I’ll just apologize in advance for this extremely long winded race report. I have a lot to say about this race.
I didn’t talk a lot about my plans to run Old Pueblo. I didn’t blog about it, I didn’t post a lot on Facebutt about my training. I think this was partly because I’ve been training for it for a long time, and partly because I just don’t make a big deal out of stuff. This may or may not be a good thing for me, this ‘not-making-a-big-deal’ thing. This policy of not talking seems to have kept me largely in my head, which I’m not sure has made me feel more positive about my experiences. I think that keeping things to myself helped me to build up expectations, and didn’t promote me talking through my fears.
I also found that mentioning that I was going to “do” 50 miles did not register with most people. I’m not sure if people process this information (do they think I’ll drive that 50?). Mostly, people seemed unimpressed. So I didn’t talk about it much.
We drove to Sonoita Arizona, south of Tucson, on Friday a.m. Me, spouse, Mo, and Bones had signed up for this race as a joint crazy adventure. Mo has done this race before, but it would be the first 50 mile attempt for the rest of us. Luckily, Mo had a lot of good information to share about her experience before.
It took about 7 hrs driving there the long way via Hillsboro (where we got to re-live the memories of the Ghost Town run, le sigh, the race who does not want me back). Sonoita has a population of about 300, so I didn’t expect much. I was pleasantly surprised when the hotel I booked (called the Sonoita Inn) turned out to be attractively appointed. The building itself looked like a barn out in the middle of the grassland and desert. Our rooms were nicely done – each room was named after a local ranch, with a short history of its ranch namesake outside each room. The hotel had nice personal touches like home-made goat milk soap, and wine and cheese and snacks laid out for guests. It was a really sweet place for its odd, remote location, and I would definitely stay there again. We ate at a local Italian place — one of two or three restaurants in town.
I took a half-dose of diphenhydramine that night. We were on the senior citizen/ultrarunner schedule of dinner at 5, bedtime by 8, so of course my body was not ready for sleep when I needed to sleep.
A nice thing about staying in Sonoita is that we were about 20 minutes from the start of the race (a mine claim called Kentucky Camp), so we got to sleep in for that extra 20 minutes. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but at that time of day I would do just about anything for extra sleep. I think most of the people staying at the hotel were doing the race, because there was plenty of noise from other people downstairs by the time we were getting up. We rolled out of bed at 4am, got dressed, ate some breakfast. I elected to wear my CW-X 3/4 length tights, a short-sleeved tech shirt, MoeBen sleeves, a buff, a cap with a brim, injinji socks, and a newly broken in pair of road shoes. I also had a Sugoi Helium vest, my new favourite runny thing. It weighs nothing, packs down into a thimble, and is day-glo green with reflecty bits and a mesh back.
We arrived at Kentucky Camp and found it to be chilly, and at 5-something in the morning, nobody was surprised by this. I put in 180-something run miles in February, another 170-something in January. I got accustomed to training at 5-something in the morning at times, so this was not unexpected. This is a good thing. My stomach was a little unsettled, but not in knots and not out of control, I made my porta potty trips, got my last minute gear stuff out of the way (pinned my number, stowed my post-race gear). At a small race like this (175 cap) there are no crowds, and the whole atmosphere is fairly relaxed despite of the fact that you’re there to run an incredibly long distance.
I elected not to wear any GPS, but instead just brought a watch. I knew that Garmin would probably die long before I would finish, and thought I’d just take along something to remind me of the time so that I could stay on top of my nutrition.
My nutrition plan was to do a full gel every hour, with supplementary squirts from a gel flask every 20 minutes. I would take an e-cap every hour, as needed. I would supplement food from the course where I could – aid stations varied from 3 to 7 or so miles apart, which sounded reasonable. I dropped gel flasks at miles 29 and 40, shoes and socks at 29, extra warm gear at 40.
Having done a few long distance runs in preparation for this, I knew a couple of things going in:
1) This would hurt. Eventually, it would hurt a lot.
2) The pain would slow me down if I let it take over.
As part of my preparation for this race, I’ve been doing some reading about Zen experience. I was hoping that Zen experience would, in this case, translate to a sort of hypnotic experience, where I would get to stop thinking and feeling and just enjoy the doing. I was thinking hard about how to focus on being Zen, which is sort of the exact opposite of having a Zen thing. I’ve been reading Anton Krupicka’s blog, and he talks a lot about staying in the moment, which is a very Zen thing to do. He does not, however, write much about pain. I think he feels pain, I think every runner does. I get that everybody processes it differently.
