It's Not How Fast You Run
It's who slows down the least.
I wanted to think that I could run 100 miles under 24 hours (the coveted "sub-24" in the ultrarunning world), but I didn't really know. I'd never done it. I run mountain races, and those take time.
Dustin and I registered for three 100s in three months: Antelope Canyon, Bryce, and Zion. Antelope has the least climbing, so I set my mark and chopped off my hair. It's annoying to run with a heavy long ponytail.
The course is run in northern Arizona, and it's a 40 mile tour of canyons and desert with a soul-sucking finish: six 10-mile loops on an intermediate, technical single track mountain bike trail around the city. It gains about 7,500' total, most of which are gradual inclines and rolling hills; slickrock climbs and trails leading up the rim. For a 'flat' course, it's not very flat.
I packed extremely light and only threw down two drop bags, both of which were placed on the final ten mile loop. I'd have my stuff every five miles if needed, which prevented me from having to carry extra clothing and things.
The morning air was chilly and we underdressed. If you've ever noticed, the fastest guys always wear the least amount of clothing. See graph below.
We started too far back, but that's ok. Dustin and I agreed ahead of time to run our own races, so we split after the first crowded mile. It was sad to say goodbye and watch him scramble up ahead, but I also wanted to run on my own. No crew, no pacers.
There are only two things I hate running in: wind and sand. This race is exposed constantly, so you are never without at least a continuous dry breeze. Or a gusty cold rim. I preemptively and obsessively chapsticked my mouth and nostrils (never ask to borrow my running vest Sun Bum, trust me), but sitting here now I still have leathery lips and the edges of my nose are peeling. That's the invariable result of fifteen hours of dripping snot. The wind was not truly terrible, but it was always quietly there. Always wearing you down, well, like carving a canyon.
The first forty miles are sand. Not sandy roads, not sandy trail. Thick orange sand. Sometimes very deep, squishy orange sand. The 100 mile starts a mere 15 minutes behind the 50 miler and some amount of time after the 55k, but not that much because I had to fight my way through all three races to get to the front. I passed hundreds of people, and can I point something out? People are not universally aware enough about what a gaiter is and when you should wear them. PSA: wear them in sand.
It's quiet when you race hard. It's not the chatty, bouncy social event with new friends and the constant, "So is this your first hundred? What races have you done?" It's smash-and-grab Swedish fish at the aid station and Crab Raving. It's hypervigilance: watching your pace, watching the trail markers, watching your water, your calories, your pee, your everything. It's doing all of the things you know you need to do on your schedule. There's a little dancing and laughing aloud to no one.
Admittedly, I mostly fueled with my own trained nutrition. Those fish though. #myweakness
The sand would have bothered me more because it really did suck a lot, but it was the same suck for everyone. It's not personal. I am curious how much faster I could go on a course without sand, but that's a question for fresher legs. I also learned an obvious thing. My two least favorite things added together make an even worse thing: dust. I slowly developed a very throaty wet cough that lasted until yesterday.
Coming into the iconic Horseshoe Bend area, you hit a few miles of slickrock. I usually thrive on that crap, but this was awful. Beautiful, very Utah-ish, but aggressive. This rock was rippled in all directions, most of which was actually pointed at you. It's incredibly awkward to run over rock angled up and toward you. The course was marked with random flagging over rock; it was like hide and seek with pink ribbons on bushes and cairns. It'd be fun to see everyone's Strava maps through this part. I got a little lost at one point and climbed up a hill to find the other runners below me, and I know I saved at least two runners from going the wrong way. I still cannot complain too much, though, because there was no sand.
I personally didn't take time to stop and take in the panorama, but here's some of Dustin's fine work:
I hit my first little low from mile 26 to 27. It was a standard wall; my legs felt heavy and I had the ol' thought pop into my head that probably no one needs to run further than this. It gave me a good laugh. The familiar tightness high in the hamstrings. The first little dip in speed. By mile 28, I was back on pace. Walls can be climbed.
I consistently hit the numbers hard and I knew it. I hit 50 miles at 9:42. I hit 100k at 12:08. This is not how you calculate your pace for 100 miler, but for reference, that's on pace for a sub-20 hour finish. However, I planned to bank some cushion for the night. It would drop into the high twenties or low thirties, might be windy, and I also wanted to see what I was capable of. Just to hit a sub-24 pace would make my day, but who knows if I could do more? I felt great. I was running smart. I didn't slow down.
