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Taming the Beast: Javelina 100, 2017

 

I registered for the 2017 Javelina 100 in late September, after two difficult 100-mile finishes earlier in the summer. Bryce and Leadville had gone well until I fell apart around mile 80 and shuffled, walked, or staggered on until crossing the finish line. I began to think that, at 47, old age had finally caught up with me. I worried that my finishing kick in 100s was gone for good.

So, I signed up for the Javelina. It’s an easier course than what I normally choose – no altitude, no mountain passes, not too technical, not too much vert. I wanted my mojo back. I also wanted a 100-mile PR. I wanted to run faster than my 23:16 in Leadville four years earlier. Never mind that the Javelina takes place in the desert heat of central Arizona, never mind that I had not done any heat training since August – I wanted redemption.

I also wanted the race to double as a romantic getaway. My husband David and I celebrated our 25th anniversary in mid-October. When I suggested a weekend road trip to the Javelina 100, David immediately agreed (one of the many reasons why i love him). We drove from New Mexico to Fountain Hills on Friday. While going through Santa Fe, an hour away from home, I shift into panic mode: have I packed my good Hokas? We pull over. I dig through my bag. I have not.

Time to problem-solve. Turning back would turn an eight-hour drive into ten hours, and make us miss packet pickup. Lucky for me, we are not too far from the Running Hub, our Santa Fe running store, where I purchase a pair of Speedgoats and put them on my feet for the rest of the day so I don’t run 100 miles in brand-new shoes. Nothing new on race day, right?

The Javelina is a five-loop course. I’ve always preferred out and backs or point to points, for the simple reason that I don’t want to pass the finish line until the finish. Passing it four times, at mile 20, 40, 60, and 80 seems like a recipe for a DNF. I imagined the temptation to drop would be overwhelming – an irresistible siren call, a surefire way to break my willpower. So, in spite of hearing great things about the Javelina for years, I had never wanted to take this chance until now.

The race starts at 6 am, with a counterclockwise loop that is slightly longer than the other four. We gallop off into the desert, riding high on a wave of pure energy. It’s still cool and crisp. After twenty minutes or so, I turn off my light. The sun inches up on the horizon, splashing the desert with purple, red, and shades of orange. I get stuck in the back of the pack, then break free on a section of double track and speed up – probably too much, but I can’t help it. A familiar shirtless silhouette in front of me tuns out to be Adrian – my pacer and friend without whom I would not have finished Leadville two months ago. He has a plane to catch the next morning, meaning that he has to finish the Javelina in under 21 hours. I wish him luck as he scampers ahead, on his way to a spectacular 18-hour finish..

The Javelina 100 is a social race because the loops are washing-machine style, meaning we reverse direction each time we finish one. Everyone sees everyone else several times – lots of opportunities to catch up with old friends, and meet new ones. I say hello to Ian Maddieson, 75 years young, and to a 14-year old kid whose friends think he’s gone crazy. I meet runners from Ireland, Mexico, Canada, and all over the US.

 

I also meet strange creatures not normally found in ultra races because lots of people run the Javelina in costumes.

I wear a colorful top, skirt, and cowgirl hat, plus some pink hair, and some body glitter. Others dressed up in much more elaborate fashion: clowns, skeletons, bandits, Jackie O, Fred Flintstone, several Wonder Women, a guy in a thong, men (and a few women) in tutus.

By the time I start my second loop, clockwise, the desert is warming up. By the time I start my third, it’s hot. Really hot. I’m still running strong, but have slowed down a little, even take a few short walk breaks on the uphills. At every aid station, I stuff handfuls of ice into my hat and down my bra. All aid stations at Javelina are top notch – a cross between tapa restaurant, night club with full bar, support group meeting, field hospital, and motivational event. Coyote Crossing offers Bloody Marys and forms of pain relief. Jackass Junction transforms the desert into a dance club, complete with strobe lights and a disco ball. I leave every aid station nourished, cool, and cheerful. The furthest distance between aid stations is 6.5 miles, so it’s impossible to stay grumpy for long at Javelina.

