Javelina Jundred

It was a successful weekend in Phoenix for our group of friends: Elly ran her first 100K in fine fashion, and Heidi and I ran our first hundreds and are coming home with buckles!

It’s so hard to put together the words to describe Javelina. The course itself features desert beauty—highlighted with green grass and lots of flowers this year due to a downpour earlier in the week—and a fantastic party atmosphere. Sarah, one of Heidi’s pacers, described trying to nap at Jeadquarters as “trying to sleep on a techno dance floor but on sand.” It’s just a wild, raucous, and hot run with hundreds of like-minded and incredibly supportive people!

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In the foreground: fairy duster, a flower I’d never seen before. So pretty! Photo by Ana Hinz (@willrunforwhisky).

In the end what Javelina was to me was an internal journey—where, through the support of my husband and my friends, I found a focus and strength that I don’t know I really knew was there. You see, for the past month, my commitment to the race had wavered and waned and I wasn’t really sure why I was there. I was tired.

Balancing the demands of training, working, and parenthood (with its emotional highs and lows and with its physical demands of time, interrupted sleep, and driving—I must track my route some day and see how many circles around town I complete!) … it had all worn me down. I didn’t even have a race plan. Friday afternoon I was packing food and gear bags with no lists, just a swag at what I might want or need. I didn’t have a pace chart. I didn’t know the distances between aid stations.

Friday was full of a sense of surrealism. I was actually there, I was actually getting my race bib, and OHMYGAWD it’s hot! One of the best parts of Friday was stumbling on the Taco Shop on the way out to packet pickup. It’s hard to get real Mexican food in Seattle, and those were pretty awesome street tacos!

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Things start getting real when you show up at packet pickup.
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Heidi and I check out where it will all begin (and end).

Saturday morning, after a 40-minute drive to Jeadquarters, we arrived about 45 minutes before race start. Mike and Heidi’s husband, Bill, were checking things out and Heidi and I decided to lie down in the tent we’d rented for a bit. At about 15 minutes before race start, we both bolted upright realizing that we were “this close” to falling asleep. Yikes!

We’d decided to start with the second wave—the noncompetitive runners—at 6:10. I don’t know that it really made a difference either way, but it was so exciting to watch all the runners run by in that first wave. We headed over to the start, and it was just the most amazing atmosphere. Techno music was blasting, tons of people were milling around, and Jubilee was up on her camper with a bubble machine going and had a virtually nonstop commentary to get the party started.

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The sun came up early on loop 1.

If you’re not familiar with the race, here’s how it works: you do five loops alternating clockwise and counterclockwise (washing machine style). The first loop has a little extra tacked on to make up for the remainder of the loops, which are slightly under 20 miles. There isn’t that much climbing on each loop, but it does end up to be essentially uphill to Jackass Junction and downhill back to Jeadquarters, with either Rattlesnake Ranch or Coyote Camp in the middle.

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Let’s get loopy!

Probably because of my lack of a race plan and not having my head in a good place, I was destroyed by the time I’d made it about two-thirds of the way through loop 1. It warmed up quickly once the sun was up, and I don’t know why, but my legs felt like my muscles were in a vise. I came in to Jeadquarters—where your team can meet you as you come in and then you run a horseshoe to the start/finish, and then come back around through the horseshoe to get back out on the course—and I was … well, I’m ashamed but I was a really horrible person.  I was mad at Mike because he didn’t have my gear and food ready the way I wanted (maybe if I had had a race plan for him to follow, he wouldn’t have needed to try to read my mind?) and I was convinced the whole thing was a bust and I should just quit.

My friend, Wendy, was there and she walked the horseshoe with me. Over the past several months we had talked a few times about how, if I lost my cool, the thing I really needed to do was refocus. She was amazing and made me think clearly and make sure I was taking care of myself. So as we walked around the horseshoe, she talked me through the math (you can walk this whole loop and still be fine … just start walking and keep going), didn’t flinch at my f-bombs, and I so appreciate her!

So I headed out on loop 2, with Heidi a bit ahead of me and with me figuring I’d never see her again except at places where our loops overlapped in opposite directions. I thought about my friend Vivian’s advice—if you don’t feel good, eat and then eat some more—and I walked, and I stocked up on ice at the aid stations, and I ate a smooshed crunchy-almond-butter-on-white-bread-with-the-crusts-cut-off sandwich. It probably took an hour to eat that damn sandwich, but to my surprise, once I had it down, I was feeling a lot better. Thanks Vivian!

When I came back into Jeadquarters, Mike was more prepared with what I wanted, and the team stuffed my arm sleeves with ice, Wendy wiped my legs down with an ice sponge, my pack was refilled, and I was in good spirits. I think I kind of freaked them all out because I was on such a tear earlier. Marna may have even said, “Are you the same person?” By the way, having a crew is amazing. It’s that one time where I feel totally babied: Everyone’s there to take care of me, help me, get me things. Quite the opposite of my life as a mom to twin 9-year-olds! Thank you guys!

