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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BOOK REVIEW: Daughters of Distance by Vanessa Runs

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2015-11-01 08.17.19My epiphany came in the mountains of Colorado, right in the heart of the White River and San Isabel National Forests. I was halfway through a six-day stage race called TransRockies that would run us from Buena Vista, Colorado to Beaver Creek: 120 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain in six days. That week I climbed a vertical personal record, reaching altitudes of more than 12,500 feet. I felt amazing.

I was standing at the top of a long climb waiting for my husband Shacky to catch up when I realized: I was getting stronger (not weaker) as the days progressed. The elevation, the terrain, and the climbs were no longer obstacles that I had to overcome, but a jungle gym I was lucky to play through. I was no less an extension of the wilderness than a weathered Douglas fir or a soaring red-tailed hawk. The memories of my office cubicle were a past life, a pre-existence before my actual trail-birth that day.

Essentially, I took up ultrarunning as an excuse to be in the wilderness. Fewer people question your sanity when you say you’re “training” for hours on end instead of admitting what you’re actually doing: frolicking like a child ignoring her dinner call.-Vanessa Runs

Daughters of Distance delves into the mythical history of the wild woman archetype. Mother Nature, the author points out, is a woman. The parallels between women and nature are everywhere. Cycles, seasons, the power to grow life.

2015-08-30 12.24.57Although Daughters of Distance explores the mythical, most of the book is made up of stories of the real-world experiences of women (and men) living and playing in the endurance sport world.

Vanessa Runs explores everything related to being a woman in the wilderness. She explores the unique problems and joys that being a woman brings to the sport. There are chapters on tears, mommy guilt, and the dangers of being a woman running alone.

Throughout, she draws on the experiences of a multitude of women with sometimes polar differences of opinion. This is probably what I love most about this book. When talking about the term “chicked” (a man being passed by a woman) she has managed to find a wide array of opinions on the topic. Some women find the term to be a compliment, some find it degrading. She also has men weigh in on this (and every other) topic. The answer seems to be that there is no right answer. What is your own perception? I guess I have “chicked” a lot of men, but out on the trail, particularly during an event, the gender of the other runner makes no difference to me. I’m happy to pass anybody!

In a section titled In Defense of Teen Girls, the author delves into society’s disrespect for the passionate obsessiveness of teen girls. She recalls: As a young girl at my church, I picked up on insinuations that the passions of young women could easily turn into dangerous or unhealthy addictions, so repression was important. Girls obsess over horses (I did), books (I did) and the outdoors (yep, me too). Her message is clear. We need to nurture this, not repress it. Girls aren’t a joke, they are future women, and what they are is what the world will be. Repression, ultimately, is the real danger.

2015-08-30 13.19.15She quotes feminist playwright Eve Ensler: I think the whole world has essentially been brought up not to be a girl. How do we bring up boys? What does it mean to be a boy? To be a boy really means not to be a girl. To be a man means not to be a girl. To be a woman means not to be a girl. To be strong means not to be a girl. To be a leader means not to be a girl. I actually think that being a girl is so powerful that we’ve had to train everyone not to be that.

How do you insult a boy? “You throw like a girl.” My husband is a big fan of women’s softball, and I can tell you that throwing like a girl is something everybody should aspire to.

I think the most important thing about this book is the question: What are we teaching our children? From insulting our own bodies in front of our children, to telling our sons not to cry, we create a perception that’s unfair to ourselves and our children. On the section about crying, several men talk about how they become emotional during events and break down crying on the trail, or at the finish line in front of everyone. They aren’t ashamed and they aren’t judged. Can anyone question their toughness? If we could just all be human instead of allocating certain emotions and traits by gender, I think we’d all have a lot more fun.

On the more nuts and bolts side of things, Vanessa goes deep into the women’s specific issues that we face. What if you’re on your period during an ultra? What if you’re pregnant? Training with an infant in tow? Breastfeeding? Going through menopause? Each of these topics is addressed in depth, with real-life solutions and a lot of input from women who have dealt with them.

