have a sense of direction whatsoever. I have no idea how to use a compass, read a map, or interpret the growth of moss on trees. While I’m aware that that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, I’m not sure how knowing where East or West is could help me get where I want to go. My only backcountry skill is following little pink flags in the hope they will lead to a finish line eventually. Once it’s dark, and once my energy reserves are depleted, I realize how vulnerable this makes me, how much trust I place in people I don’t really know. What if the person in charge of marking the course turned out to be some crazed sociopath underneath his pleasant exterior? What if he takes sadistic pleasure in directing a long line of unsuspecting, mushy-brained fools into a crocodile-filled swamp or a gravel pit where an axe murderer lies waiting? What if the flags lead us to a circle in a corn field where aliens will abduct us for purposes too harrowing to contemplate? 

Effective deterrents for zombies, vampires, axe murderers and the like.

 I have learned that paranoid delusions of this type usually come from low blood sugar. Nightmare scenarios running through my head mean nothing more than that my body needs calories sooner rather than later, but the first time it happened, I made the mistake of sharing the axe murderer fantasy with my husband who was pacing me at the time. He seemed a little freaked out at that point. Now he knows that something as simple as a grilled cheese sandwich is an effective weapon against crazed serial killers, packs of bears, vampires, or any other threat I see lurking in the bushes. 

2. Not being able to squat after mile 70

Above the treeline is not a good place to answer the call of nature. Plan ahead!

This is something I didn’t realize until I found myself deep in the pain cave and deep in my first 100 mile race simultaneously. No one told me before then, so I’m telling you now: if you have to go use the port-a-shrub, don’t wait until your quads have quit working altogether. Planning ahead for potty breaks means so much more than just carrying toilet paper and trying to avoid populated areas. It’s best to hunker down in a place where you can pull yourself back into an upright position using low-hanging branches, not next to a cholla cactus or a rusty barbed-wire fence. Having to ask your pacer to help you get back up from performing bodily functions may not be the most embarrassing thing you have ever done, but it definitely ranks in the top five. I have since learned to pee standing up, a skill men take for granted since age two – lucky devils. Women have to learn it later in life. This should be part of every female ultra runner’s training regime, ideally before she starts her first 100. 

3. You probably won’t lose weight 

The guy on the right is not a common body type among ultra runners.

A friend looking to shed a few pounds recently asked me if running 100 miles is a good weight loss strategy.  My answer was an emphatic “No way!”  When training for a 100, I burn a lot of calories, but I also get so hungry that I consume them right back. Ultra training is not a license to eat all the junk I want, either. It’s true that the furnace will burn anything if it’s hot enough, but it still burns some fuels a lot cleaner than others, so I try to make healthier choices  than a bag of Twizzlers, at least most of the time. 

Finishing a 100 miler has many rewards. Just be aware that weight loss is not one of them.

Even the actual race won’t make you magically lighter. The hardest thing about running my first 100 was stepping on the scale two days after crossing the finish line and realizing I had gained six pounds instead of losing a couple. This  shocking experience sent me from a post-race state of bliss into a post-race funk. Panicked, I called my trusted mentor Allen, who explained that this is mostly water retention and the body’s way of repairing muscle damage. Fifteen 100-mile races later, I know it’s not real weight gain, and I know it will be gone again by Thursday of the post-race week, but seeing that number still seems so damn unfair after running all day and all night.

All you want to do for about a week after finishing.

4. You will feel really, really tired

It’s normal to feel run down after running an ultra, but until you’ve finished a 100 miler, you don’t know the true meaning of tired. Your body wants to rest, but your exhausted muscles keep twitching, plus you’re chafed in too many unmentionable places to find a comfortable sleeping position. Your brain feels like a bowl of overcooked spaghetti, which makes coherent thought seem like a superhuman effort, and you realize that simple things like taking a shower require a lot more planning than you ever thought they could. 

Even after the first day or two, the fatigue lingers. I expected to feel exhausted after my first 100, but I also expected to be more or less back to my normal energy level after a good night’s rest. Not so. 100s disrupt your sleep cycle worse than a bad case of jet lag. A week after finishing, I usually still feel slug-like. Because I work as a horse trainer, active recovery is a necessity rather than a choice for me. I’m usually back at the barn and on a horse or two by Tuesday, back in the saddle all day by Wednesday. But once I get off my last horse, I collapse in a heap for the rest of the day.  B-vitamins and magnesium help, only lots of extra sleep will get your energy levels back to normal. 

Still tempted to run your first 100? Go sign up. In spite of all the pain and suffering, it’s worth it! 

