Pacing the Wasatch 100 – Part 2

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The sun angles below the horizon as we climb. JC is ahead of me, like he has been for most of our run, and I can see by his posture that he’s feeling good. I’m relieved, because for a while he was struggling, though he never told me. I understand. Once you mention the fatigue, the pain, the doubt… you can no longer pretend it’s not there.

But now he’s feeling good. He runs up the hill, a solid pace that I’m scrambling to match. Although we share the same parents, he somehow got almost a foot of height advantage over me, and I swear it’s all in his legs. Fortunately for me, his legs had already been going 33 miles before I joined him, or I would have no chance of keeping up.

As we crest the hill, we can see the Lamb’s Canyon aid station far below us. It looks like a bright little city in the darkening canyon below. It’s not fully dark, not up here, but the temperature dropped with the sun.

“Are you cold? Do you need your jacket?” he asks me.

He’s wearing long sleeves, his foolproof sunscreen, so I don’t think he’s cold, but one thing I learned in the past few hours is that this is not about me. The last thing I’m going to do is ask him to stop right now while he’s on one of the high points of this ultra-marathon roller coaster.

“No, I’m good.”

 

I met KC, my sister-in-law, earlier in the day at our staging point. The aid station at Big Mountain is so small that pacers are asked to wait at the staging area until their runner is approaching. The communication is pretty good, but pretty good for a backcountry 100 miler is not foolproof.

KC has been navigator, mobile aid station and co-planner through all of JC’s adventures. She’s also a skilled cyclist and water skier in her own right, not to mention gourmet chef and amazing mom. And probably other things that I’ll find out by accident one day.

Anyway, when word never comes that JC has reached the final checkpoint before the aid station, volunteers suggest we head up anyway. We have about fifteen minutes to cheer for strangers before we see him coming down the hill.

As we wave goodbye to family and head away from the noise of the aid station, I feel the full weight of my responsibility.

In most of my endeavors, I train and compete alone. Even if I’m with someone else, I’m focused on myself, my hunger, my pain, my thirst, my joy and misery. A month before the Wasatch 100, I helped some co-workers complete their first Spartan Race. This was an entirely new experience for me. It was all about them. I enjoyed my role a lot more than I thought I would.

But this is not the same. I’m not helping JC to experience something I have done. I’m helping him to get through something I can’t even comprehend doing. Ever. Running the Wasatch 100 is a huge endeavor and, of course, the welfare of co-workers isn’t the same as the welfare of my brother. So I worry for a bit, but we fall into a pace and I start to relax.

We climb through old forest, then drop for a while through some meadows. Sometimes we pass runners, sometimes runners pass us. Whenever this happens, my brother starts chatting them up like old friends. Just like my dad would do. The most I can usually muster on the trail is a nod or a good mornin! but here he is, dozens of miles in, having full conversations. One runner he seems to know pretty well. After they finish their conversation and the man heads up the hill ahead of us, I ask JC, “do you know him?”

“Yeah, his name is Rupert* I met him a few miles back.”

(*totally made up name)

Of course! Your old buddy from mile 20!

If you think people can’t change, you are wrong.This tall person running along in front of me used to be an introvert. He also used to be pretty lazy. Both of us were, really. We could waste an entire day trapped in the house avoiding the chores that would have earned our freedom. I would say he’s no longer lazy. I don’t know what happened.

We reach Bald Mountain and I warn him about the tiny horned toads on the mountaintop. He scoops one up to show me, which wouldn’t be that impressive in normal circumstances, but he’s got a lot of miles on his legs. As kids, we spent a lot of time in the summers hunting for lizards and snakes in the brushy hills around our home. I guess he never forgot that lizard-scooping technique from so many years ago.

After we come off of Bald Mountain, we drop for a while, then climb to a ridgeline. We’ll follow this rolling ridgeline for a few miles until we reach an aid station. Somewhere along this section, I notice some tension in his posture, his head drooping a little. He asks me to lead for a while. I lead until we reach the aid station, set in a field of long golden grass. He doesn’t chat much with the volunteers. I get him some broth and he sits in a folding chair. He starts talking to another runner, which makes me feel better, but he also starts looking a little too comfortable. I give him a time limit, which he honors, and we head off again.