 

The afternoon sun feels merciless. I pass a couple of runners who crouch doubled over trail side, retching. I offer ginger and encouraging words, but can’t do much else. My own stomach is on the edge of rebelling after a steady all-day diet of Stinger Waffles and ginger ale. I try to reason with it. I implore it to behave better than it did in Leadville.It grumbles, the settles down again, still threatening with mutiny.

The loop course does require more mind games than usual. While I finish loop three, I think “only a 50k to go.” Wait, a 50k? It seems like a lot. I also realize that, had I signed up for the 100k instead of the 100-miler, I would be done already. Ruminating along such unhelpful lines, I reach the Jeadquarters for the third time right before sunset.

I dig out my good headlamp and change socks. David reminds me to eat, so I choke down some pretzels and a protein bar. Time to refocus the mind to something more positive than the remaining 50k, like cooler evening temperatures. Like the undeniable fact that I’m more than halfway done. Loop four will my last counterclockwise round. Each loop features a gentle, rolling climb to Jackass Junction, then a gentle, rolling descent back to the Jeadquarters. The climb is rockier and steeper in the clockwise direction, but the descent is smoother and more inviting, basically an easy cruise to the finish. Now, I run back up the cruising section, finding I have plenty of energy left. The uphill is so gradual that walk breaks don’t cross my mind. I have taken a couple of very short walk breaks in the heat of the afternoon, on some of the steeper clockwise climbs, but in the cooler air, I feel able to run at a decent pace.

My stomach still threatens to quit, but doesn’t actually turn inside out. I talk to it in a stern voice: “Just a few more hours, please, you finicky organ. Quit sounding like a whiny child. Don’t sabotage my race, like you did at Leadville.” And so on. My stomach has a capricious disposition. It’s easily offended and not always a good team player with my other body parts. Halfway into loop four, I switch to an all-ginger diet for the rest of the race, hoping for a puke-free 100 miles. John passes me at the Coyote aid station, looking string and steady. I try to keep up, but think better of it – I still have 24 miles to go, and I’ve learned the hard way to run my own race until mile 95 or so.

Back at the Jeadquarters after loop four, my fuzzy brain calculates that I will have no trouble finishing in sub-22, which was my A-goal. David, my ultrahusband, is dressed to pace in his shorts and knee brace, and we head out into the night. The sound of crickets fills the night. A half moon shines above us. This is happiness, pure and simple – running through a beautiful desert, surrounded by people I care about.

Eight miles in, David’s injured knee begins to bother him. He lags behind me more and more. I wait for him, but he urges me to go on alone. We reach Jackass Junction, where we snap a couple of pictures in the desert disco, then we kiss and I head out for the last ten miles to the finish. I can still run. My legs are tired, but there’s only a single digit number of miles left to go. My stomach is still on the edge of mutiny, but still holding its ginger. The night is cool but not cold, and I feel warm enough in my skirt and thin long-sleeve. I run, at a slow but steady pace, feeling peaceful in the quiet, dark desert. No need for music, no need for more motivation. I am here, the time is now, and nothing else matters. Every so often, other runners come toward me. We mutter words of encouragement, pointing our lights politely sideways and down. It’s a beautiful night, and I know I won’t see that second sunrise. My Garmin has died many miles ago, but I know that a sub -22 is possible.

The last aid station. A last handful of ginger, fresh batteries in my dimming lights, and I’m ready for the home stretch. Less than four miles to go. I pass a couple of runners who ask me whether I’ on my last lap. They cheer me on when I say yes. I cross the now familiar washes one last time. I take a right turn off the Pemberton trail one last time. I’m hurting, but I know I’m getting close.

The tent city comes into view one last time. One last pass under the arch, one last triumphant lap around the headquarters loop lined by pop-up tents filled with cheering crew members. one last little uphill toward the finish line. I see the clock. It says 20:00. I blink. I look again. It says 20:01 by the time I get there. Out of the shadows jumps my dear husband, who has caught a ride from Jackass Junction and arrived at the finish just before me. He snaps a quick picture with his phone. We hug. We feel ecstatic. I never dreamed I could run 100 miles in just over 20 hours. As we sink into camp chairs and pop open a couple of beers, I wonder: could I shave one more minute off my time? I might just have to come back next year and find out.