Without realizing it I had built up an expectation in my head, after the many training miles and thoughtfulness and preparation I had put into this this race. I had an expectation that everything would just fall into place. Or something. I wasn’t sure. I knew I just wanted to finish, no time attachments. My reading the night before landed me on this:
Spiritual Awakening is frequently described as a journey to the top of a mountain. We leave our attachments and our worldliness behind and slowly make our way to the top. At the peak we have transcended all pain. The only problem with this metaphor is that we leave all others behind. Their suffering continues, unrelieved by our personal escape. (Pema Chodron, “Comfortable with Uncertainty.”)
And so, when they sent us off into the darkness, trotting away from Kentucky Camp I felt calm and settled in my stomach. I had a pack full of gels and gatorade, I had a plan, though I’d tried not to have any expectations. I had a head full of expectations, without really realizing that I had a head full of expectations.
Miles 1 – 3 were unremarkable. The group started out hiking right away. I was surprised at how slowly everyone was moving. If the road turned up more than a degree or two, the power-hiking commenced immediately. I figured this was part of the ultra thing, and that since I didn’t know a damned thing about what the world would be like at mile 40-whatever, I figured I would learn from the experienced runners, let them teach me their ways. I fell in with a runner named Dawn who had started five 50 milers, but had DNF’d two attempts at Zane Grey. She left me on one of the early descents, because I am a painfully slow descender.
Miles 3 – 7 were also pretty unremarkable. I was hoping that I would find a porta potty at the mile 7 aid station, but alas, the course had Zero portapotties. I catted-and-moused a pair of runners, one of whom I overheard talking about his various Ironman finishes, and a recent Javelina 100 finish. I figured if Javelina Jundred guy is nearby, he probably knows what he is doing and so I should pay close attention. I grabbed some food at the mile 7 aid station and kept going feeling great.
Miles 7 – 13 were spent scouting for toilet locations in the desert. There was a surprising lack of bushes and trees that provided adequate cover for me and my modesty. Yes I know that Everyone Poops. Yes I know it’s customary for ultra runners to go pretty much anywhere. This did not go well for me, the whole pooping in the desert thing, I feel I don’t need to say much more about that. I lost Javelina guy after this, as he waited for his friend (a runner who had never done this distance before). I took two PB&J quarters at the mile 13 aid station, and a few chips, I stayed at the aid station for maybe a minute before I was on my way.
On the journey of the warrior-bodhisattva, the path goes down, not up, as if the mountain pointed toward the earth instead of the sky. Instead of transcending the suffering of all creatures, we move toward turbulence and doubt however we can. We explore the reality and unpredictability of insecurity and pain, and we try not to push it away…At our own pace, without speed or aggression, we move down and down and down.
Miles 13 – 19 were a long downhill stretch, partly runnable, partly not, covered in rocks of varying sizes. This was another point at which I was reminded that my slow descending was a handicap, as many runners I had time on easily passed me. This included a couple wearing Hokas, who had never run in their Hokas previously. She was just as terrified of descending as I, but was coached down by her husband…and yes, she passed me. At the mile 19 aid station, I asked them to make me a sandwich, grabbed a handful of chips, and left.
Miles 19 – 25 – were into the teeth of a ferocious wind, right when the course started to turn uphill again. I’ll guess that the gusts were 30+ mph, and right into my face, which made dealing with it a bit easier. Side winds would have put dust into my eyes, but a straight-into-the-face wind meant that dust was deflected by my glasses. My feet and hips had started to hurt, and I was starting to fixate on the sensation. This was about 5 hrs into the race, and I finally decided to plug in and turn on the iPod, and I took two Tylenol.
At roughly mile 23, I ran into a fence marked with course flags, and no visible flags further on to tell me which way to go. Luckily, I had put a copy of the course map into my pack at the last minute – which said, “private property, climb over closed gate.” Thank goodness I packed that map – because the runners were so thinly stretched on the course at that point, I’d still be standing there wondering what to do.
Mile 25 aid station was manned by some kids who seemed fairly inexperienced with crewing, but were steadfastly manning their post. They said I was ahead of the cutoff by 30 minutes, which was too close for my liking (turns out I was further ahead than that). I asked them to re-fill my pack with fluid. I learned at this point that the race had a totally new and completely unexpected sports drink I had never heard of called ‘Xood’. I had read on the website to expect Heed, and was surprised not to have that available. Nonetheless, I could tell I was getting enough calories and electrolytes from the gels and e-caps I had brought with me, so I asked them to fill my pack with water.
In my head I was not happy to be halfway done with the race. I was frustrated by the wind, and anxious about the experience. I was starting to feel the pain of the miles, and knowing that I was *only* halfway through gave me a sense of dread. It did not feel good to get through 25, I was feeling trepidation – the day was only half done, and I’d just finished the fast half, and it took me 6 hours. I left this aid station with a piece of wrap sandwich, not sure if I’d made a good choice or not (about the race or the sandwich).
Miles 25 – 29 were long, uphill, into the teeth of the wind. They were ugly. My feet were hurting. These miles seemed to go on forever, and I was again looking for a toilet-tree. These miles were on a road on a cliffside, not even a bush in sight. Eventually the cliff path turned away from the wind. My feet were really starting to hurt, and I couldn’t find a way to get away from the feeling. I felt like I was spending every second of this experience “in the moment” and I didn’t like the moment. I wasn’t enjoying the moment. The moment sucked. How Anton Krupicka stays in the moment escapes me – why would you want to stay in the moment when it’s so freakin’ miserable?
The Ironman/Javelina guy caught up with me on the way in, and we power-hiked up to the mile 29 aid station, bypassing a baby snake along the way. He’d left his friend (who was not having a great day), and was continuing on at his own pace. His friend’s wife hiked in the last 1/2 mile to aid station 29, telling us we looked good, asking about her husband. I felt a little better hearing we looked good, though we both explained to her that it was all a big facade. I told her the smile that was fixed to my face was from gritting my teeth.
Mile 29 aid station I changed shoes. The aid station volunteer did a perfect imitation of Forrest Gump, which cheered me up. My feet looked ok on the outside, I had no big hot spots, no major boo-boos, just pain. I greased up my feet, put on fresh injinjis, and older shoes with more mileage, thinking they’d have a little more room for my swollen tootsies.
Miles 29 – 33 were back uphill on the same trail we’d come in on for miles 3-7. I left mile 29 aid station with half a PB&J and felt better – maybe the new shoes would make all the difference in my race, my feet felt much better already. It wasn’t steep trail, but it was rocky. Again I had to find a porta-tree, again the experience was unsettling, and I discovered that my pack was dripping fluid. I was fed up with myself and my own thoughts, I’d been outside running for what seemed like days. Within a half hour my feet started to hurt again. I found another runner who was feeling just rotten enough to run with me for a bit, and I was glad for the company. And then, I scared her with my porta-tree experience…
Other runner: How are ya doing?
Me: Well, I think my pack has a leak, and also, I’ve pooed on myself.
Other runner: oh.
me: it’s not all streaked up my tights, is it?
Other runner: No. I don’t know you that well, so please stop talking about it.
She quickly moved on to do her own pace and her own race, sorry about that. Again, I lost her when she descended — this seemed to be the theme for the day.
I also passed a guy who I’d catted and moused who had a cough. He’d been coughing early in the race about every 20 feet (totally destroying my Zen), and I finally caught him for good (I later found out he’d been pulled at mile 33).
Mile 33 aid station was covered in bees. I asked them to check my water and they gave me a half a sandwich, but with that many bees there I didn’t want to stick around. I sat down for a minute just to relieve the pressure from my feet, and then I was up and out. Gbye, bees!
Miles 33 – 40 is probably where I started to cry the first time. I can’t remember. I know I broke down a couple of times, and I know it’s much harder to run when I’m crying, and once I start, I’m like a leaky balloon. I just let it roll through me, I figured my emotional state was part of this crazy, painful, weird journey and it would pass. The trail was rough and rocky, and it just kept going. I remember looking at my watch and trying not to pay attention to how long it was taking to get to the next aid station. It was a long stretch of trail that was never-ending. I had plenty of food and water, I stayed on my nutrition plan and kept going, my pace was just so demoralizing. The trail was only runnable for me in stretches. I couldn’t pick up my feet effectively enough to run unless the trail was less rocky and more road-y, and this stretch was mostly rocky. It was somewhere in here that I figured out that the faster I could make myself go, the faster I could be done and off the trail. I told myself to go faster and just ignore the pain – but this would only work in the stretches where I could actually run (the flattish non-rocky bits). I had no way to know where I was in the course except for by my watch, and I could tell by the way time was still dragging on that I was not making good speed. Somewhere in here I took two ibuprofen to back up my tylenol.
