In sharp contrast, last weekend, I was a filthy wreck of a human being, coated in dirt and sweat and Duct tape.
I suppose I need to start at the beginning - dinner with Deby after she finished the Pine to Palm 100 in Oregon three weeks ago. Deby is one of my badass-ultrarunner-mom-extraordinaire friends. She's run five 100s in the last couple of months, which is ridiculous, amazing, and thoroughly inspiring all in one. Though all my epic runs and pacing gigs this year have undoubtedly stoked my enthusiasm for knocking out my own 100, there was something in particular about seeing Deby's strength on the beautiful trails at Pine to Palm that really got into my pores.
So, despite the fact that I've said all year that I wouldn't try to run a 100 until 2013, there we were at dinner, and I was busy on my fancy phone researching potential 100s for the remainder of 2012. Sadly, though, there was not a one that really appealed to me. They all had issues: too far away from home, too flat, too many loops, too many leaves, already sold out. Grumble grumble; first world problems, I know.
So I dropped my pipe dream. For a week, at least. Then I took a look at the website for IMTUF (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival), the 100 that would be Deby's 5th this year. There were reasons to be cautious: the entire course is at significant elevation (5,000-8,000 feet). It would be an inaugural race, which could mean poor logistics or course markings. Then there were the race directors' ominous disclaimers: "It will be a loop course of uncompromising quality and difficulty through the Payette National Forest. You are highly encouraged to have a mountain 100 under your belt before you attempt this race." And: "This is the high Rockies and these giants make their own weather."
But no matter; I was already seduced. IMTUF boasted everything I wanted: tons of elevation, almost exclusively singletrack trails, a generous 36-hour cutoff, a hot springs at the start/finish line, sexy laser-engraved finishers' belts, and perhaps best of all - a race far away and mostly full of strangers, so I could sneak away and give it a try without hardly anyone in my life knowing. Deby and I were the only Washingtonians in it. Somehow, given the sheer impulsiveness of my decision, I really wanted the opportunity to run without the pressure of anyone in my life knowing what I was attempting. To be honest, mostly it was because I felt wildly uncertain I'd be able to finish, and well...I guess I wanted to protect my ability to DNF (Did Not Finish) if need be. I worried that if I knew all my buddies at Seattle Mountain Running Group were tracking me, I might explode from the pressure alone.
So I sent Deby a quiet email: "I got this spontaneous, harebrained idea in my head that I might want to try IMTUF. Please don't tell anyone. Am I crazy?"
She promptly wrote back: "You already know how to be tough and to get it done. So no, I don't think it's crazy and am all for it! Check with your boss and start dreaming Sister."
So, asked for the days off from work: Check.
Asked Steve if he would be interested in coming to crew/pace for me: Check.
Registered on Ultrasignup at 2 a.m., six days before the race: Check.
The following Friday, Steve, Deby's crew/pacer Erin, and I got up before the crack of dawn and hit the road for Idaho. Nine hours later, we rolled up at the woodsy paradise of Burgdorf hot springs.
Which brings me to the start of IMTUF: 6 a.m. Saturday morning. The temperature was 8 degrees Fahrenheit. The drink tube on my hydration pack froze almost instantly (and didn't thaw out until three or four hours into the race). I had a handheld, too, but that, too, froze quickly.
The first few dark miles of the race were absorbed almost entirely with hydration maintenance. Every time I wanted a sip of water, I had to breathe heavily on my handheld for at least a minute to thaw it enough to unscrew the lid to drink. Then the moment I took it off, new water froze inside the grooves of the lid, making it impossible to screw the lid back on. I devised a plan: run for several minutes while holding my open handheld upright so as not to lose any water, and with the lid clenched between my teeth, so my breath would melt the ice in the tracking grooves. Then I could screw the lid back on and run for another mile or two before getting thirsty again and repeating the whole laborious process. The water itself rapidly became a slushy, ridden with ice chunks.