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Feelin’ the love … I cannot thank everyone enough! Photo by Wendy Abbey.

I think Heidi was just heading out as I came in, but I’m not sure. It’s kind of a blur, now that I look back on it. I remember that the music was blasting, and I remember being glad that my pacers had heeded my request that they stay back at the house and relax during the heat of the day. I also remember bumping into Elly, who was heading out for her loop 3 on the 100K course with her pacer, Adam, and I was just feeling happy that so many of us were there to share the experience together.

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Elly finished her 100K more than an hour ahead of her goal time. What a rockstar!

Loop 3 was probably the loneliest, just because there’s still so far to go, and the sun set during that loop. But I listened to the coyotes howl, and then I watched a huge shooting star streak across the sky from about two-thirds up to nearly down to the horizon, and I felt like the gods had smiled on my race. An hour or so later I watched a huge orange moon rise and thought, wow, this is amazing! My legs felt good and my stomach was happy, I was eating every 30 minutes or so, and life was good. As the race wore on, the “good jobs” just increased from runner to runner, as we all knew we’d been out there a long time and were stoked for each other.

There were quite a few runners in costumes, which I frankly couldn’t imagine doing in the heat and for the length of time we were out there. Some were just out for the Jackass Night Run, but some were in costume for whole thing. A couple of my favorites were Fred Flinstone, who was also at Black Canyon, and a butterfly who was able to ripple her wings through the air in the day and then dazzle us with lights outlining those wings at night.

To my surprise, I bumped into Heidi at Rattlesnake Ranch (about 3.7 miles from Jeadquarters) toward the end of loop 3. While I grabbed a piece of Costco pizza (seriously, I can’t eat this stuff in real life, but Costco pizza at that moment was delish!), Heidi shared that she was struggling with her stomach and had ditched her gaiters because they were irritating her ankle. I could relate to the stomach issues from where I had been early in the race, and encouraged her to eat. I remember being so happy to see her out there and to be out on the course at that point with such a wonderful friend!

As I came in from loop 3, Nina was there, ready to pace me, and I was so excited! From my earlier moments of thinking “I’m only here out of obligation” and “I should just bail” to now going out on loop 4, feeling confident in my finish, and getting to hang out with this fantastic friend for the next 19.5 miles … it was all just so freakin’ awesome! (Seriously, I was that cheerful, which is so out of character for me.)

I waved to Heidi, who was with her team, and to Sarah, who would be her loop 4 pacer. And then I took off, ready to go. I’m not sure what Nina was doing, but she wasn’t quite ready, and I could hear some laughter as she was like, “Oh, she’s going. Wait, she’s going without me!” But I was ready and I had a job to do, so I was off to get it done!

My cockiness quickly fell apart, though, as about 2 miles into loop 4 out of the blue my stomach started feeling off. Thinking of Vivian’s “eat if you don’t feel good” advice, I tried a Gu—which was like a big blob in my mouth. And then I was suddenly and rather violently sick a couple of feet off the trail! I was shocked and worried. But once I was done, I was surprised to find that I felt so much better. So off we went to Rattlesnake Junction, where the first of my rest-of-the-race quesadilla noshing began.

We did some chatting while I did a bit of walking on the way back up to Jackass Junction. We exclaimed over the beauty of the desert at night, and a couple of times turned off our headlamps so we could gaze up at the stars. We cheered the butterfly, and shared “good jobs” with so many runners. I’m sure I told her about my day on the trail, but I don’t remember much of what we talked about. I think the biggest surprise is that I often don’t like a lot of chatter, but I kept asking her questions to keep her talking and just enjoyed the camaraderie we shared.

When we arrived at Jackass Junction, the party was definitely in full swing. Pirates and disco divas (I was so confused!) were everywhere, the music had definitely been cranked up, the disco ball was spinning, and the drinks (of all kinds) were flowing. Oh my gawd, what an absolute blast! Nina took a few minutes to say hi to some friends while I dug through my drop bag for some treats.

We were then on our way back downhill, toward Coyote Junction. The rocky places were just where I told her, as were the cholla that had attacked one woman at mile 4. I asked after Heidi, as Nina’s phone was dinging with updates, but she had little to share. I eventually became convinced that there was a pact not to share updates with me so that I could focus on my own run. However, I thought about Heidi throughout the rest of the race.

As Nina and I started down the wash between Coyote and Jeadquarters, Nina snagged her foot on a root or stick of some kind. It was one of those slow motion, I think she’s gonna save herself oh gawd maybe not, damn she’s down kind of falls. I was so worried she’d slam into rocks or a cholla, but—after a moment to catch her breath—she took stock and counted just a few scratches. Phew!

Back at Jeadquarters, I went for a more minimal approach to the food I was carrying since I seemed only interested in my smashed sandwiches, Gu, and the aid stations’ quesadillas. For loop 5, I now had my friend Ana by my side. Ana did Javelina last year, and I think she was excited to get out on the trails again and enjoy the party without the pressure of the race. We’ve had some great adventures together, and I was happy that she was going to accompany me to the finish.

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Heading out for the last loop and definitely feeling a little loopy! Photo by Ana Hinz.

Ana was (obnoxiously) cheerful, and I got a kick out of how many runners responded to her “How are you doing? Great job!” with grunts. I reminded her that we were all starting to run on empty, but she kept up the great cheer and I think it was quite the boon to many of the runners whose paths we passed as night passed back to day and everyone’s races were coming to a close. I very clearly remember Ana asking one guy how he was doing, his response of “my feet hurt,” and her reply, “That’s because you’ve been kickin’ ass for so long.” He laughed so hard, and I’m sure that laugh gave him a boost for miles.

It was now about 4 a.m. and I was feeling sleepy. Ana kept me moving, although I did give her grief whenever she forgot to shuffle instead of jog as we made our way back up to Jackass. As we chugged along, the sky began to lighten and gradually a new day began. The birds were going wild, singing and chirping and claiming their territory, and flowers that had been closed up yesterday in the heat of the sun were now wide open and sharing their glory with the dawn. Yes, a little poetic and mushy, but I remember this one ravine just steeped in the flowers’ perfume in a way I’ve only before experienced in Summerland on Mt. Rainier when I hit the peak of the bloom one summer.

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Photo by Ana Hinz.

By now Jackass looked a little bit more like Hangover Headquarters, but they still had pancakes and quesadillas so I was happy, and I hoped the party was as fun as it had looked in the middle of the night. This race is staff with amazing, dedicated volunteers! I think at Jackass there were at least two shifts as I remember bumblebees during the day and then the pirates and disco divas at night, but I’m not sure.

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Running toward dawn, surrounded by yellow flowers. Photo by Ana Hinz.

We chugged downhill, and I started to marvel that I was going to get my buckle. I talked to Ana some about my horrible first loop, nasty temper, and lack of conviction in and after loop 1 that I’d finish. I talked to her about my progression through the race and what I’d learned and what I remembered to do. And I talked about my joy in knowing that I’d complete the journey.

Well, I think I did. I also remember being quiet and wishing wholeheartedly that the thing was just plain over so I could get off my feet. And I remember between Jackass and Rattlesnake Ana telling me just about every story she could think of about her early dates with her husband, about a wedding she and Adam had just attended, the speech Adam had prepared and how he’d prepared and how he didn’t get to tell it after all, about all sorts of random things that kept my mind just busy enough that I was able to keep chugging along.

We passed one last time through Rattlesnake, and we took a few minutes to stock up on ice. The volunteers seemed surprised we’d take the time, but the day was already warming and it felt like I didn’t have much left in me to deal with the heat and sun at this point. (The ice we took had all melted by the time we finished, so maybe it wasn’t so silly after all.) We both soon realized how close we were to the end … and then we rounded the corner and could see Jeadquarters again, could hear the music, and knew that I was finishing!

I choked on a huge sob that seemed to just burst out of me. Ana I think sobbed just for a moment too. We chugged up the little hill to the entrance to the horseshoe, and I asked my pacers to join me but they told me to keep going on my own, that it was my glory lap.

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Sobbing as I enter Jeadquarters with Ana next to me and my crew and friends ahead of me. Photo by Wendy Abbey.

I handed off my vest and I don’t know what else to Mike and Ana, and I took off for that final time through the horseshoe. While many tents were now empty, just as many were still occupied, and in every one that was occupied, I was greeted with cheers and “way to go runner!” and cowbells and applause. I half cried my way through those last steps, and then Elly and Nina tried to do a tunnel for me to run through and I hugged them instead (awkward!), and then I was across the finish line!

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Crossing the finish line. Photo by Wendy Abbey.
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A huge hug from my best friend and biggest supporter. So. Many. Tears. Love ya Mike! Photo by (I think) Wendy Abbey.

It wasn’t that much later that I struggled out of a chair and made my way back to that blue arch to cry all over again as we all cheered Heidi in for her glory lap to the finish line. I was so happy to see her get her buckle and to know that she too had vanquished her demons over the course of the race. Her huge smile said it all!

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Heidi (on the left) with her pacer, Marna. What amazing smiles!

As I look back at this experience, I wonder at the why. Is there a purpose or a meaning behind running an ultra-distance race? Is there some epiphany that comes from this experience? Are people who do this different because of it? Am I a better parent for it? Or worse for being away to do these things?

What I know is that I feel intense gratitude for all the support people gave me to follow and attain a dream. This year I did my first 100K, I ran around Mt. Rainier, I did a couple of unsupported long days on the trail solo, I ran around Mt. St. Helens (again), I went fastpacking with friends, and I ran my first 100 mile race. I am different because of the relationships I have with the people who join me in these endeavors and adventures, with my daughters who I hope see me as a role model, with my husband and his steadfast belief in what I can do, and in the relationship I have with myself. I know myself better now … I know what I am capable of, I believe I can do things I never before thought possible, and I think I am a better person for it all.

And I have laughed. and cried. and loved all along the way.

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Ana (left), me (center), and Nina after the race.
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Most of our motley crew (left to right): Wendy, Bill, Sarah, Marna, Ana, Heidi, me, Mike, Elly, and Nina. Missing are Sean and Adam.

Hats off to Aravaipa Running for a fantastic party in the desert; to all the runners I met, chatted with, or exchanged “good jobs” with along the trail; and to all the amazing volunteers who staffed aid stations, road crossings, timing tents, packet pickup, first aid stations, etc., etc. You have all touched my life.

A deep, heartfelt thank you to my direct crew and pacers—Mike, Ana, and Nina—and to my extended trail family that included Bill, Sarah, Wendy, Marna, Sean, and Adam.  More hugs and tears to my fellow runners, Elly and Heidi: I am so honored and happy to have shared this journey with you.

And, finally, babe, I love you.

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Photo by Ana Hinz.

 

As always, all words are mine. Photos are mine unless otherwise attributed. 

 

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Race Volunteers Make the World Go ’Round (and trail runners have the best manners)!

After a long stretch in the darkness at Black Canyon 100K earlier this month, I was thrilled to see in the distance a tiny spark of light on the horizon. It would disappear and reappear many times as the trail I was on undulated along the contours of ravines and hillsides. Gradually, it grew and grew until ultimately that spark of light materialized into a brightly lit tent. When I arrived, I found it full of cheerful and helpful volunteers whose only goal right then was to take care of me: food? water? electrolytes? Yes please!

Race volunteers are there before the race starts, marking the course, setting up aid stations, checking runners in, and—perhaps the most thankless job—directing traffic. They’re doing whatever’s needed so runners have a great experience, everything goes smoothly, nobody gets lost, and the race starts on time.

Once the race has begun, they’re touching slobbered-on, sweated on, and just in general disgusting water battles, hydration packs, you name it. They’re offering cheer and support and concern. Many times they’re dressed in costumes and have taken the time to create personality for their particular aid station: beach theme? shark week? 80s nerd? pierogie heaven? There’s no end to the creativity! And when you stagger out of the woods or the dark and into one of these amazing havens, the race feels a little easier and spirits are higher.

At Volcanic 50 on Mt. St. Helens, these volunteers not only staffed aid stations but in many cases also hiked in their supplies and decorations and signs and music. All so the racers could have an amazing experience. At Beacon Rock 50K, there was one aid station at the middle of a double figure eight loop—so it was just this group of guys, all day, helping everyone multiple times. I was wearing a running dress at that race, and after a while they got to know me and I still smile when I remember their whoops and their hollers of “Yay running dress!” as I’d come back through.

Volunteers also stay long after the runners do. They tear down aid stations, clean up trash, sweep the course, and ultimately dismantle race HQ and the finish line. It doesn’t pay in money; it’s all just part of volunteering and the role volunteers play in making races awesome.

Some race volunteers are locals who enjoy supporting the runners who come from all over to be a part of their community for a day, or a weekend, or longer. Others are friends or family members who have found a role for themselves as their loved ones take on the course. And others are runners who are giving back … it’s their chance to create cheer, to fill bottles, to make endless PBJs and cut up hundreds of bananas and oranges, to offer words of encouragement, to simply be there and make a difference.

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Melting peanut butter on a freezing morning before PBJs can be made

As a race volunteer, I’ve worn a knight costume, dressed up like a cowboy, and spent hours decked out as a shark while tracking runners on a 100-mile course through the night. I’ve been covered in trail markers that stuck to me as I swept on a 100-degree day. I’ve done trailside first aid on a dislocated shoulder. And I don’t think I can ever give back as much as I’ve been given when I’ve been the runner. But always, the best part of being a race volunteer is the thank yous and the smiles—because trail runners are the best and, while they may blow snot rockets and go to the bathroom in the woods, they always have the best manners.

 

Race Report: Black Canyon 100K

The Black Canyon Ultras—put on by Aravaipa Running, which also hosts the ultra party known as Javelina Jundred—offers 60K and 100K courses through the desert paralleling I-17 just north of Phoenix in Arizona. While it has a net elevation loss (total loss about 9,000 feet and total gain around 7,000 feet), much of the climbing is in the second half.

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Image (c) Aravaipa Running

In the past two years, the weather has been extreme—with heat afflicting runners in 2016 and cold, wind, and rain causing a course reroute and reportedly miserable conditions in 2017. This year was perfect, with a high around 70°F and mostly sunny skies all day.

I was lucky to have Mike and the girls as my crew. They all got up at 5 a.m. to drive me to the race start and then spent the day driving around to meet me at the Bumblee Bee Ranch, Black Canyon City, and Table Mesa aid stations and, of course, at the finish.

Aid Station Cumulative Mileage Segment Length
1. Antelope Mesa 7.3 7.3
2. Hidden Treasure Mine 12.5 5.2
3. Bumble Bee (crew) 19.2 6.7
4. Gloriana Mine 23.7 4.5
5. Soap Creek 31.2 7.5
6. Black Canyon City (crew) 37.4 6.2
7. Cottonwood Gulch 46.2 8.8
8. Table Mesa (crew) 50.9 4.7
9. Doe Spring 58.6 7.7
10. Finish 62.2 3.6

If you’ve read some of my recent posts, you know that I’ve struggled in longer distances. To prepare for this event, I spent a fair amount of time working through Sage Rountree’s race plan “questionnaire,” thinking about how I would approach this race. One of the questions is, “List three training workouts where you learned something about your mental/physical abilities,” and this one question ended up being invaluable as I faced a few (inevitable) tough spots during the race. Here’s my list:

  1. Owyhigh Loop: I can keep going even after throwing up. (I didn’t throw up, but I attribute that to number 2, below.)
  2. Grand Canyon: I need to take care of issues as soon as they crop up. (Issues cropped up, but I didn’t panic and took care of them early.)
  3. Bridle Trails: Mantras really work, especially when I add F words to them! (I actually didn’t need this that much—but I was happy to know I could use it when I needed to.)

Segment 1: Start to Bumble Bee Ranch Aid Station—miles 0 through 19.2

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Just before the start—dawn at Mayer High School

The run starts at Mayer High School with a lap around the track. Mike was there to see me off, the girls were sleeping in the car, and I was thinking about how weird it was to know absolutely nobody at a race. Then, about a third of the way around the track, I saw my friend, Gretchen (who was there to pace a friend of hers later in the day), and with a cheer and a hug I continued my very slow ultra-shuffle around the track.

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Slowest lap around a track ever!

We were then off through a couple of local neighborhood streets and into the desert. There were some easy uphills on dirt roads and I appreciated everyone who immediately started walking them. It’s so hard to be patient and conservative at the beginning of a race, but group solidarity helped a lot.

In short order we hit the official Black Canyon Trail trailhead; we’d remain on the trail for the remainder of the day. For a while we were out on what I’d describe as open plains, rolling gently, mostly on double track. Then, a quick turn, and the promised downhill kicked in with fun-to-run but almost always rocky singletrack. We’d occasionally pop back out onto dirt roads briefly, and then make another turn onto more singletrack.

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I remember the first aid station—Antelope Mesa—where my strategy (thank you, Heidi Flora) of keeping a flask prefilled with Tailwind powder in the back pocket of my pack made for a quick refill and transition back onto the trail, but oddly I don’t remember the next aid station at Hidden Treasure Mine at all. Regardless, as I neared Bumble Bee, I was excited to see my family and had mapped out what I wanted/needed in the transition.

Bumble Bee might just be my favorite aid station from any race to date: it’s a ranch, and as you come in you see the windmill that is featured in the race logo, you cross a nice open lawn, and everyone’s hanging out in an open, covered picnic area. Meg was holding up a sign with my face (long story that I just don’t know if I could do justice to, so suffice to say I knew my friends back home were there with me in spirit as soon as I saw it), Mike helped me with my transition, I ate some potato chips and salted potatoes, and was ready to head back out. I did decide to change my shoes here since I was getting a worrisome hot spot on my right foot: I’ve had some problems finding the perfect shoes since my previous ones were redesigned and no longer fit, so I’ve been switching three different pairs around for each training run, trying to figure out a good system. Since I knew this might be an issue, I had brought backup pairs for Mike to have at the ready at each crew-accessible aid station.

As I left Bumble Bee, I gave the man eating cows the evil eye, I think they rolled their eyes back at me in disgust, and that was that.

Section 2: Bumble Bee Ranch to Black Canyon City—miles 19.2 through 37.4

Initially there was a bit of dirt road and then long stretches of exposed singletrack. Our first climb of the day was right out of Bumble Bee, and it seemed everyone around me was slowing down. I was fully down with that, as the day was now warm and, for me, feeling pretty hot. We passed through many fascinating areas here—I remember going through a longish burnt-out section, with cacti blackened and crumpled along the trail. There was a dike maybe 20 or 30 feet wide of bright white quartz in the middle of miles of dark rock. At first I couldn’t figure out what it was, it was so bright and out of place. And trail markers, rather than dangling from trees, were knee to maybe hip-height, and carefully tied to a cactus or some other cranky plant covered with sharp things. I spent some time wondering if they were actually tied on or whether the trail marking crew simply threw them at the bushes and they stuck.

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I decided to regroup at Soap Creek Aid Station since my stomach was feeling just a little bit off and I was feeling more than just a little bit hot. Most of my standard food wasn’t appealing, and my stash of stomach-soothing oyster crackers was waiting for me at Black Canyon City. I sat down in a chair and gnawed on some pretzels and drank, then took my phone out of airplane mode to text Mike and let him know I was slowing down and taking a break. My phone immediately starting dinging, and dinging, and dinging, as I was inundated with well wishes and cheer from friends back home—I cannot describe how uplifting it was to see those come in. I then filled the OR ActiveIce Ubertube (aka a special-fabric buff) Heidi had loaned me with ice. That ended up being a lifesaver!

From there, the trail remained rocky. And then it got rockier. Seriously.

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There were a few rocks.

As we neared Black Canyon City, I finally fully understood the name of the trail and area. Ahead the bluff was a solid black rock: the sun reflected off of it, and it was really quite pretty. Just past that bluff was a muddy river crossing. I really didn’t want to get my feet wet and resigned myself to it anyway as I watched others plod through, but a guy in a green shirt showed me a way across just downstream, and I kept my feet dry. (Thanks Green Shirt Guy!) By now, we also had made it down to saguaro country. I tried to get good photos of them, but mostly wanted to keep moving. The one time I did stop completely, a guy ran into the middle of my picture. Ergh.

Finally, I hit the downhill to Black Canyon City. Downhill is always awesome! … except when you know it’s an out-and-back and you’re gonna have to turn around and go back up it.

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Coming into Black Canyon Aid Station. I’m behind Green Shirt Guy.

Black Canyon Aid Station was a mental test. First, it marked the end of the 60K course, so there were all these runners eating pizza, drinking beer, and sharing “my race is done” trail stories, but I wasn’t done. I tried to take it as a power anthem: you’re not done because you’re totally badass and going the full distance. That didn’t really work—I just wanted to be done and join the party! Also, shortly before my arrival, Abby had biffed on rocks in the parking lot (have I mentioned yet that there were lots of rocks?) and skinned basically her entire right knee. Mike had taken her to the first aid tent and they’d done a nice job of cleaning her up and bandaging her, but there were still crocodile tears pouring out now and again. She told me she just wanted to go back to the hotel, and going back out on the course was a serious battle of personal commitment and mommy instinct—I wanted to take care of my baby!

But back out I went. I was over halfway, and I was determined to finish!

Section 3: Black Canyon City to Table Mesa—miles 37.4 to 50.9

After leaving the aid station stocked with pretzels, vanilla gu, and oyster crackers, as well as extra water and Tailwind as the next aid station was nearly 9 miles ahead, I started climbing. I knew I had an immediate climb up what I had descended; what I didn’t know was that past the out and back there was a lot more climbing. I was a little worried about pushing hard on the climbs and not having enough for the finish, so another woman and I buddied up for the next hour or so. Chatting with someone else helped pass the time and it was fun to share stories of her trail adventures near her hometown of Calgary and talk about our favorite races.

Once the climbing was done I kicked into running again. But, oy! the rocks! My feet were pretty unhappy, and my fear of stumbling grew as my legs tired. I had seen many people with scrapes from falling on rocks throughout the day (and Mike said he saw several people at the Black Canyon first aid station getting cactus pulled out—ouch!) and I really really didn’t want to become another statistic. So, power walking to the beat of tunes provided by my bootcamp coach when it was rocky or uphill, and shuffle running through a growing blister and aching feet when it wasn’t—that became the name of the game.

The sun set and headlamps came out, making the rocks appear even more treacherous. But the sun setting brought the gift of colors in the sky, and the darkness brought out stars that were huge in the deep dark of the desert and a sliver of a crescent moon that took forever to set on the western horizon. I think my favorite thing running through this part of trail in the dark was the forests of saguaro cacti, silhouetted by the sky and sometimes illuminated in the beam of my headlamp.

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For a time I was running alone, and then I briefly joined another group of runners. One woman and I speculated on how much farther that next aid station would be—this would be a very long nearly 9 miles for many of us!—she was out of water and despite stocking up for this section I was running low. Here we heard what we thought were people cheering and we got excited thinking the aid station would be just around the next bend, but no, it was a pack of coyotes howling. Dammit! But, finally we saw it, and we were all so happy.

The bit between Cottonwood Gulch and Table Mesa is a blur. I remember lots of rocks and consequently lots of walking. I remember needing to pee and—keeping in mind Ana’s story of getting prickers from a bush in her pants at Javelina that she shared at a recent Boldly Went storytelling event in Seattle—looking for a spot well away from anything that looked sharp, and then stumbling straight into two bushes in the dark before I got my lights back on. Doh! I remember two guys ahead of me suddenly stumbling around trying to find the trail, and how much they appreciated my timely arrival and call of “trail’s over here!” I also met a guy from Wisconsin at some point; he asked if I was focused on a sub-17 and I remember saying “I have no idea anymore, I just want to finish!”

Finally, Table Mesa—and my family—appeared out of the darkness. I dropped my pack, told Mike exactly what I wanted (pretzels, 1 gu, oyster crackers, 2 waters and 1 Tailwind, nothing else), and headed to a porta pot to pee. (Apparently, after getting behind on fluids after Bumble Bee, I had finally caught back up!) And in the porta pot, I leaned my head in my hands and briefly let myself cry. I wanted to be done so badly, and my feet were just worked from the rocks. I got myself together, had a cup of ramen noodles and broth (soooo good!), and headed back out. It was a glorious moment to hug each of my kids and Mike and say, “I’ll see you at the finish line!”

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Meg’s there to greet me as I come in to Table Mesa Aid Station. I don’t think I’ve seen her yet and I clearly am pretty beat at this point.

Section 4: Table Mesa to finish line—miles 50.9 to 62

I now had a 7.7-mile section to Doe Spring, and then a 3.6 mile final section to the finish line. Oddly, I had passed a few people between the top of the climb out of Black Canyon and before Table Mesa, and again I passed some folks. It was like a snail race! Once again coyotes serenaded from the surrounding hillsides. The crescent moon glowed red as it finally made its final descent beyond the horizon. Crickets chirped. I peed somewhere off the trail again.

And then there was rustling in a big bush of some sort right beside the trail. My first thought? Oh my gawd, it’s a javelina! Now, seriously, I have no idea why that was my first thought, but it was. I quickly turned my head, and there was a cow munching on that bush. I laughed at myself, and enjoyed the rush of positive energy that came from laughter. I’m such a dork!

I ran with the guy from Wisconsin for much of this final section, and he commented that it looked like I was going to get my sub-17 after all. I was pleased, but more than anything I was happy that I was going to finish this crazy endeavor I had set out on. I was creating new curse words for every rock I encountered in the trail (owie owie owie), but outside of that I took time to look up in the sky and marvel over the brilliance of the stars, and I shined my light up and down saguaros that caught my attention. It was miserable and mystical and exhilarating at the same time.

At Doe Spring aid station, I inhaled a cup of ramen and broth—briefly stopping to eject a moth that flew into my cup—and then set out for my final 3.6 miles. At first the trail was a relatively smooth dirt road: could it be that I was done with rocks and could run it in to the finish?! Dammit, no, the trail once again cut off onto a final section of single track and I was back to powerwalking and trying to avoid kicking rocks.

But now there were more smooth sections, and Wisconsin guy and I could hear a generator in the distance. Could that be it?! Are those cheers or more coyotes?! Finally, it was real: there was the finish! In the last 50 yards, Wisconsin and I passed two more guys, and then I stopped just before the finish line to call for Meg, and they passed me as I waited for her and I lost two places (oh well!), and then Meg and I ran across the finish line together. Mike gave me a huge hug, Abby gave me a huge hug, someone gave me my finisher’s belt buckle, a photo was taken, and then I fell apart. It was a happy and relieved and exhausted kind of falling apart though!

Postmortem

My brother said the funniest thing to me yesterday, as he watched me struggle to walk into a restaurant at the hotel we’re staying at. He said, “It’s amazing that you’re in such good shape that you can hurt yourself so badly.” It’s one of those oxymoronic statements that capture ultra running so perfectly. This run hurt a lot: but it also gave a lot.

We get to run in beautiful places, and because we go far, we get to see a lot in a shorter period of time. I went through several microclimates, saw different flora (no fauna except the cow), and saw incredible rock formations.

I was able to prove to myself that I could turn my experiences, especially last year’s struggles, into lessons learned that allowed me to perform better and do something harder than I’d done before. When I couldn’t find my inner bunny last fall, I was worried—but I think I found a stronger bunny (or am I carrying this whole bunny thing too far?). I definitely found a stronger me through this journey.

And best of all, I got to share it with my family. Training for ultras often means long periods away from them. I feel selfish sometimes, pursuing a sport that takes me away on weekends, something that I rarely share with them directly. To have Mike and the girls there, and seeing their joy for me, simply amplified my personal joy and made it a deeper and more meaningful experience.

Oh, and my friends back home? From prerace notes and gifts, to those goofy heads on a stick, to a postrace care package and notes of caring, to finding out Mike was managing an all-day text stream updating them on my progress along with all the messages I received directly with all those dings on my phone up at Soap Creek—just wow! I am so lucky! Mike said, “You have a lot of friends, Ellen,” and I said, “And they’re freaking awesome!”

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Bridle Trails Winter Running Festival 50K … or, How Did I Get So Lucky?

Yesterday I ponied up to a starting line for the first time since my DNF at White River 50 last summer. I’ve had some wonderful runs on gorgeous trails since that DNF—including a weekend in the Olympics, the UltraPedestrian Owyhigh Loop, and of course R2R2R—but still feeling the sting of that DNF, doing a race (!!) felt intimidating.

Bridle Trails is kind of a winter lark. The 50K is six loops of a 5-ish mile course, and there are options for a 5 miler, 10 miler, and 50K relay too. And, it starts at 3 p.m., so if you’re doing anything longer than 10 miles, you’re pretty much guaranteed some time chasing the beam of your headlamp through the woods.

I signed up a few weeks ago, as it fit well into my training plan. I’ve done a few long runs on my own lately, and podcasts—while nice distractions—cannot replace the camaraderie of running with other people. This would be an easier way to get in those miles.

I started the day with a fun late holiday party with some wonderful friends I’ve met through road running. Every year we set aside a Saturday morning for a quick run or walk followed by a potluck of all sorts of yumminess, and then we have a crazy, out-of-control gift exchange. We all randomly get a gift, share what’s in our package, and then pass two pairs of dice (in opposite directions) around the circle. If you get doubles, you have to exchange your gift for someone else’s—even if you don’t want to. For 5 minutes, it’s hilarious mayhem!

After the party, I headed home and started getting my gear together for the 50K. So this starting at 3 p.m. introduced all sorts of weird challenges: when should I eat? What should I eat? When should I eat what? With my gear finally organized, it was off to a local school to cheer one of my daughters as she played basketball. Her team was short players this week, so she played the entire game. It was like she did her own version of an ultra.

I then headed to Bridle Trails State Park. I was there about 1:30, which meant 90 minutes of sitting around in my car worrying. I knew Rich would be there, but wasn’t expecting to see anyone else. I texted Wendy and shared how nervous I was. She replied, “Well, I signed up for the 10-miler at the last minute. I’ll run the first two laps with you.” Shazam! I was so happy!

Little did I know that that was only the first surprise of the night.

Lap 1 was the typical jockeying for a place on the trail until folks got spread out. Wendy reminded me to watch my pace (I’m known for going out a bit too fast) and had fun trying to run in the muddy parts to squish down mud lumps. Rich was out on the course ringing a crazy loud and obnoxious cowbell, which was fun to hear and made me smile. As we set out on lap 2, he joined us for a mile or so until we hit a trail that cut out to the street—that was his turnoff to head home, so he waved goodbye and Wendy and I continued on.

Wendy kept me company for the rest of the lap, and we had a good time chitchatting and passing the time. As I finished our second lap, I starting thinking about what it would take mentally to run four more laps on my own. As we headed over to where the drop bags were for me to restock on food, there was Sarah … ready to run! That stinker! Such a surprise! Sarah, who’s just back running after a knee injury suffered during our R2R2R, chattered away and made lap 3 a breeze. Sarah was only up for one lap, and I was back to thinking about three more laps on my own …. this lap after lap thing is mentally tough!

I hugged Sarah goodbye, still feeling the love, and headed out for lap 4. I ran for a while with Sonja, who also has a race in February. Wendy introduced us before the race, but it was our first time running together. Our eating/walking schedules on the trail were off by just enough that we spent the lap leap-frogging each other, and then at some point I lost her in the dark of the forest and didn’t see her again. She accepted my FB friend request this morning, so she must have made it out. 🙂

As I came back in from lap 4, I was practicing my race mantra (“You are strong! You’re going to finish this!” but it was evolving to “You are strong! You are going to finish this f’er!”). I love race courses that feature big climbs, and this course has a lot of flat—which means waaaay more running than I’m used to. My February race will have a lot of running, hence the choice to use this race as a training run, but stil.…

As I start to head out for lap 5, I turned around and got surprise no. 3: there was Ana, grinning from ear to ear, and holding out a Pepsi and a package of Oreos. Another stinker!! It was amazing, and by now I was feeling in the love of my friends and their support. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated them!

I said farewell to Ana, but was quickly shortstopped by Christy and Sharon, along with Sadie Blue (Sharon’s dog). I was starting to figure out that my friends had been making plans behind my back!

Loop 5 felt a bit longer. By this time I knew the trail well—where the mud pits were, where the hills were, turn left, turn right, over the fallen tree there, almost back!, down the hill, yay! another lap done.

As I came back in, I was thrilled to see Christy, Ana, and Sharon still there. Christy and Sharon were decked out in strings of Christmas lights—I cannot tell you what a happy sight that was!! As I took an Oreo from Ana and Christy handed me a little Halloween-candy-sized package of Sour Patch Kids, Sadie Blue licked the sweat from my legs (ewwww!), and then we exchanged hugs all around and they headed home while I headed out for that last lap.

Lap 6, not surprisingly, was a bit of a chore. Same hills, same flats, same mud pits. Maybe I found myself mentally whiny, but I focused on my mantra (which was now, “You are strong! You’re gonna finish this mother f’er!”) and felt my focus return. I found myself cheering on some runners I passed, sharing “woot woots!” and encouraging one guy who was walking that he was gonna get it done.

I finished in 6:17ish—my fastest 50K on my least-hilly and least-technical course. And, as I drove home, all I could think was, “How did I get so lucky?” I have this crazy supportive and wonderful husband who lets me take the time to train, I have these silly and spontaneous daughters who are proud of me despite complaining about my training time, and my friends? Seriously, they’re awesome.

Special call outs to:

Wendy Abbey, Rich Bennett, Sarah Brouwer, Ana Hinz, Christy Cherrier, Sharon Hendricks, Sadie Blue, all the Running Lattes, Mike Maude, Abby Maude, and Meg Maude.

And afterward I learned of more people who wanted to cheer me on but couldn’t, including Elly Searle, Callista Salazar, Heidi Flora, Kelly Woznicki, and Nina Hadley.

You guys rock! I love you all. And, I think I’m ready for that next one. I will dedicate miles to each of you!

And to Seattle Running Club and Northwest Trail Runs—thanks for a great event! My horse-loving daughter has absconded with my finisher’s horseshoe. And I had a blast.