For the first time, the trail is wide enough to run side by side. It’s also a long uphill and we walk most of it. We talk a lot. We talk about our kids and our grandkids. He’s wearing a wristband with a bead symbolizing each of his, his good luck charm. We talk about our mom and how proud we are of her. Her mother feared many things, and our mom pushed beyond all those fears, adventuring far beyond her comfort zone. We can probably blame her for the crazy things we do.

Then we’re back to single track, and a final push uphill before the course drops to the next aid station. The sun is starting to set. We pass a few runners and he’s chatting them up again, back to his old self. I’ve never run as far as he is running today (and tomorrow) but I’ve run long enough to know that the bad times always end. So do the good times, but you don’t think about that. Now he’s feeling good. We run down some switchbacks into a dark canyon. We put on our headlamps and I follow him and his light, regretting the baseball cap that is serving to block most of my own headlamp.

I ran this section twice while training, and twice I got lost. JC doesn’t. In the dark, 45 miles in, he takes the correct turn. We make our way up a gravel road to the noise and lights of the aid station. We see a single headlamp, someone standing outside the tent.

My husband, B.

He hugs us and leads us into the tent where he has already retrieved JC’s drop bag.

After a few minutes with the two of them, I have to leave. KC has come to pick me up, and parking at the aid station is not allowed. KC will take me to my Jeep and I will drive to the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon where I plan to sleep for a few hours in the back of the car until it’s time to wait for them at the aid station.

JC is my big brother. He’s older, smarter, and much more athletic. But as I climb a little rise to meet KC, I worry for just a minute. I hope this all goes well, I hope he achieves what he wants. But I know, that at least for this next leg, he’s in good hands.

 

B and JC reach Brighton Ski Resort in the darkest part of the morning. Their leg included cold temperatures, ridiculous vertical, disrespectful foxes and adorable burrowing owls. Oh, and a grilled cheese sandwich, but only for B.

When they reach the aid station, JCs next pacer has not arrived. It turns out there is a marathon going down this canyon on the same day, and runners are coming up the canyon on buses as KC tries to get to the aid station with the pacer! We did not know about this. B can’t continue pacing because he has to get to work. I can’t continue pacing because I’m basically in jammies. We send him off into the dark almost alone (Follow that guy! Go!) and then we just feel bad as we hurry down the canyon minutes before it’s closed for the marathon. His pacer does arrive at the aid station, and with his fresh legs, he’s able to catch JC. They make it to an aid station around the 75 mile mark, but just over the cutoff time.

This, of course, doesn’t dull my pride at all. Or his determination. He is currently training for a 100 miler in Bryce Canyon. My schedule won’t allow me to join him, but rest assured my heart will be there with him for every step.

Pacing the Wasatch 100 – Part 1

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It’s a beautiful September afternoon and we’re somewhere on the top of the world.

“Did you see the horned toads up here on your training run?”

“No,” my brother answers.

“They’re all over here. I hope you didn’t step on any.”

He starts to scan the trail as he runs, and after a minute he stops suddenly and steps off the trail, reaching down to scoop something off the ground.

He turns to show me, a tiny horned toad no bigger than a nickel. It’s exactly the same color as the dust of the hilltop.

“How did you do that?” I ask him, “If I tried to bend down right now I’d probably stay down, and I’m only a few miles in.”

He’s about forty miles in. He shrugs, puts the little lizard back on the ground and starts running.

 

After decades of ridiculous (in my opinion) athletic accomplishments, my brother JC has decided to turn his attention to trail running. His background in running, cycling and triathlon is strong enough that he starts big. The Wasatch Front 100, to be precise. He completes Moab’s Red Hot 55k in February and the Buffalo Run 50 mile on Antelope Island in March. Then he focuses on the Wasatch course, running each segment at least once as part of his training.

He asks my husband and I to each pace a segment with him.

I’m excited about doing this, but very worried. I am The Trail Snail. I’m not fast. I don’t want to do anything that will jeopardize a successful race.

After forcing JC to promise, over and over, that he will leave me on the trail if I’m holding him up, I begin my own training.

My training consists of my usual training, plus completing the leg that I will pace so that I know just what to expect. If there is an easy segment of the Wasatch 100, I got it. Maybe there are more beautiful sections, but I don’t see how.