Early on, I fell into line with Brandi - an Idaho local, fellow 100-virgin, and also the race director Jeremy's wife. We more or less ran the first twenty miles together, cruising along the gently rolling terrain at a 10 or 11 minute mile pace, chatting it up, chasing the sunrise, having a great time.
The course was rugged and beautiful from the very beginning. The fall colors were stunning. My body felt fantastic. My mind was high already.
The course began the first of many brutal climbs shortly after mile 20. I fell away from Brandi here, and had my first "Oh $%&#, what was I thinking trying to run this thing?!" moment. My lungs seared at the thin air on the first big climb. The first 20 miles had felt so effortless, I'd forgotten that the zen-like runners' high was more an anomaly than a standard and that, in fact, most of this would actually hurt quite a lot. Humbled already.
I planned my blog entry: the subject line would be IM(not)TUF(enough).
Around the 50K mark, we runners got briefly dumped out on a road. Against my mind's willing, I found myself walking - even on an easy downhill. I counted down from 5, then picked up my feet and began running again. Right then, Steve and Erin came barreling around the corner in their crew vehicle, honking their horn like crazy, and nearly giving me a heart attack. They were on their way down to meet me at the next aid station; I was running about an hour ahead of my very loose time projections, but already feeling tired and a little discouraged. It was definitely a boost to see them both.
Such a boost, I guess, that I forgot about paying attention to course markings, and missed a giant orange sign that would have told me to hop the guardrail and veer right into the woods. I could see the aid station on Payette Lake that I knew I was supposed to be headed toward, but as I continued down the road I was on, I was moving beyond it.
Then, the orange ribbons guided me left into the woods - the opposite direction from the aid station. In my already slightly dazed state, I was only vaguely aware of the fact that something seemed off. I ran a half mile or so up the trail before finding a welcome outhouse at a trailhead that I dashed into. When I emerged, Steve and Erin had pulled up in their crew vehicle, and were frantically waving me down; "You missed a turn!" they told me.
So I turned back around and retraced my steps. Embarrassingly, the race director Ben happened to be driving by and saw me running the wrong way on the road. He tried to get me to turn around, but I explained that I hadn't been down to the aid station yet, because I'd missed a turn, so I still needed to get down there before running onward. He was dumbfounded, "Didn't you see all the orange flags and the the giant orange sign?"
When I did get down to the aid station, the other RD Jeremy pulled me aside. "Ben told me what happened. Didn't you see all the orange flags and the giant orange sign?" he asked me. :P Silly, already-delirious, 100-newbie me. User error! And only 32 miles in, oi vey. It was going to be a long race. I was so shaken up by my wrong turn and the RDs' mention of potential disqualification (obviously, they didn't disqualify me, because I'd made the effort to retrace my steps and probably even ran a bonus mile or two - but their use of the word at all spooked me) that I blew out of that aid station, completely forgetting to drink or eat or restock my pack. Steve and Erin hadn't been able to find a road to drive down to the aid station to meet me, so they weren't there either. I dashed out in a hurry, and only realized a mile or two later that I had about 30 oz. of water and 150 calories in my pack, to last me the next 12 miles (roughly 3 hours).
The day had heated up. The air was thin and dry, my throat already full of dust. I felt parched, hungry, low on energy. The terrain was rugged. I was stressed about my wrong turn, then forgetting to drink or eat at the aid station. My mind got stuck on a self-defeating broken record. I couldn't stop beating myself up for my mental fuzziness, for careless errors that might well cost me the opportunity to finish. I was pretty sure, at this point, that I'd be DNF'ing - perhaps later rather than sooner, but as my water and food ran out and I started to feel dizzy, a DNF already seemed inevitable.
In Eat & Run, Scott Jurek wrote: "The ultra distance leaves you alone with your thoughts to an excruciating extent. Whatever song you have in your head had better be a good one. Whatever story you are telling yourself had better be a story about going on. There is no room for negativity. The reason most people quit has nothing to do with their body."