2015-08-30 12.25.05Another subject covered in depth is how endurance sports affects relationships. Not only how to deal when only one partner in a relationship runs, but what if one partner crews? What about a couple that is in fierce competition with one another? This section made me very happy that my husband also runs, and that we are both happy to run together or apart, without worrying unreasonably about one another.

At any level, the sport can seem very obsessive from the outside. How could anybody go out and run alone for that many hours? That’s not healthy, normal or sane… is it? Co-workers, family and friends might think you’re crazy if they aren’t involved in anything quite as all-consuming as endurance sports. Why train so hard when you know you won’t win? They probably won’t get it. Personally I’ve given up trying to explain. I just shrug and smile, like “I know, I’m crazy, right?”

These are some, but not all, of the joys and problems unique to our sport. Everyone should read this book. If you are a woman, it will make you feel proud and understood. If you are a man, well, same thing. There are a few stories of insufferably horrible men, but don’t let this stop you from enjoying this book, since Vanessa tells as many stories of bullying, insufferable women.

2015-08-30 11.48.03So wear your nice clothes, even if you’re running alone. Wear your makeup to an ultra, if that’s what you like to do. Wear a skirt! Nurture others without shame. Women are good at that! Cheer each other on no matter what pace, body type or age. And listen to Vanessa when she says, “get in the pictures”! How many times have you looked back at a picture and thought, “I looked good back then! I thought I was fat! Or old!” You’ll look back on current pictures in the same way, so don’t be afraid of the camera. Don’t be absent in the pictures of your life.

What feels right for you? What brings you joy? Embrace that part of you with pride and make that your life.

The author tells the story of La Loba (The She-Wolf) from Dr. Clarissa Pinkola’s book, Women who Run with the Wolves:

La Loba lives among the rotten granite slopes in Tarahumara Indian territory and her job is to collect bones. Over mountains and along dry riverbeds she searches and searches, until she has pieced together a full wolf skeleton. She then sits by the fire and thinks about what song to sing. When she is certain she has the right song, she stands over the dry bones and raises her voice.

The bones begin to flesh out and grow fur. La Loba sings some more and the creature begins to to breathe. Finally, she sings so deeply that the desert floor shakes and the wild animal leaps up and runs down the canyon. As Clarissa tells it, “somewhere in its running, whether by the speed of its running or by splashing its way into a river, or by way of a ray of sunlight or moonlight hitting it right in the side, the wolf is suddenly transformed into a laughing woman who runs free toward the horizon.”

All women begin as a bundle of bones lost somewhere in the desert. A few of us-the lucky ones- will live to howl the songs of our souls from the depths of our wild, wild hearts.

I am one of the lucky ones. Daughters of Distance reminds me why I love my solitary days in the wilderness. It articulates that which is hard to explain, that as I run along some singletrack, among scrub oak or pine or barren hilltops, my heart feels that it is right, that this is where I belong.2015-05-30 09.40.01

Daughters of Distance, by Vanessa Runs (ISBN: 978-1508875123) is available at Amazon.com for $19.99

PRODUCT REVIEW: ULTIMATE DIRECTION’S ULTRAVESTA

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IMG_20140715_124611_236 It’s mid-August. Hot, of course. The plan is twelvish miles, based on a map I made in my head while trying to sleep last night. The heat, and the distance, mean that my running buddy Clayton the Malador will have to stay home. He’s more of a cool weather guy, and this run will take me miles away from the muddy streams he uses to cool off.

Twelve miles can be a nice morning run. Or twelve miles can be hours of climbing, flying downhill, climbing again; searching for a little shade, just a little, a shrub, a blade of grass?!?

Heat induced delirium can make cactus look like a bunny

Heat induced delirium can make cactus look like a bunny

This run was the latter.

But I wasn’t entirely alone, because I had a good friend on my back, Ultimate Direction’s Ultravesta from the Jenny Collection. I hope Jenny Jurek doesn’t mind that I just call my Ultravesta Jenny. Sometimes, alone on a hillside, I’ll do my best Forrest Gump impression and say, “I love you, Jenny.”

Because I do. I do love you, Jenny.