My husband drops me off at the top of Big Mountain and heads to work. It’s early morning, and I’m in completely unknown territory, armed with maps and a cell phone in case the maps fail me. If the cell phone fails me… well, I just won’t think about that.

I start out in thick old forest. The sun is up, but the sunlight can’t quite make it to the forest floor. It’s a little misty and eerie. Quiet.

“The forest is quiet,” she whispers, “too quiet.”

Oh. Sorry.

Within minutes I come face to face with a beautiful buck. I’m not sure who is more startled, but he vanishes before I can even think to take a picture.

Over the next couple of miles, the forest opens up. Tall old pines give way to meadows and quaking aspen. At one point, a tree has fallen across the trail at just about eye level. JC is much taller than me, so I make a mental note to be sure he doesn’t run into it. I duck under it, but not quite far enough, and I take an ear-ringing blow to the top of my head. I sit down for a minute and wonder if anyone in the world but me could have managed that.

The trail traverses a little below a ridgetop for a while, crossing it now and then, and then climbs to the top of Bald Mountain. Bald Mountain is pretty bald, as the name suggests. There are no trees, just scrubby grass and sage. This is where I start to see horned toads. This is also where the sky starts to darken. Just a little. Not too bad.

Now the trail is like a roller coaster. Climb a hill, drop down. Climb a hill, drop down, all following a ridgeline.

One range over, the clouds have become serious. It’s what I call a Jacob’s Ladder storm. If you’ve heard the song of that name by Rush, you will know exactly what I mean.

At first I try to ignore the flashes of lightning and the booming thunder. It’s still far away. I’ll be off this ridge long before it makes it clear over here.

Actually, it doesn’t take long. At all. I see lightning… one-one hundred, two-one hundred, three-one hundred… I make it to twelve before the thunder comes. Good. No problem.

I run as fast as I can over the next hilltop and head downhill. Lightning… one-one hundred, two… HOLY S*%T!

I drop to my toes, wrap my arms around my knees and huddle as low as I can, careful not to let anything but my shoes touch the ground. I don’t know if that really works, but I am alive, so… maybe? The storm hits me seconds later and pummels me for a few minutes. The thunder surrounds me, becomes part of me, vibrates through my bones and chatters my teeth.

Then it begins to move away. The rain continues, but when you’re already soaked, it really makes no difference. I drop from the ridgetop onto an area covered in long yellow grass. I find a rough sign on the ground that makes me think this is the future aid station. At this point I get kind of lost and take what appears to be a really overgrown dirt road. There is a spring at the bottom of the valley ahead, so I just run until I find that and get my bearings from that point. The rain has completely stopped and mist rises from the valley floor as the August sun resumes its dominance.

I follow a pole line, as instructed on my maps, until I reach a turnoff. I gather, from the instructions my brother printed from the race’s website, that this turnoff is easy to miss in the delirium of the race. Runners that have already been training have been kind enough to thoroughly mark the turn.

The turnoff leads into a tangled forest. The Wasatch 100 runners work on all the trails before the race, but I think they haven’t reached this area yet. Vegetation crosses the trail for the first mile. I can’t see the trail. I can’t even see my feet, so I look far ahead, following what appears to be the trail. It is a strange sensation.

I don’t fall. I’m quite proud of this.

I climb one last ridge and I can hear the freeway below me. Hmmm… I don’t like that. The trail drops down some switchbacks to a ravine that runs parallel to, but lower than, the freeway, so I can’t hear it anymore. You would never know it was right there. I lose the trail, pull out my instructions and try taking an uphill trail that puts me onto a frontage road. Nope, this isn’t right. I bushwhack back down, lose my sunglasses to a grabby tree, and leap over a little stream. As I land, I see deep, giant moose tracks.

Great.

Don’t get me wrong. I love all wildlife, but I prefer moose at a safe distance.

I find the trail and continue running. The trail is narrow and winding and I expect to see a moose at every turn.

I make it through without a moose encounter, manage to not take the wrong turn into a golf course, and climb out of the ravine to the freeway exit where we had dropped off my car that morning.

On race day, this will be a bright, bustling aid station. This will be the spot where I hand my brother over to my husband.

Unless he has to leave me on the trail.