Although I had mostly been running by myself for the past ten miles, a couple runners had passed me during that long stretch, and taken the time to chat a bit before moving onward. Any kind of social contact offered a terrific mental boost. When the next aid station at Foolhen Meadows finally showed up - happily, earlier than expected! - I was finally able to change the soundtrack in my head to a positive one. I gulped down water and HEED, ate liberally, jammed a thousand calories inside my pack, and instantly felt better.
Then, just a couple miles more, and I arrived at the spot where pacers could jump in for the first time. Steve and Erin were both there, smiling brightly, positive and encouraging as ever, geared up, and ready to run. The greatness of the mental boost I got from Steve joining me cannot be overstated. I'll go ahead and say it now: there is absolutely no way I could have finished this race without his company, conversation, camaraderie, and coaching. I have renewed appreciation for the role of a pacer. In all four of my pacing experiences this summer, I'm not sure I ever served as a genuine savior/race-salvager to my runners, at least not on the level that Steve did for me in this race. Indebted is an understatement.
The sun went down shortly after we left the mile 44 mark. We kept each other as lively as we could through the night. I'd said beforehand that I'd like to keep conversation going as much as possible, to help the miles go by. We'd also agreed beforehand that, short of a true medical emergency, both of us would keep running - no matter how much it hurt, no matter how appealing stopping might seem. Steve had never run longer than a marathon - but being the avid hiker and backpacker he is, and knowing that I'd be moving slowly anyway, I was confident he'd do just fine.
At some point, he asked innocently enough, "So, um, is this much walking pretty typical in an ultra?" And there I'd been, thinking proudly that I was running quite a bit more than I'd expected to by mile 50! I laughed. Steve added that if he'd known trail running was really just glorified hiking, he'd have hopped on board a long time ago.
From mile 50 on for quite a few hours, I felt fantastic. Definitely caught my second runners' high. Saw a shooting star, made a wish. At mile 58, there was a fire roaring and the AS served chicken fingers and the most delicious instant mashed potatoes I'd ever tasted. Life was good.
Then came the inevitable crash. The stretch between Blackwell Lake (mile 68) and North Crestline was supposed to be 10 miles; however, the Garmins of several other runners indicated it was actually 14. Mentally (and physically), I was ready for the aid station about two hours before it actually turned up. Steve and I were rocking a steady run/walk over the mountains - yet this section wound up taking us 5.5 hours.
This was, by far, the most challenging part of the entire race. Sleep deprivation set in. My toes had begun blistering horribly. My legs, miraculously, still felt strong - but that was pretty much irrelevant, given the abrupt, excruciating pain of every step on my blistering feet. I was wincing - and eventually moaning - in pain, with every single footfall. Steve put up with my grumpy bitterness like a champ - even as he crossed into his own uncharted waters of ultrarunning. Let me tell you: if you can be so fortunate as to land yourself a rowing coach/coxswain for a pacer at your next hundred, you will not regret it. He knew all the right things to say to keep me putting one foot in front of the other.
Mentally, it was extraordinarily hard to feel as though we were chasing down an aid station that would never come. I started sobbing pretty uncontrollably, while running, around mile 75. The finish seemed so impossibly far away. My feet hurt worse than they'd ever hurt before. It was brutally cold out. Runners had already dropped due to nausea, altitude sickness, hypothermia, hypnoatremia, sheer exhaustion.
Worst of all, I was disappointed in myself for so thoroughly falling apart. My biggest question, going into this experience, was whether the distance would break me. I'd seen it break so many. Beforehand, I felt convinced I'd be stronger than that, that I wouldn't be broken. I told Steve, "I want to be grinning and doing cartwheels at mile 80, not grumpy and crying and talking about quitting." But there were no cartwheels.
Let's put it this way: even if Glenn had been there, I wouldn't have been able to muster a jump. I simply felt I had nothing left to give. And I still had nearly 25 miles to go. (The IMTUF course is, in fact, long by several miles.)
The aid station at North Crestline, when it did come, was a godsend. There was a cozy tent. There was real food. A kind man wrapped up all my raw, bleeding, torn up toes in Duct tape. Unfortunately, I'd slowed down so much overnight that I had gone from being even at mile 70 with the eventual first-place woman to being right up against the cutoffs. (Granted, first place woman Emily Berriochoa eventually finished in 34:23, just about an hour and a half ahead of the cutoff...just to give you some perspective on how tough this race was.) I still very much doubted my ability to finish - which felt heartbreaking.
But we started off again, awake, refreshed, and now with some time barriers to keep us moving. The sun was up; it was a new day. My feet felt (slightly) better, all taped up. My mantra was from Slaughterhouse Five: "Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt." On cruise control, we blazed into the aid station at mile 87 with smiles, a half hour to spare to the cutoff there, and jetted right back out to tackle the last big climb of the race, up to Cloochman Saddle at 92.6. The climb was a challenge, and certainly got my muscles screaming - but it was gorgeous.
The ladies working the aid station at Cloochman were awesome. We sat down to enjoy some watermelon and no-bake cookies, and wait for Deby - who had been a half hour to an hour behind me for most of the race - to catch up to us. Unsurprisingly, she was in solid spirits. The three of us took off for the final home stretch together.
Unfortunately, the altitude, sleep deprivation, mild dehydration, along with the whole running 50+ miles thing on pretty much no training whatsoever, caught up to Steve at this point. As we ran along the very sunny, very exposed, and very high-altitude (at least to us Seattle flatlanders) ridge, he started to feel extremely dizzy. I thought it very sneaky of him to fall apart right then, because it yanked my own mind out of the pity party it had been in - and I shifted all my focus to making sure he was okay. We did slow down; I waved Deby on ahead while I sat with Steve, got some water in him, and gradually got us moving again. It was wildly distracting from my own misery at that point! Well played, coach - a good trick for the pacer book, to be sure.
When we finally dropped off the ridge again into the woods for the final final home stretch, we were both pretty wrecked. Nothing was beautiful, and everything hurt. That last stretch of downhill trail, which ordinarily I would have loved bombing down, felt like a death march to Hades. I was looking at my watch, knowing I was rapidly approaching the 36-hour cutoff. As we tumbled painfully down the never-ending trail, I felt my heart sinking.
I knew that we were supposed to pop off the trail at some point onto a forest service road for the final 1.5 miles. When I finally reached the road, I let out a whoop, and found power in my legs I didn't even know I had. It was a total Hollywood moment. I knew Steve had nothing left to give at that point; I could hear him cheering and whooping behind me, yelling at me to go for it and beat the cutoff.
Something primitive was unleashed in me; I roared. I sprinted down that road. I was beyond all pain, all exhaustion. For anyone who saw Bob Satko run out the final fifty yards of his 200-miler at Pigtails earlier this year, I felt exactly like that moment. I was ecstatic as I went flying down that road. I could hear the echoes of Steve's cheers fading behind me as I flew.
The non-Hollywood part is that I missed the cutoff by three minutes. But let's be real; did I care? Hell no. I ran 100 miles! :) Ben and Jeremy were there to cheer me across the finish line, award me my finishers' belt, and invite me back to, as they suggested, "run a 32-hour race next year".
I'll be back for sure. This race was unbelievable. Ben and Jeremy were some of the best race directors I've ever seen - so involved, so present, so supportive, so awesome. They had everything dialed. The course was ridiculously well marked. The aid stations were fabulous, the real food delicious, the volunteers amazing. Idahoans are some of the friendliest folk I've ever met. The hot springs at Burgdorf were the perfect way to soak exhausted muscles the following morning.
Group shot of the inaugural IMTUF's runners, crews, volunteers, and RD's:
Thank you to everyone in this picture for making my first 100 experience as incredible as it was! Once again, I'm overwhelmed with gratitude for the people who've brought so much richness to my life. I thank you all for believing in me. I couldn't have done this without you. Love, love, love.