Why do I love my Jenny? I’m going to tell you.

10 oz. bottle, phone, whistle!

I’ll start with the front. On my left side, there is an upper drawstring pocket that holds one of the included 10 oz. bottles. I have Gatorade in this one right now, because it’s about 90 degrees, but I can stuff the pocket full of gels if I don’t need that much hydration. The drawstring closes tight enough that I don’t worry about losing anything even as the pocket empties. There’s a lower pocket that closes with a bit of Velcro. I have my phone in this pocket, mainly for the camera, since there is no reception up here. My phone pokes out the top, but it’s a nice snug fit so I don’t have to worry about it falling out.

Oh, and above the pockets there is an attached whistle. I haven’t used it yet, but I like having it within reach.

10 oz. bottle, zipper pocket

10 oz. bottle, zipper pocket

On the right side there’s another upper drawstring pocket for the other 10 oz. bottle or food. Under this is a pretty sizeable zippered pocket. Running alone like I am today, I have my pepper spray in this pocket. It’s also a good size for gels or a baggy of real food (like running potatoes). But what I really love about this pocket is that there is a smaller pocket inside. This holds my lip balm, a few pepto tablets, a bag of salt tablets, and matches. I kind of wish this pocket was more accessible, since I have to get past the big pocket contents to get to the little pocket, but I’m still glad to have it. Those tiny items are too easy to lose if they’re mixed in with everything else.

On the back of the pack there is a horizontal zip pocket at the top. This pocket seems small, but right now it’s holding an inhaler, a knife, and some tissues. I think there is still room for my headlamp when the time comes. There’s a hook inside that’s perfect for keys. It comes with an Ultimate Direction ponytail holder that would be really cool, but I recently chopped off all my hair. Someday…

Internal bungee

Internal bungee

On the right side of the back is a vertical zipper pocket that holds up to a 2L reservoir. I read reviews before I bought this and it sounded like a 2L reservoir was kind of a tight fit. I suppose that’s true, but I haven’t had much trouble with my 2L UltrAspire reservoir. It takes just a little bit of wrestling to get it in there when it’s full. There’s a Velcro strap at the top of the pocket so the reservoir doesn’t sink down, and… drum roll please… adjustable bungee cords that hold the reservoir in place and can be tightened as the reservoir empties. I’ve never tightened them during a run, but I snug them up ahead of time and I have effectively killed the slosh! The top of the reservoir kind of poked me in the back at first, so I keep a bandana between the reservoir and my back.

External bungee

External bungee

On the left side is another vertical zipper pocket. This pocket is almost as big as the reservoir pocket and sits on top of it. This is like the Ultimate (get it) gold mine for extra storage. On this gorgeous August day I have extra gels in here and that’s about it, but by fall I’ll include hat and gloves, a big garbage bag and an emergency blanket. Even then, I’ll have plenty of room to spare.

On top of all these pockets is an external bungee cord that is currently holding my trekking poles. Separate from the bungee cord are two loops that keep the trekking poles from sliding out from under the cords. This bungee cord is plenty big enough for a jacket, even while holding the trekking poles. There’s a loop for an ice pick but I don’t own one, so I use it to hang the pack up.2014-10-19 13.35.52

I’ve run out of water on runs. In hot weather, nothing pushes me to the edge of panic like running out of water. So I really appreciate the substantial amount of hydration this pack carries. Another great thing about the Ultravesta is how well the weight is distributed. It might be so heavy it’s difficult to pick up, but once it’s on my back, it’s barely noticeable.

Oh, and it’s a beautiful deep purple blue color.

2014-10-19 13.35.46The Ultravesta has two clasps in the front that are easy to use even when delirious. It has two front straps and two side straps that make the fit easy to adjust on the run. Like all packs, it irritated the hell out of me on my first run, but I knew from past experience to use it on a short run and get it adjusted until it seemed to disappear. It didn’t take long.

I have a smaller pack that I use for shorter runs. But if I’m out for a longer run, especially one that takes me far from help, I like to know I’m prepared for the little jokes Mother Nature likes to play on me.

And for that, I love you, Jenny.