I found a deer leg part way through this section. Last time I saw a deer leg was at Bandera, the shiny polished hoof seemed to stand out in the rolling rocky terrain. I’m not sure what to make of deer legs on the course, it’s very unsettling to almost trip over a random hoof.
I rolled into the mile 40 aid station just before 6pm, and totally fell apart. I’d been running for about 12 hours, and the signs that the aid station had set up leading up to it struck a nerve – “You will not falter…You will not waiver…” I knew that at mile 40 I was committed to finishing, but I also knew that running really sucked. I didn’t want to finish. I wanted to go home. I wanted nothing more than to get off my feet. I was done. The mile 40 crew gave me soup, Justin’s wife talked me down. They said you’re good, you can finish this! I put my vest and my buff back on, grabbed my extra shirt from my drop bag. Mo and Bones had left me an extra headlamp, which sent me further into tears. They were probably already done, they knew I’d be out here still in the dark. I was overcome by gratitude that they were taking care of me, mixed with dread that I was still out here.
In training, 10 more miles would have take me a little over an hour and a half if I were feeling fresh. I knew there was no way I could run that pace at that moment, and it was awful. I didn’t want to admit it to myself, but I knew it would realistically take me over twice that time, and I didn’t want to be out for 3 more hours. I didn’t want to face 3 more hours. My feet were killing me.
But everything else was good to go. Dammit.
Miles 40 – 46 the sweep crew caught up with me. The first few miles out of the mile 40 aid station were beautiful, but the light was fading fast.
I ran where I could, but again, more rough trail made my descending slow. The lack of light made my progress slower still. Eventually the sweeps were right behind me, guiding me back to the start line (which is good, because I did take a few wrong turns in the dark). They pointed out that this would be one of the few occasions when having two guys behind me with knives was a good thing. They said they were grateful that I was making good progress, since it meant they’d be home at a decent time. I told them I was really disappointed to be DFL. They said this was not a bad thing, that I was still out there doing 50 miles when most people in the world were not.
The combination of the darkness and iffy trail surface (through a perversity of course layout ALL the water crossings of the course were in the final miles) made my progress painfully slow. Due to my adherance to my nutrition plan, and the amount of caffeine I’d taken in during the day (I’d tried to take in a caffeinated gel every other gel so as not to tweak out too hard), I was still perky from the ankles up. The last miles of the course were at least as technical as the early miles, if not moreso – and doing these miles in the dark became hopelessly difficult for me, even with two headlamps. During those instances where I could run, my feet felt better, my legs felt better. I was reminded that I’d trained to run these 50 miles, not walk them — and all the walking I was doing felt pretty awful on my body.
The sweeps, who were cutting down course flags and glow sticks, found one flag tied to another deer leg. We didn’t collect that flag.
At the mile 46 aid station they told me that the finish might be 5 miles away, not 4. In my mind, the finish could have been 100 miles away. At this point I was really really committed. And pissed. I knew that last 5 would take more than an hour to finish, probably two at the pace I was going. Worserer, the trail continued to get more technical, singletrack and windey, and dark. My foot pain would come and go, briefly getting better if I could trot a little, then getting intensely painful.
Miles 46 – 51 were dark dark dark. and slow. And dark. And technical. Me and the sweeps were on a first-name basis by now, I found out they were training for Zane Grey. We caught up with a guy who had a serious knee injury, and split up — Dallas stayed with broken knee guy, Mike stayed with me. In spite of my state of mind (being pissed at myself for being so slow), I was grateful for the company. The pain in my feet and legs came and went with no real rhythm. I couldn’t pick up any run speed, between not being able to see the trail very far ahead (I think some of this was a function of having run 40-something miles and having a little tunnel vision) and the trail being rough and weird, and my feet and legs being just crazy achy. There were a few moments where I wanted to pause and enjoy the moment, turn off my headlamp and look at the stars — but I felt pressured to finish.