When you complete the Tour de Sand, you hit the Page Rimview Trail: a ten mile loop with about 500' of gain that's mostly rock, some packed gravel, some road crossings, and many little rollers. You run this loop washing machine style six times, which means you get to see everyone still out there and keep an eye on the order of things.
The first loop is passing the final 50 milers death marching to the finish and the 55k milers who are zombie marching (which is worse than death marching). You feel like a jerk because you are flying past with your 11-minute miles, stepping around them and jumping in front as they are courageously, painfully pressing onward (they run the loop only once). However, when you turn around to start your second loop, and you are the only one running it the opposite way, everything changes.
"It's you! You're that girl that crushed us on that climb!" a friendly face yelled. "Yeah girl! We love seeing women kick ass!" another cheered. I had one fan club of two girls that yelled their head off every time they saw me (for the rest of the night). Girl, YES, get it! You've got this. Keep this up. Go, tie dye girl! You're absolutely killing it. And more. It actually brought a little ping to my eyeball.
I was leading the females, and runner after dogged runner urged me forward. I realized, as the frontrunners ahead of me started coming at me at the end of the loop, that I was only three or four miles behind Dustin and in the top ten for sure. Surprise flooded his face when he saw me. We hugged. That boosted me up, but it also brought a wash of disappointment. It's hard to be so close, and somehow so far, from support. He was in second place and wasn't even sweaty.
Loop 2 - Fewer folks. Learned that the loop is pretty fun one direction, and for some reason it's really lousy the other. I have no idea why, but Dustin came to the same conclusion independently. I dropped my pack and ran with a handheld. I tried to catch Dustin, but I couldn't. Sometimes the hardest part of an ultra is finding comfort or seeing a loving person on the trail. Vulnerability peeks out for a moment. I'm a lot more steely when it's just me and the damn dust. I started wishing we could run together, but I didn't want to ruin his race.
Loop 3 - Getting cold, totally dark, a bit lonely. I hit my second small low at miles 68 and 69. It was another small stretch of heaviness, tiredness, tightness. A weird knee twinge. The only runners on the course were other hundreds, and they were wearing thin. It was obvious that people were dropping. The atmosphere slowed and a wave of fatigue settled around us. I kept it steady. I kept running. I did not participate in the cold shuffle night hiking. Not yet. I gave up trying to catch Dustin, though. Not enough energy. I left an aid station the wrong direction twice in a row and had to circle back.
In the meantime, Dustin did the most selfless thing. He waited for me at the next aid station. For a guy running 10 minute miles, he had a 45 minute mile (not to mention all the walking, expecting that I'd catch up) sitting and getting cold, staring into the night hoping the next bobbing headlamp was mine. I still can't believe it. He didn't care about winning, or about second place. The relief and strength I felt when I saw him in the tent was like how hot soup feels hitting your stomach.
He accidentally arrived at the perfect time in my race. We left together, and less than a tenth of a mile later I was violently vomiting in the road. All of my vertebrate shook and black bile splashed on my pink shoes. We walked a few steps, and it started again. The heaving brought me to my knees. Dustin rubbed my back and took a huge bite of his rolled-up pancake.
"Wanna go back to the aid station?" he asked gently. "No," I said as I wiped off my face. "No point. I'll feel just as bad there."
"I know," he said softly. He already knew the right answer, but he let me decide for myself.
We pressed on. There is a quote from Dr. King that Dean Karnazes plagiarized, "if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward." It's easier advice to agree with than to follow. We kept shuffling and it was ugly, but I was still averaging 14 or 15-minute miles with the ultra shuffle. This is dangerous because once your legs get comfortable going more slowly, you don't speed up again. This is why people hike 50 miles out of 100.
Most problems in an ultra only last a few miles; hardly any of them last more than ten. I wanted to die from nausea from miles 81-90. I drank nothing, I kept no food down. My vigilance gave way to not caring at all - because I felt so terrible.
We got to aid at mile 90 and sat and drank broth (the elixir of the ultramarathon). We switched back to vests, grabbed jackets, spent an extra minute getting warm and ready - doing all of the time-wasting things I hadn't done at any other point during the day. Aid stations are sneaky, like sand. Don't linger (I was lingering). The only people were two sleepy volunteers and a loud girl in a puffy.
Now the good part.
"Yeah, she's coming up soon, second place." she said (or something like that).
"Oh? Is she on her last loop?" the volunteer asked.
"Yep! I'll pick up my girl, we'll do the last ten, and head on down," she said brightly.