Run happy, contemplating your first 100 or reflecting on your 10th one, 

Katrin

Western States 2018: worth every painful step

It’s Not a Dirty Job: How Working With Horses Has Made Me a Better Ultra Runner

A day at the office.

I earn a living working with horses, which makes me feel lucky. When I’m not riding, I’m running long distances, which makes me feel even luckier, but I admit there are times when my two passions are at odds with each other. 

Horse trainers work long hours and long weeks. I try to take one day a week off, but more than that is out of the question. My clients are an understanding bunch who know me well enough to realize I  need to to race some weekends, but I spend many of the other weekends at shows and clinics. This makes long runs difficult and back to back long runs almost impossible. My weekly mileage tops out in the seventies, no matter how hard I try. Compared to many ultra runners I know, I operate near the low end of 100-mile training. 

Lucky for me, the Santa Fe Rail Trail is five minutes from the barn.

I don’t get to run the miles I do manage to fit in on fresh legs, either. My husband likes to point out that both of us have sitting occupations: he sits at his desk all day, I sit on horses all day. I love him dearly, but he is not a horseman and therefore does not know what he’s talking about. Working with horses is a very physical job. For one thing, I don’t just sit in saddles, l lift these heavy contraptions on and off horses all day. I also wield brushes and curry combs, walk lots of steps between the barn, the arena, and the turnout pens, sweep aisles, scoop manure, etc etc. 

Sitting a big trot takes strong core muscles.

Even the time I actually spend on horseback is a workout. I don’t need to tell this to anyone who has ever ridden a horse, but people like my husband have the wrong impression. All of this means that when I go for a two-hour run after work, I’m already pretty tired. It can be hard to convince my body to switch into running mode. Most days, I get off my last horse, grab a protein bar to stave off hunger pangs, then change into running clothes at the barn and leave straight from there. I have learned the hard way that going home and sitting down leads to evenings spent slug-like on the sofa. 

For human use, too.

My horsey lifestyle clearly has its drawbacks for endurance training. Overall, though, I think it has made me a better ultra runner, sometimes in unexpected ways, like when I twist my ankle or bruise my knee. Because of doctoring horses with similar ailments for decades, I know exactly how to make them better. Ice-tight overnight poultice works great for reducing any kind of swelling, and there’s nothing like Absorbine liniment to bring tired muscles back to life. These proven remedies  work for runners just as well as they do for horses. Also, you can buy them by the gallon or bucket, rather than by the ounce, which males them a better deal for those of us who run a lot. Just disregard the fine print that says “veterinary use only.”

After the San Diego 100. It’s a good thing I’m used to dirt!

My disheveled post-run appearance is also not the problem it would be if I worked in an office. For someone who works n a barn, it’s perfectly fine to go for a run and then ride another horse or two without taking a shower in between. No one cares about me being sweaty and smelly. By the time I drive home, I’m covered in so many layers of dirt that flies follow me into my car, but it’s a small price to pay for not being stuck in a cubicle. 

Better than a cubicle, or a gym.

Moving all day the way I do makes me tired, but it’s still more of an advantage than a handicap for my ultra runinng. Riding a horse, if you do it right, engages the human core in a way few other activities can. I often hear well-meaning friends express concern about the state of my back after riding so many horses for so many years. I tell them that my back is in great shape, as are my abs. My work is cross training for my hobby, which is really pretty cool.

Teaching a young horse to expect the unexpected. I have learned it from them, they learn it from me.

 It’s also great mental preparation for long races to ride one horse after another, six days a week, in all sorts of weather. The twenty-plus years I’ve spent doing just that has helped me develop me the kind of resilience and grit that running 100s requires. Horses are sensitive creatures who don’t always behave in predictable ways, so the kind of problem-solving on the fly that happens over the course of a 100 mile race is intimately familiar to anyone who spends time with them.

Time to cowgirl up.

Horses have taught me to get back up right away when I land in the dirt and to deal with things I can’t control without losing my cool. I’ve learned from them that calm persistence is a better strategy than getting frustrated when things don’t go the way I want them to. The list goes on. All the things I teach my horses pale in comparison to the skills they have taught me. Maybe all ultra runners should spend time at the barn; I highly recommend it. 

Buckles and ribbons are great, but they’re not what matters most.

But most importantly, horses remind me every day how important it is to enjoy the daily training instead of focusing too much on the outcome. I want to be the best horsewoman I can be, just like I want to be the best ultra runner I can be, so it’s good to have goals, like blue ribbons or silver buckles. On the other hand, these goals mean little compared to what really matters, like trying to reach them with integrity and kindness to myself and others. Like feeling gratitude for the life I get to lead, the beautiful scenery I get to run and ride in every day, the many talented, beautiful horses and so many inspiring runners I get to connect with. I may have forgotten what it’s like to have clean fingernails or spend a weekend lounging around in my pajamas, but wouldn’t trade the horse-ultra life for anything. 

 

It’s Not All in Your Head: Western States 2018

At 4 am on June 23, two weeks before my 48th birthday, I feel well trained, well tapered, and well rested as I put on my running shoes and prepare for a scorching day out on the Western States trail. 30 minutes later, among all the adrenaline and rippling muscles near the starting line, I feel totally undertrained.

Lesson learned: preparation is not everything. You have to actually consume the s-caps and food you stash in your drop bags.

As usual, Western States gives me a case of impostor syndrome: what am I doing here, in this super fit crowd, where I recognize every other runner from the pages of ultra running magazine? Where the average body fat percentage hovers near zero? Where I’m old enough to be the average runner’s mother? Glancing to my left, I see a face even older than mine: Diana Fitzpatrick, looking strong and focused on her way to the women’s 60 to 69 age group record. We wish each other good luck, and I feel more confident, just in time.

Lesson learned: crew members are saints. They deserve appreciation, and cold beer.

My crew, i.e. ultrahusband David and my friend Tammy, give me hugs and positive energy before I settle into the middle of the pack for the countdown, feeling lucky to be alive on this gorgeous morning, and lucky to be here, in this magic spot where it all began in 1973. We’re off, up the first climb of the day, with a shotgun blast and the sound of cow bells.

 

Lesson learned: Feeling strong in the high country is o excuse for neglecting hydration, nutrition, and electrolytes.

The first few miles lead up to the escarpment, where we catch a glimpse of the surreal neon sunrise over Lake Tahoe. The morning is still cool, but by 8 am, the day is heating up already. The forecast calls for triple-digit temperatures, and we’re well on our way there at this early hour.

Around mile 20, a pony-tailed woman runs by me like I’m standing still. My competitive instinct wakes up, and as I take off in hot pursuit. Minutes later, I pay for this foolishness with the first crash of the day on a rocky, gnarly section of singletrack. A good reminder to run my own race. 

Lesson learned: friends like Tammy are worth their weight in gold. More, actually.

 

Robinson Flat, mile 30. David and Tammy are waiting, with my drop bag. I’ve already soaked in a stream on the way up from Duncan Canyon, so it’s time for the first sock change of the day, plus ice on every part of my body, before I head out again. Until Michigan Bluff, mile 55, I’m on my own. The next section is one of my favorites: a long, gentle downhill through the forest, the calm before the storm of the canyons, where place names tell the story of broken gold rush dreams: Millers Defeat. Dusty Corners. Last Chance. My legs run strong, my imagination runs wild. Whose soaring hopes crumbled in this dry, unforgiving country? Whose bleached bones lay buried here? 

Lesson learned: I am one lucky woman.

It’s time to stop daydreaming when the canyons begin in earnest. I’m feeling good, passing people up the climb to Devil’s thumb, where a familiar face greets me: Andrea Feucht, volunteering today, passes me the best popsicle, ever. She looks at the untouched clif bloks in my pack and asks whether I’ve been eating. I don’t remember. Have I? Some candied ginger is all I really want at this point. It’s just too hot. 

Down into the next canyon, my quads and toes start hurting on the steep switchbacks. At the bottom, the next aid station, where runners are suffering and puking. I feel decent in comparison. Upward and onward, where my wonderful crew is waiting at Michigan Bluff. 

Lesson learned: don’t underestimate the power of seeing your crew.

I’m right on track for 24 hours, even with a break to change my socks again. I head out with time to spare, but my quads start to really hurt. Also, my stomach is on the verge of upheaval. I put on some music and decide to ignore the pain. 

At Forest Hill, the big test: will I learn from past mistakes and remember my lights, which I forgot in 2015? I’ve written crew instructions in big, bold letters. I’ve stashed extra lights in the crew bag, in the Forest Hill drop bag, and at Rucky Chucky. Our combined vigilance pays off: Tammy and David hand me my head lamp, a handheld flashlight, and a spare set of batteries. That should do it! 

On a less positive note, the pain in my quads is getting severe. I feel weak and realize I stopped eating a gazillion miles ago, when I got sick of clif bloks. Probably a bad idea. I sit down for five minutes while David ices my legs. I take my emergency Tylenol, Craving salt, I drink some pickle juice, have some potato chips. It dawns on me that I should have taken salt much earlier, but I was feeling good in the heat of the day, so I didn’t. Not smart. 

In spite of the pain, I keep pushing on. Mile 78, the river crossing. I’m still on track for sub-24. David is ready to pace me to the finish. We cross the water, carefully placing our feet around the slippery rocks, guided by the amazing volunteers who stand in the cold water in their wet suits all night. The sight leaves me filled with gratitude.

Lesson learned: there’s always time for romance. Take an extra minute to kiss your ultrahusband at mile 80.

On the far side, I change into dry shoes, losing precious time. We reach Green Gate five minutes behind schedule, so I keep running and pushing so hard that David has trouble keeping up with me. Auburn Lakes trails, mile 85. The silver buckle is still within my reach. Then, at mile 89, it’s over – suddenly, and for good. My quads start cramping. They seize up, like gripped by a trap, without warning. I fall to the ground, in agony, and land on some sharp rocks. Blood is running down my legs, from a couple of fairly deep gashes, but compared to the quad pain, it’s barely noticeable. David helps me up. I try to run again, but my quads don’t cooperate. At mile 90, I recognize Diana Fitzpatrick, 60 years old, tough as nails, and trying to break 24 hours, which, I learn later, she does. I try keep up with this amazing runner, but can’t. I just can’t run anymore. Not just because of the intense pain, I also can’t lift my feet. My gait looks and feels like a zombie walk – uncoordinated, unbalanced. I can barely stay upright and have to use my hands to negotiate the technical climb toward Pointed Rocks, where I say a tearful good-bye to the silver buckle.

Lesson learned: bronze is a pretty color, too.

Mile 95. Tammy is waiting at the aid station to pace me for the last five miles. I drink more pickle juice, but refuse the offer of a chair. Way too tempting. I consider asking for a shotgun instead, to put me out of my misery, but then Tammy – bless her heart – points out that I now have almost six hours to cover five miles in time for the bronze buckle. I reconsider my options. Even in my reduced condition, that sounds doable.

Mile 97. Lesson learned: when things don’t go as planned, change your mindset and appreciate that second sunrise.

We head out. We walk, we talk, I occasionally yelp and whimper. One good thing: not running has given my stomach a chance to settle, so at least I don’t feel like throwing up anymore. My appetite is coming back, and with it a more positive outlook. I munch on some pretzels, even some quesadilla wedges. Moving at a snail’s pace is a good way to appreciate the dawn in this amazing place, on this gorgeous course. No, even without reaching my A-goal of a 24-hour finish, I’d rather be here on this course, on this glorious morning, than anywhere else.

In 2015, on my way to the silver buckle, I raced through this section in the dark. Today, I can see how beautiful it is. No Hands Bridge, lit up like a Christmas tree, deserves an award for prettiest aid station in the universe.

Another 5k to go. Another climb. Horse manure on the trail might bug some people, but I breathe in the familiar aroma with gratitude. Then, the town of Auburn. At Robie Point, the welcome sight of pavement,  guiding weary runners to the finish line. One more uphill, then Placer High School. I try to muster up enough energy to run around the stadium, but have to take a walk break halfway there. I do manage to run across the finish line. It’s easy to smile, to beam, even. Yes, I made it.

Lesson learned: crossing that finish line is worth every bit of pain.

A finish at Western States is something to be proud of, no matter what. Many runners have seen their dreams evaporate in the last 20 miles. In spite of the pain and suffering of the last 30 miles, I feel good about this finish. I dared greatly, and I lost. I risked blowing up, and I did. There’s no shame in giving it all. 

Finished, in every sense of the word. I left it all out there!

To win a silver buckle, or any buckle, a runner has to take some risks. You can’t play it safe and still finish under the time limit. so, I’m not too upset about missing the silver buckle. I left everything I had out on the course. I didn’t give up. My legs gave out, and my brain couldn’t get them back into gear. 

Lesson learned: there’s no place like Placer High stadium on June 23.

This race made me think a lot about the mind-body connection. Is it really all in our heads, like some experts seem to think? After my Jemez 50, I would have said yes. Now, I’m not so sure. Like a stupid rookie, I neglected nutrition and electrolytes for most of the race. My quads started hurting at mile 60. I ignored them and kept running strong for another 30 miles. My mind wanted to run, so I ran, ignoring the pain signals my body gave me. At mile 90, my depleted body had enough and went on strike. My mind still wanted to run, but my legs would not cooperate for the last ten miles. Still, I was able to walk to the finish line and to shuffle about halfway around the stadium – my legs didn’t even want to do that. My conclusion: It’s all in our heads – to a point. Then, the body reminds us who is really in charge. I look forward to testing this hypothesis at my remaining three grand slam races. 

The most important lesson I learned: Keep your sense of humor!