Javelina is a beautiful race in every sense: the scenery, the organization, the cheerful vibes. Thank you, Jamil Coury and Aravaipa Running, for putting on a top-notch event. Thank you, John and Senovia, for graciously sharing your tent. Thank you, all my old and new friends, for making Javelina a 100 miles to remember. I love you all, and I will be back.

 

Mental Hazards of the Trail: Psychiatric Disorders of Ultra Runners

 

A picture of sanity, right before I fell apart at Leadville

Ultra runners are generally sane, reasonable, well-adjusted people. In spite of what our non-running friends believe, most of us lead functional, productive lives. We go to work, though our colleagues might consider us a little odd when we go for a run instead of joining them for happy hour. We maintain loving, long-term relationships, as long as our significant other understands our need to spend many hours alone on mountain trails every weekend. And when we do feel a bout of depression or anxiety come on, we at least know what to do about it. A good run will cure most of what ails us, most of the time.That said, we also suffer from a few mental and emotional disorders that don’t exist among the general population. Over the years, I’ve experienced painful episodes of these serious illnesses in their acute or chronic form:

Trigger terrain for TAPTSD

Twisted-ankle PTSD
The intense, gripping fear that any root and rock is trying to trip and injure you. I twisted my ankle on a steep, root, rocky downhill at mile 27 of the Bryce 100 a couple of years ago. There were 73 miles left to go, so I continued with the help of KT tape, a few Tylenols, and lots of endorphins released by liberal use of language too foul to repeat in a blog post.

Running 70-plus miles on a twisted ankle is really not such a good idea.

By the time I crossed the finish line, my ankle looked like an overripe grapefruit. It eventually healed, but the mental aftereffects still haunt me. Every time I run down a technical stretch of trail, I break out in cold sweat and fight the irrational urge to put on the brakes. In races, everyone passes me on the rocky downhills. The only people who don’t are the ones with a more severe, or more recent, case of TAPTSD than mine. TAPTSD gets better over time, but, judging from my limited anecdotal evidence, it never totally goes away.

Last-minute reshuffling: Western States 2015

Drop Bag OCD
The compulsive urge to check and re-check and reshuffle and rearrange all the stuff in your drop bags a gazillion times, including in the middle of the night, right until it’s almost too late to drop them off. Often accompanied by nightmares of worst-case scenarios, like mid-race blizzards or killer bee attacks. DBOCD can lead to back injuries because it involves carrying a maximum number of bags overstuffed with things you’re unlikely to need. I’ve obsessed over my drop bags so much that I packed all my good socks/headlamps/warm layers, only to realize on race morning that I have nothing left to wear. The cure: buy a big, sturdy set of drop bags, label them clearly, and embrace your compulsive tendencies. You never know – you might need 23 spare batteries, a family size tube of athlete’s foot ointment, or an extra sports bra at mile 60.

A little niggle – or worse?

Pre-100 mile Munchhausen syndrome
The worrying conviction that any little pre-race niggle means you won’t get to run your goal race. A person with Munchhausen syndrome imagines herself suffering from various illnesses without actually being sick. Under normal circumstances, e. g. during flu season, ultra runners trend in the opposite direction: they imagine they’re healthy enough to run, even at times when, by most standards, they clearly aren’t. Three weeks before a tough 50 or 100, this changes. Every footache becomes a potential stress fracture, every sneeze and sniffle a symptom of incipient pneumonia. This is a self-limiting condition. After finally running the race, an ultra runner’s body suffers from too many real pains to make up imagined ones.

I suffered buckle envy for years until earning this beauty in 2015

Buckle Envy
An intense, irresistible urge to stare at other people’s crotch areas for long enough to read the fine print etched into their belt jewelry. Common during pre-race expos, dinners and briefings, or at any other place where a) ultra runners gather in large numbers, and b) do so dressed in street clothes instead of running shorts. If the buckle in question is something the patient would like to wear on her own belt, heart palpitations and shortness of breath can develop, along with intense feelings of not being fast enough, or tough enough. Sadly, there is no cure until the patient has earned the coveted bling.

El Plato Grande, from last year. I do get to wear my buckles to work.

