Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.
It was the end of a busy (and awesome) summer filled with traveling for science and for fun and I was feeling burnt out. Burnt out on traveling, and particularly burnt out on traveling alone, having spent the previous week in Florence (Italy) for a conference. Although I spent lots of quality time with various friends, there was still a lot of alone time and I was surprised to find myself lonely. Surprised because I’m an introvert and I’m not used to feeling lonely when I’m alone, but there I was, lonely and alone in Europe. And then, after just a few nights at home with Luke, I was at an airport, again, alone. You may be noticing a trend here. Since Luke, crew chief extraordinaire, couldn’t make this race, I had decided to go solo. It was a reasonable time to try it, since it was “only” a 50k and all the aid stations were at least a 5 mile hike in from the nearest road, so the race was not particularly crewable. I just needed to manage all my pre- and post-race logistics.
To make matters
worse more interesting, I’d been feeling extra stressed about making Big Life Decisions About My Future and the forecast called for several inches of rain near Mount St Helens in the two days before the race. All told I had set myself up for a big challenge.
Motivation was a challenge, too. Although I was really excited about the race, I hadn’t really run at all (or spent time thinking about running) since running 50 miles in Squamish. Much of the nervous anxiety I’d had before my other ultras this year was replaced by emptiness. And loneliness. Sorry if this blog is going a bit emo and angsty. Stick with me here. This is something I wrote the night before the race that I think illustrates where I was mentally and emotionally:
It’s about going to that really dark place intentionally and fighting through it to come out the other side, where you feel, at least temporarily, that you are enough: strong enough, smart enough, determined enough, prepared enough, good enough. By diving into that hole of self doubt and crawling out the other side, you can glimpse what you’re capable of and bask in the warm glow of self confidence. Maybe that’s what makes it so easy to plan the next adventure while my body has only just begun to recover from the last – the desire to re-enter that state once again.
I’ve run enough ultras by now to know that as soon as I started running, the necessary motivation would be there; it was just hiding. So I drove several hours down to Marble Mountain Sno-Park on the southern slope of Mount St Helens on Friday, did my pre-bed anti-blister foot-taping routine, rolled out my sleeping pad in the back of my parents’ Rav4, and went to sleep at 9:30. It was the best I’ve ever slept before an ultra.
The morning before the race was a blur of stuffing oatmeal down my throat, waiting in a 20 minute bathroom line, and last minute preparations. Before I knew it, the race had started and we were off. The first two miles out to the Loowit Trail in the forest were mellow and sure enough, as soon as my legs were moving I was happy to be out there. As we emerged from the forest and turned left to begin our circumnavigation, I couldn’t contain my excitement. Other runners grumbled about the “non-runnable terrain” as we crossed the first volcanic boulder fields, but I was grinning, bouncing lightly from rock to rock and passing the grumblers like they were standing still. My brain was shouting, “THIS IS SO AWESOME!”
The terrain was beautiful, but often technical and challenging, as the RDs had promised. Long stretches of semi-flat, easily runnable single-track were separated by steep climbs and descents, often through steep, loose canyons cut into the unconsolidated ashy sand. It was a good day to be wearing gaiters. I took some extra time to strategize crossing the Toutle River (which was more of a raging creek than a river this close to its source) and the North Fork Toutle River, which was well worth the reward of dry feet. My achilles tendons, particularly the left one, had been getting destroyed by my shoes and I was hoping to avoid further destruction of other foot parts.
I allowed myself to break out my music at about 20 miles when the loneliness started kicking in. I was immediately rewarded with two of my favorite running songs: “Lost in My Mind” by The Head and the Heart and “I Love It” by Icona Pop. They were so perfect and so what I needed right then that I broke into tears. While running up a hill and passing a dude. I was on fire. Music helped me power through the last big climb to Windy Pass, which was followed by some actually runnable trail to the last aid station at mile 25, where there were PUPPIES!!! Seriously, people, there should be puppies at every aid station, ever. They made me so happy. Who is not so happy when there are puppies around, even when there are still 8 miles left which you know contain “endless canyons” and a final boulder field of doom?
But if I have learned anything from running ultras, it is that hanging out in aid stations does not make the finish get any closer, so I set off again. I had definitely entered zombie mode by this point. I plunged into and crawled out of the endless canyons without emotion. The course went through a rocky section that I thought would be the “last boulder field” and it wasn’t too bad. I passed the junction with a trail that I knew ran roughly parallel to the out-and-back section that would take me back to the finish and let myself get excited. Then the boulder field happened. As I was climbing up into it, I caught up to a guy who was sitting down, looking just as zombie-fied as me. He asked, “How’s it going?” I said, “I’m getting my ass kicked!”. He said, “You and me both.” This is what I love about ultras. It’s those little conversations where you realize, we’re all in the same boat here. I kept boulder-hopping and thought I heard puking noises behind me over the sound of my music. That guy would later pass me in the last 2-mile section, way to puke and rally!
I caught up to 4 other dudes. This is what amazed me… I was going back and forth with a lot of runners throughout the day, but I was consistently blowing by all these people who were around my pace in boulder fields. And they were all men with much longer legs than me, so it must be all that experience with talus hopping from climbing approaches. Cross-training works, folks.
Anyways, the boulder field really did go on forever, until I saw a waterfall in the distance that I was pretty sure I recognized from the morning. I almost cried. It was the same waterfall, and we were finally on the final 2 miles of downhill. Unfortunately, my left Achilles tendon had been chafing (or something…) all day and it was feeling pretty destroyed by this section. I tried to run and it cramped up (or maybe it was the base of my calf cramping up, who knows) and I almost fell over. So then I tried walking and it cramped up and I almost fell over. My peroneus tendon on my right ankle (I didn’t know that’s what it was) was also hurting pretty bad, with sharp pain on every impact.
But the math was simple. It hurt just as much to walk as to run. It would take almost twice as long to limp along walking to the finish as it would to run (slowly) there. Therefore, I ran. Once I got going, my Achilles stopped cramping up and I was able to get into a rhythm. I got passed by almost all the dudes I’d passed on the boulder field, but that was expected. Time slowed to a crawl, but I finally heard the cowbells at the finish. My Zune also came through with the last song before I finished: “Eye of the Tiger”. (Hell, yeah!) My chest tightened and I couldn’t breath as I ran across the finish line in 9:32:26, 8th out of 18 female finishers and 76th out of 118 total finishers. I also later found out that I was the youngest woman in the race and 2nd youngest overall finisher… that’s CRAZY! So every time I am not happy with my performance, I just have to remind myself that I’m probably at least a decade out from my endurance peak, so I have plenty of time to improve. Yet another reason to not rush into 100 miles for the next year, or several years.
So, in the end, I did it. I ran a difficult ultra without a crew. I pushed forward through uncertainties. I sent myself into that dark place, and I marched myself right back out the other side, just like those endless canyons on the mountain. In John Muir’s words, I “broke clear away” and “Wash[ed] my spirit clean.” It really was a cathartic experience, exactly what I needed at the time even though I didn’t realize it beforehand. This is what ultras are about for me. I may not be fast (yet!) but I am capable, and I prove this to myself over and over again.
Dear life: Bring. It. On.