I kept wanting to know how far I had come, how far I had left. I couldn’t tell how fast or slow my progress was in the dark, and I felt like I had been out in the dark for days. Forever. Forevverrrrrrrr…. GAAAAA! WHEN WILL IT END??? I didn’t want to pause to look at my watch, I just wanted. To. Be. Done.
And then, off in the distance, I saw a headlamp coming the other way. “That’s probably my husband,” I said to Mike. Sure enough, there he was – telling me where the finish was. They were all waiting at the end — Mo and Bones. “Have I told you how much I love you?” I said.
I finished in 15:21 something. 15 hours of “running.” (Spouse finished in about 10 hrs, Mo and Bones in about 12). The lovely finish line people handed me a belt buckle, and I still felt like I could be OK for awhile. I sat by the fire in the cabin. Some runners still hadn’t come in (I wasn’t totally DFL, but close), and spouse was contemplating going back out.
Soon after that, I crashed hard, shaking uncontrollably. My legs ached something awful. No, it never ends. Nevaaaarrrrrr!!
Things that went right:
* I have incurred no injuries other than lingering achiness, which is totally to be expected after being on my legs for 50-something miles.
* Three days later my legs are still sore, but much better. I can almost use them again without feeling like I need a Zimmerframe.
* I expected some breakdowns and got none — no ITB issues, no hip issues, but I did get three new blisters on my feet in areas where there was plenty of callus already built up. I think the orthotics are to blame for these, there was no way to predict this.
* My pack wasn’t leaking after all, just sloppily filled. I re-filled it a couple of times on the day, I was well-hydrated and well-nourished. My nutrition plan seemed to work well.
* I made an effort not to linger at the aid stations, and I did pretty well on that.
Things that went wrong:
* I need to explore trail shoes. I use road shoes for training and racing, and I think trails like that really chew up my feet. I think that over long races like this one, trail shoes might help attenuate the pain I felt. I am pretty sure it’ll still hurt, but it might help.
* 15 hours is a long damned time to be out there. I need to work on speed.
* Three new blisters – totally new. I chalk this up to Anything Can Happen In An Ultra.
* I need to get faster at descents.
* I experienced some tweakage at the back of my left knee, probably from over-extending due to using the descending muscles. Which didn’t appreciate the descending.
* I could not figure out a way to get out of my head. My head totally did me in, fixating on the slow, fixating on the pain. I am hopeful that just by getting through this race, the experience will become part of my experience and I will be able to let go, that I won’t have to fixate on WHEN WILL IT END because my brain will know that there is an end.
Long Term Plans
I have the Silver Rush 50 (Leadville) on the agenda for July, and I am freaked. The cutoff for this race is 14 hours, and it’s much higher up. The race profile shows that it’s about the same amount of climbing, and the trails look more runnable than Old Pueblo (jeep trails). I know from Old Pueblo that I have to get faster, and I have to get better at descending. My biggest fear is that I can’t — that I can’t get faster and I can’t get better at these. I don’t know what it will take.
Now that it’s out of my head, I confess that this is easily the longest, most self-examining, and most boring race report I’ve ever written. This is totally in keeping with this race having been the longest, most uncomfortable period of self examination I’ve ever experienced. I wanted to be in the moment, and by God I was – I experienced every painful second.
I have some misgivings about putting it all down — by admitting my fears and my pain, do I give them life? Do they take over? If I admit that it wasn’t fun, will it ever become fun? I want to do it again but I want it to be fun — is that possible? Will everyone think I’m a big pussy because I felt pain, cried, didn’t like it? Because I feel like a big wuss. A big slow wuss, and I’m not sure how to shake that. Speed never seemed to bother me before, mainly because I’ve always been comfortably mid-pack, or mid-to-back of the pack. It’s never been a big goal, I’ve always wanted to just be comfortable doing what I’m doing, not feeling pressured.
I am counting this race as a mixed achievement. A finish is a finish, and this one was mine. It wasn’t as fast as I wanted to be, and I know I have work to do. I’ll wear my beautiful new belt buckle, and I’ll feel my sore spots on my sore spots, lick my wounds, and recover. I was one of 33 women who finished, one of 125 total runners who finished. There aren’t so many of us.