Weekend FOMO
This widespread, often chronic ailment is triggered by an overdose of certain types of visual stimuli in the patient’s social media feed, mostly on Mondays. Here are some common culprits:
a) selfies of smiling people on mountain trails and snow-capped summits
b) finish-line shots of runners, arms raised, faces showing equal amounts of pain and happiness
c) screenshots of race registration confirmations


Symptoms consist of nagging anxiety and panic attacks. More severe cases (sometimes severe enough to miss work) cause impulse registrations on ultra signup or impromptu road trips to the mountains. There is no antidote. If you’re prone to this type of condition, it’s best to avoid all triggers. Unfriending all ultra runners is the only sure way to avoid a flare-up.

My DNF demon, from Leadville 2014. He called me “Quitter!” until I finished Leadville again in 2015

DNF Depression
A severe form of self-flagellation following an ultra run that ends anywhere but at the finish line. Characterized by repetitive, painful feelings of shame and regret, along the lines of “I should have dragged myself along the ground on my knuckles and knees for the last 25 miles, in spite of that torn achilles tendon!” Or simply “I am a quitter!” Well-meaning friends often try to soothe the symptoms of DNFD by pointing out that choosing to live another day was the sensible, rational thing to do, or that running for 80-plus miles before missing a cutoff is different from quitting. Their efforts are in vain. The only way to cure DNFD is to finish a race of the same distance and degree of difficulty.

Leadville, 2017. I finished half-blind and barely upright, but already hope to run it again next year.

Serial Race Dementia
The strong and irrational urge to sign up for a race after you swore that you’d never run it again because it chewed you up and spit you back out as a shapeless clump of pain and self-pity the last time you ran it. SRD is common and generally harmless, but can be alarming for concerned family members unfamiliar with the condition who will think their loved one has serious memory issues.

My friend Rachael, questioning her sanity at the Lavaredo ultra.

Which of these are you suffering from? Are there others I forgot to mention? Please let me know!

It’s a good time to be alive and running, for sanity maintenance and so many other reasons.

The next level of sanity maintenance: burro racing.

Leadville 2017: Shuffle and Whine (A Melodrama in Five Acts)

 

Cast of characters

Our Fearless Heroine:
Katrin, ultra runner in pursuit of another belt buckle at the end of the rainbow, otherwise known as the 100-mile Leadville trail run.

Supporting characters and sidekicks:

Katrin’s Brain, convinced 100 percent that she is tougher than she thinks she is and can do more than she thinks she can
David, Katrin’s loyal crew/cheerleader/photographer/husband combo
Rachael, Katrin’s loyal ultra friend who has agreed to help crew
Adrian “Speed Demon” Stanciu, Katrin’s elite runner friend, who has agreed to pace her for 20 miles . . . and then for 37 . . .and in the end for 50.
Assorted llamas

Villains, adversaries, and monsters to be slain:

Hope Pass – looming and evil, a powerful enemy
The Neverending Trail to Winfield, which has grown two miles since last year.
The Powerline Climb – a shapeshifting hydra with five false heads
Katrin’s Finicky Stomach, a whining traitor who crosses into enemy territory after mile 53
Katrin’s Various Other Body Parts – legs, eyes, knees- who follow the traitorous stomach one by one onto the opposing side

Act 1

Start to Twin Lakes

Soundtrack: A gunshot, then Don’t Stop Me Now (Queen)

Legs: We’re ready! We’re rested! We’re cold! We’re raring to go!
Brain: No, patience. We’ve got plenty of time . . .
Legs: We can run this uphill!
Brain: Really? Ok, if you’re sure . . . it feels good to pass a few more runners, hehe!
Stomach: . . . (content, happy gurgling sounds).
Eyes: Look! Turquoise Lake, how pretty! . . . Oooooh, Mt Elbert. Hey, our buddy Eric is up ahead, let’s go catch up! Hey, there’s an aid station!
David: You’re looking great!
Rachael: What do you need?
Brain: Should we stop and eat something? Nah, no time . . . Hey wait, why is the two-liter bladder still half full after 40 miles? Did I forget something?

Act II

Twin Lakes to Winfield

 

Soundtrack: You Can Get it if You Really Want it (Jimmy Cliff)

Hope Pass: I will make you suffer. Muahaha.
Brain: You don’t scare me. Up we go!
Legs: Ok. We still feel pretty strong.
Brain: I am superwoman. I can pass people while climbing Hope. Go Me!
Llama: Look at these pathetic things coming up the pass. Two legs. Inadequate. Phew. (spits in runners’ direction)
Friendly volunteer: Can we refill your pack?
Katrin: Yes, please . . . Oh crap, this is the first time since this morning. I ran 45 miles on less than two liters of water??? Why?
Lungs: Gasp . . . gasp . . . Still no oxygen up here, same as last year.
Legs: It’s still steep, same as last year.
Brain: Come one! Up and over! There you go!
The Neverending Trail to Winfield: Muahahahah . . . I am a mile longer this year.
Muahahah . . .one mile each way, makes two miles total. Not flat miles, no . . . Lots of uphill, lots of downhill. Runners can see the aid staton, and then I lead them away from t the aid station again. Complete despair is my goal, muahahahah! Muahahaha!
Katrin: Where is that (#%($^$ aid station?????
Never-ending Trail: I’m going to trip you, so you limp into Winfield with a bloody knee. Muahaha!
Katrin: Ouch! (^$(^^%#%

(an eternity later)

David: You look great!
Rachael: Do you want anything to eat?
Katrin: No time . . . one bite of sandwich will do. And one potato chip.

Act III

Winfield to Hopeless

Soundtrack: Everybody Hurts (R.E.M)

Adrian, fidgeting like a racehorse at the start of the Kentucky Derby: Let’s run!
Katrin, who doesn’t want to look pathetic in front of her fast friend: Sure!
Hope Pass: I am steep . . . I am endless . . . I don’t have switchbacks. Woe to all who climb my backside! Your hamstrings will hurt! They will cramp!Legs: We can’t go up there! Not again. Not without fuel!
Stomach: You should have thought of that 20 miles ago, when I still wanted to play this game. I quit. Bye!
Brain: You sorry bunch of losers! Come on, left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot. . . we’re practically standing still! People are passing us! No!
Katrin, bonking: Ugh, wait. I don’t feel so good.
Adrian: (muttering to himself) I thought she was faster than a snail . . . (aloud): You’re doing fine.
Hope Pass: You shall perish! You shall suffer! You shall regret ever signing up for this race!

(an eternity later)

Katrin: Yay! Downhill! Oxygen! I am alive!!!
Llama #2: I am cuter than you, human.

Act IV

Hopeless to base of Powerline climb (inbound)

Soundtrack: Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater

Brain: let’s catch a few people on this rocky downhill . . . we’re behind schedule. We want that big buckle!
Legs: ok, ok. We’re running on fumes here!
Stomach: I told you I quit. No, I don’t want another Stinger Waffle. No, not even a Ginger chew.
David: Let me take a few pictures! You’re doing great!
Rachael: Ok, headlamp, jacket, dry shoes . . . you should eat something.
Katrin: No time. I still have a shot at the big buckle if I hurry.

(Darkness falls. Our heroine and her valiant pacer/pack mule Adrian turn on their lights.)

Legs: Can we please, please, please have some fuel?
Stomach: I told you earlier, I quit. That means no.
Eyes: we’ve been wearing those contacts for, like, a long time now, and it’s dusty. And we’re really dry. Everything looks hazy.
Legs: Are we there yet?
Brain: Come on, stop whining!
Adrian: Wow, we just ran a ten-minute mile, 75 miles in. Maybe you can still get that buckle! . . .There’s Outward Bound. David! Rachael! Where are you?
(no answer). Ok, it looks like I’ll be pacing until May Queen. Eat something!
Katrin: Let’s go!

Act V

 Powerline climb to finish

It’s dark. It’s cold. It keeps getting colder. 
All music has stopped, except for drumbeats in a slow, ominous rhythm

Powerlines: I am standing between you and the finish . . . (sounding like Gandalf talking to the Balrog): YOU SHALL NOT PASS!

Legs: No! Not another climb! We’re done! We haven’t seen any glycogen down here in, like, forever. We quit!
Stomach: Great! You guys can just hang out with me and no nothing.
Legs: Good idea. Excellent. Quitting time, yay!
Powerlines: I SHALL TRIP YOU! YOU SHALL SUFFER!

(CRASH)

Katrin: Ouch! Not again! *$$*^@#
Eyes: We are seeing ghosts. Huh??
Brain: It’s ok, that’s the Space Station. Legs, it’s downhill to May Queen from here . . . Come on!
Legs: We’ll try . . . Nope, we won’t even try anymore. We’re done.
Stomach: Yeah, let’s party! Look, I am doing the limbo twist . . .
Eyes: Everything looks out of focus, but isn’t that May Queen?
Brain: Yes! And we’ve got three hours to still get that buckle. It’s not impossible. Come on! Move! Move, I said!
Legs: But it feels much better to not move!
Adrian: David! Rachael! Where are you? . . . It looks like I’ll be pacing you to the finish.
Katrin: I feel awful. I don’t care about the big buckle anymore . . .I just want this to be over.
Adrian: The faster you move, the sooner you finish.

(Several eternities later)

Katrin is dragging her protesting body parts behind her like a pack of unruly, spitting llamas. Her vision becomes more and more compromised.

Eyes: We quit! We’re joining the rebel side! Legs, stomach, here we come . . . yippee!
Brain: Hey! Get back here!
Legs: Are we there yet?
Brain: You ingrates! You lazy freeloaders! Keep moving! Come on. Left, right, left right . . .
Adrian: The boulevard goes this way . . . where on earth are you going?
Katrin: I can’t see a damn thing . . . everything looks blurry!
Adrian: You’re going off the road again . . .get out of that gutter.
Katrin: Where? Huh? What gutter?
Adrian: We’re almost there.
Katrin: Can I just lie down and die of hypothermia?
Adrian: No.
Katrin: Can you just shoot me?
Adrian: No.

(another eternity later)
The first hint of dawn inches up on the horizon.

Adrian, sounding relieved: Look! The finish line!

Soundtrack: We Are the Champions (Queen)

(The clock says 25:51. Thunderous applause from the six or so bleary-eyed spectators lining 6th street waiting to console other runners who have missed the big buckle cutoff by less than an hour)

Katrin: I sort of see it . . . let’s see if I can run across it.
(staggers across the finish line, veering off the red carpet)
David: You look . . . . finished.
Rachael: You look terrible.
Katrin (suddenly exuberant, though still half blind and barely upright): I finished! I finished!

The End

Epilogue:
My vision returned a few hours, two naps, and about a gallon of water later. Cloudy eyes apparently are a common condition among 100-mile racers. It’s harmless and temporary, but it did freak me out a little.

It’s a good time to be alive and running, especially in Leadville.

 

Spotted in the parking lot before the briefing. My next license plate!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bryce Canyon 100 – A Hot Mess

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recovery hike before driving home to New Mexico on Sunday.

 

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

 

 

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

A calculated effort

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

3. Potty Map – You Can Go There!

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

Never trust a sock in the woods.

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

4. Ear Worm Be Gone! – The Tune Remover

Which is worse? This . . .

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

. . . or this?

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

5.Stop RUI – Spousal control for Ultrasignup

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

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

*Significant Others Against RUI

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

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

See you out there,

Katrin

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

Dawn over East and West Mitten

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

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

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

Ultra friends are the best kind of friends

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

Too beautiful for words.Photo: Quang Kevin Le

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

Off we go. Photo courtesy of Quang Kevin Le

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

The view from Mitchell Mesa.

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

My nutrition for 30-plus miles

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

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

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

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

Halfway there. Photo courtesy of David Silva.

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

Yes, it’s sandy.

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

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

No words needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recovery is an uphill battle: Lavaredo 119k, 2016

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

The long shadow of Epstein-Barr, aka Evil Virus

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting Death on a run

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

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

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

Light at the end of the tunnel.

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

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

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

See you out there,

Katrin

Run Like a Girl

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My current riding outfit, including helmet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The highest point n New Mexico: Wheeler Peak

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

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

See you out there,

Katrin

Dr. Google, MD

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

About my speed this winter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How I envisioned my near future

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

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

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

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

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

Light at the end of the tunnel

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

Katrin

Frozen Beards and Inner Pig-Dogs

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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