Antelope Island Fall Classic 50k-2016

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The Antelope Island Fall Classic 50k starts with a couple of miles of easy uphill. Somewhere to the east the sun has risen, but for now we run in shadow. In a canyon on our left, coyotes start to howl, welcoming the morning. Runners stop, look at each other. Some of us stand and listen for a moment before we continue. The sun is peeking over the horizon as we reach the hilltop.

100_0823It’s a perfect day, in the next ten miles all my extra layers will be discarded. I tend to dress a little on the warm side, so I’m really happy that I decided to wear a tank top as my first layer.

The next few miles are fast and flat followed by a downhill to Death Valley. Everybody seems to make it through Death Valley alive, in spite of the buffalo grazing on the hillside. More fast flats, and we climb to the first aid station.

100_1348I get some Coke and PB&J. Can I just say, and hope that all race directors will listen, that Coca Cola is amazing at an aid station? I don’t know what it is, I don’t drink Coke any other time, but it is perfect during a race.

100_1346Fast downhill again. The course, overall, is pretty easy for a 50k. The website shows 3500 feet of vertical, but my watch ends up closer to 3000 feet. For a Utah race of any length, that’s almost flat. Don’t get me wrong, the lack of vertical doesn’t mean things can’t go horribly wrong.

Respect the distance.

20161105_104629The west side of the island is very pretty in a wild and barren sort of way. This summer 50% of the island burned in a wildfire. I expected to see more signs of this, but the island seems almost normal. Most of the vegetation is grass, with very few trees, so recovery is easier than it would be in many places. There is an ashy, burnt smell when the wind dies down, and some areas look charred, but life has fought back quite well.

At some point, I look at my watch and realize I haven’t eaten in over an hour and a half. I eat a couple of slices of running potatoes (my own recipe) and keep going. Probably should have eaten a little more…

There is a pretty substantial hill coming up where the course crosses over to the east side of the island. I remember the hill from this race three years ago, and I dread it, but my troubles begin before this hill makes its appearance.

There is a part of the course that runs right along the shoreline. There are big rocks, fun to run on, and I jump from one to another like a gazelle…I might not look exactly like a gazelle, but it is fun. After the fun rocks is a section of sand alternating with smaller rocks. I start to really slow here, my pace completely falters, and at one point I just stop, stand in the middle of the trail and look around.

20161105_104506It’s not a steep spot, but I suddenly decide I can’t take another step. The next aid station is about two miles away, but that seems like an extreme distance. My husband is ahead of me somewhere, so I decide to call him so he can come and get me. I decide this although I’m not anywhere near a road, my husband does not have his phone on him, and besides that he is running! Then I remember that there is very spotty cell service on the island, especially at the finish line where I parked my car.

This thought process is a lot harder and more time consuming than you would think. It wasn’t until much later that I realized my ridiculous plans were the result of low blood sugar. My underfed body had depleted my underfed brain of all its sense.

I start walking for a few minutes, then stop again. I’m so hot! I’m so hungry! I’m so glad I’m alone so I can’t whine to anyone! I take off my pack and shed my extra layers of clothes. I try all of the mantras that usually work. My current favorite is Finish on Empty! That one has been great during Spartan races, but it doesn’t work so well when you’re already on empty with miles to go.

I sit on a flat rock on the side of the trail and eat. A couple of runners pass and ask if I’m okay. I’m not sure what my answer is, but it must be reasonable, because no medical helicopter shows up.

20161105_113851Only a week or two before I had written a post for you guys called Under the Bridge. I start thinking about the advice I gave in that post, and realize that’s the advice I currently need the most.

I get up and start going again and reach the dreaded hill. I start to feel better, but my hoped-for time has been completely blown away. I start thinking the whole field has already passed me, and the man coming up the hill behind me is sweeping the course.

But he’s not the sweeper, and the hill turns out to be not so dreadful. I reach the aid station at the top, not quite half way, and tell the kind volunteers that I’m having a rough day. They say, “well let’s see if we can turn it around!”

And they did. More Coca Cola, PB&J and some advice to DRINK MORE!

20161105_101758I drop down to the west side of the island. This side isn’t as pretty, but there are nice views of the mountains of the Wasatch Front. This half is mostly flat. I usually have trouble with flat, but my day truly has turned around, and I maintain a pretty good pace for the rest of the race. The race three years ago had been short of a 50k, but the course this year has been modified, adding about a mile of pavement at the end.

I collect my finisher’s cup (chili bowl) and have it filled with buffalo chili. The buffalo chili at all the Antelope Island races is made by the race director’s wife, and it is delicious!

20161105_093346Like every race, I learned something. Like most races, I finished. My time was slow, but for me, not shamefully slow. I mean, I am The Trail Snail.

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Under the Bridge

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There is no troll under the bridge in this story. There’s not even a trail in this story…

100_1215The sun is beating down mercilessly, so hot it takes my breath away. The air is so hot and dry that drinking doesn’t even help any more.

I stop and look up. Runners pass me, heads down, looking defeated. The sun, strangely, looks tiny, a tiny little dot that is taking away every will I have to keep going. Ahead of me is an overpass, promising a brief moment of shade. Beyond that, the road continues uphill. It’s not steep, but at this moment it is just too much. Maybe if I could get just a tiny bit of cool water, instead of the warm water at the aid stations, maybe then I could go on. Maybe some shade, more than the tiny bit that the bridge will offer, maybe then I could go on. But beyond the bridge, the heat shimmers on top of the pavement and the sky is clear from horizon to horizon. I stand as runners shuffle past, and I know I can’t go on.

2014-10-04-10-50-38I walk to the bridge and stop in the shade. A low concrete barrier lines both sides of the road, and I sit down. Here I will sit until a sag wagon comes. I’ll flag it down and climb in. Inside, the air will be cool. Maybe a sympathetic volunteer will give me an ice cold bottle of water. I’ll ride in comfort to the finish line. I know I won’t have to wait long, there are plenty of shuttles, one goes by every few minutes.

As I wait, I think of how long I have wanted to run this marathon. I think of my joy when I made it through the lottery. I think of my training runs. I put a lot into this, my training was perfect. I think of the medal that would have been waiting at the finish line, and of my family, who will be waiting at the finish line. I think of their reactions, surprise followed by sympathy. Like all good families they will help me rewrite this story so that it’s not really a failure. It was just too hot. It’s amazing that anyone finished… and then I’ll try again next year.

100_1218I think that’s the thought that got me, waiting a whole year to try again, remembering for a whole year that I climbed into an air-conditioned van instead of finishing what I came here to do.

I start to cry when I realize that I can’t get in the shuttle, that I can’t give up. It’s hard to breathe when you’re sobbing. I think somebody asks if I’m okay, but maybe I imagined that, in any case I don’t answer. I’m not okay.

I stand up and walk through the remainder of the shade, then I start to run. I start at a shuffle, but I gradually pick up my pace and make it over the hill. I’m just past the marker for mile 19 when a shuttle passes me.

100_1214Now I’ve completed the St. George Marathon six times, it’s the only road race on my calendar these days. The second time, the bridge seemed to appear so soon, I felt so good! When I saw the bridge, I smiled, probably a big, stupid smile. When I ran under the bridge, I was startled when a sob escaped me, and then another. I had to walk, trying to breathe normally, trying to keep my emotions a secret. I’m not really a crier. A lot of people cry during and after events, from happiness, relief, pain… a section of Daughters of Distance, by Vanessa Runs, is dedicated to this phenomena, and it seems to occur regardless of gender, fitness level or experience in the sport. My daughter cries at the end of most events, something that was pretty confusing for her husband the first time he witnessed it.

“Are you okay? Was it bad?”

“No, it was great! I’m so happy!”

But I don’t really do that. Except EVERY SINGLE TIME I run under that bridge. Six years. No reason to think it will change. Some of the years have been relatively easy, like that second year (the bridge is here already!?!) and some have been closer to that first year (there’s that cursed &#*$&%@ bridge!).

A Gandalf misquote

A Gandalf misquote

Now the bridge is a symbol to me. It reminds me what I need to do when struggles seem too difficult. That few moments of my life, six years ago, was actually an epic battle of my mind against my body.  One of the benefits of endurance sports is that you learn to triumph. You learn to suck it up. You learn to think of that year of regret, and decide that you really can take another step.

Struggling through a marathon isn’t the same as raising a child, making a marriage work, or maintaining a successful career. It’s not the same as having a sick parent, losing a family member, or dealing with illness and injury.

And yet, in a way, it is.

So my advice, take it or not, is this:

When you think you can’t, even when you absolutely know you can’t, maybe just take one more step. Maybe, after all, you can.20161113_092958