Well excuse me, but fuck that.
I did not just lead the race for 40 miles and throw up an organ to give up at the end.
"Dustin, we have to go right now," I stood up instantly. I thanked the folks there and started to walk. BAM. There she was. And she was running. We passed each other in the aid station. I rallied and ran out of there trying to look as strong as I could.
If I could convey to you the stress of the next ten miles, I wouldn't. It's too painful. She was somewhere between a minute and ten minutes (at most?) behind me. 12.8 miles to the finish. She needed to only run one minute per mile faster than me to win, maybe less. For all I knew her pacer was pumping her full of Red Bull and Motrin that moment.
Thankfully my stomach came around, but I could barely eat or drink. I tried to sip water (this is important later) and I took tiny bites of a Scratch rice krispie bar unsuccessfully. I just had to run. I coughed, we ran, we hardly spoke (no energy), we even ran up the stupid hills that seemed giant now, we took turns leading. I kept looking behind us; two bobbing headlamps were not far. When I felt good, I tried to set the pace. When I was crumbling, I asked Dustin to go first.
My mind was so close to breaking. So. Close. I wanted to stop caring and start hiking. Give up just to end the stress.
I also wanted to dominate the course. I had sunk 20 beautiful hours into this. Why would I throw it away? Did I seriously want to have to do this again? It was within reach but heartbreakingly far away. I focused on sub-24. No matter what. If that girl could run a better race than me, I resolved, then good on her. That part is simple. But I decided to run the best race I could, and if it broke me then I'll accept that too. That is the hard part.
The stupid moon was so bright, I kept looking back at it, thinking they had caught us. Feeling the light right behind me. They didn't often gain, but they never seemed to drop back. I pushed harder. I ran faster. I threw the rest of my rice thing off a cliff. I passed the second-to-last aid station and blew right through it. Five miles the final aid. Two miles to the finish after that.
I summoned all of the grit I had available. We put down incredible miles for mile 95 legs. We said goodbye (and see you never) to all of the things on the loop: the golf course, the benches where Vaseline happened (your imagination can fill in the rest on that one), the pee spots, the big cairn and the littler cairn, the gate, the dam. Goodbye, fuck you, goodbye.
We saw the big light of the final aid up ahead; one last climb. We also saw the two lights, moving steadily, not far behind. I stopped for one second so the volunteer to mark my bib and continued straight through, not stopping to get or do a single thing. Thanks, but I gotta run.
The rest of the course is deep sand, and this time it was very personal. "Mother fuck, fucking fuck! Ow!" I screamed into the night. At mile 99, my feet lit up. The best defense against blisters is hydration, which I had failed for the last twenty miles. My toes exploded all at once in a big, mushy set of fireworks. I went from zero foot problems to all of the foot problems. If you have never had blisters explode in your shoes, when you do, you will find yourself with just as colorful language. It. Hurts.
"Did they leave the aid station yet?" I anxiously asked Dustin while I limped on and kept trying to run (with horrible, lopsided form and the occasional cry out). He was behind me.
"I don't see them coming down the hill yet," he said, "Run like a lion to the finish. Don't worry what's behind you. It's probably not even them."
Would you you take that chance? What if she passed me in the final mile? Is this worth it. Stupid, stupid feet! I knew somewhere that he was right, but I kept feeling the moonlight rushing me. My feet burned so bad. My throat was too dry to talk. My heart was beating in my face. I shut everything off, and we moved. I kept thinking how grateful I was to have Dustin beside me.
One mile ticked by.
Two miles ticked by.
We saw the stadium lights. They didn't seem to get closer. We kept running every step we could. The lights never followed.
I heard the announcer. We saw the finish. A lump jumped into my throat. My eyes filled up and spilled over. I planned to finish alone, but it was more meaningful to me to share it.
All of the stress evaporated in a snap. We crossed the mat, banged the gong, took the photos, picked out the buckle. The announcer came over and told me I beat the female course record (this race is ten years old) by an hour and forty minutes. I wish I could've seen my face. I had no idea. We did it. I didn't break; I did the breaking. I layed back on a cot, covered in a soft blanket, and then I immediately ran out of the tent to puke behind it.
Never underestimate the distance. Never underestimate the effort. 100 miles is bone-rattling. Our official time was 22:31, and we finished 5th and 6th place overall.
P.S. The person behind me was a Quebecker named Maxime. The next female came in at 24:29.
P.P.S. Some of my awards: