The Burn Card
Every buckle has a story.
Sometimes you execute your training and watch in disbelief as you fly straight to the bullseye (I like those ones; that is what currently motivates me). Some buckles tell the stories of families crewing for their person, of road trips and engagements, of fighting illness or divorce or whatever painful thing in your ribs that you need to leave on the trail.
Running and ultra is rarely about running an ultra. Bryce Canyon 100 was about patience.
We picked up breakfast burritos and headed to Utah. I felt prepared, mentally and emotionally available, healthy, hungry. This was the last three of our spring 'triple crown' (finishing Antelope 100, Zion 100, Bryce 100 in March, April, and May) and I was sharp to race and eager to wrap this up.
Part of the game of running hundreds is that there is always one card face down on the table. No matter how smart or tough or trained you are, sometimes the house wins.
Understanding this will keep your ego leashed appropriately and force your mind to adapt; you never get so rutted in thinking you know what will happen that you are unable to stay light on your feet when other things inevitably happen.
Perhaps my greatest life lesson to date: whatever you think will happen will not happen.
I expected to be a momma by now. I'm happily divorced.
I bought a house in MN. Now I live in NM.
I thought I'd 'figure it out' and magically feel normal sometime (there are a lot of fantasy words in that sentence). I didn't. I'm not. I am not bushwhacking that imaginary path anymore. I used to know - know in my bones - that I'd carry my hurt for all of my days alone. That was simply the marking on my soul that couldn't be rubbed off. Now I'm a healthy drunk, years into recovery, with no secrets. I'm free.
I know that you have these things too: relationships you never expected, loss and grief (real grief; the kind that you cannot breathe through), places you didn't plan to sign mortgages, jobs won and lost, accidents and arguments and money and calories and all of these wild influences and desires that affect your choices. Some people never wake up enough to realize all of the little decisions that led them to their daily routine. "One day at a time" has nothing to do with booze.
Lesson two: There is always one unassuming card facedown in front of you. The burn card. Life is made up of more than choices.
Lesson three: So is the long run.
Bryce starts out lovely. Having run all three spring Vacation Races 100s, I can confidently say that it feels a lot like Mike Versteeg got out a map, circled all the best vistas, and then found trails and roads to link them together in a redundant way to reuse aid stations. There are benefits and also downsides to this.
I'll conclude it this way: you do not need to run more than 50 miles on any of these courses to see the best parts. For 30 stunning miles, Dustin and I had some of the happiest racing together yet (Dustin was another facedown card for me, and perhaps one of the greatest times I won big). I've never looked at my watch less during the start of a race or settled in more easily. This was the race, out of all three, that I wanted most.
I get a huge kick out of the colors of Utah and feel energized by the single track. I did airplane arms on the downhills in the wind. By 20 miles in I had climbed into second place and I planned to stay there for a very long time (quick shout out to the first place Brazilian machine). The first gel I tried to eat came back up, but I thought nothing of it. I don't really like the peanut butter ones anyway.
In the course director's own words at the starting line, "All of these races are harder than they look on paper," and that is true. Things aren't always what they seem. For example, Bryce Canyon isn't even a canyon (it has no central stream). Huge portions of the course is not photogenic or inviting. There are unmaintained connecting trails and fire roads with BS grades that stretch on for miles. We joked that it'd be funny to take photos of all the parts that don't show up on IG. I'll spare you, here's the good parts:
By mile 35 I had runner's gut, which is when your stomach becomes acidic and volatile. This happened very early, but it is something I'm sensitive to in 100s and have been workshopping for a long time. Spoiler: I think I might finally have a solution thanks to Barkley.
For the next 40 miles, I was more sick than I've ever been in an ultra. Ever. These things usually hit like a hurricane: storm, eye, storm, and ten miles later it is over. This nausea pummeled me for twelve hours. We would run and I would stop to lurch over and vomit black sour stuff. We started again, and I'd hold my belly and try not to complain. It was misery. Bone-rattling, tear jerking, shivery misery. My back and abs started to ache from heaving.
My facedown card, which I'd so hoped was going to be the ace, blew it. I held second place until mile 79 and then I could not care less. I was falling apart. We were walking so much to fight the nausea and I was freezing in the wind (admittedly I was dressed to run, not to hike). We spent so much stupid time not running that Dustin started to get walking blisters, which are possibly the worst blister you can ever get if you're unlucky enough to experience this. They are deep below the callus and not something we expect outside of 200s.
My feet were relatively fine, but Dustin takes good care of me anyway.
Mile 83. It was 4am. Throwing up during a race is an energy double dip: you not only feel like dog shit, but you have also failed to put calories or water into your very beaten body. It was aggressively cold and windy, and the next section wound ten miles around the top of the pink Paunsaugunt Plateau (Paunsaugunt is pronounced "PAWN-suh-gant" and is Paiute for "home of the beavers"). Note: we saw zero beavers on those massive pink cliffs. We did see one of the best sunsets in my lifetime, though.
Dustin suggested we get smart and sleep until dawn. I said no way and started to leave. Within ten steps I did an about face back to the tent.
Your job during an ultra is to use every tool available to you in the tool box. Sleep is not one I like using. I don't like feeling groggy and slow, I don't like running in the heat of the next day, I don't like getting stiff, I don't feel like I'm running my best when I am taking rest breaks, etc. But if you fail or quit before your have exhausted your resources, that's on you.
I was so sick of being sick and I felt the anxiety growing of wanting it to be over. I had not thought of quitting, but the answer to why are we out here was dangerously blurring out of focus.
Is the glory only in the strong finish? Is there glory in not quitting? What does it mean to win when you are losing?
Elite runners drop all the time. Often when they can't win, they quit (or are advised to quit). They never come to terms with a painful and patient finish. I think that's contrary to the spirit of our sport (they have their bottom-line reasons, sure, but it is against the purpose of the ultra to quit when it doesn't go your way).
Sometimes you bust, but there is still a way to beat the house.
We kicked off our shoes and crawled into the only sleeping bag together. I don't know if you've ever tried to fit a giant man and a small woman with leg cramps into one normal-sized sleeping bag, but it's a lot like drive thru french fries. Arms sticking out everywhere, body parts mangled and folded, too hot in the bottom and too cold at the top. We both had the ultra cough and a pound of orange dirt in our lungs, so we hacked in each other's ears and fitfully rested until sunrise.
At first light, as we were pulling on our shoes to leave, we realized another sleeping bag was stuffed below the cot.
We made the choice to combat luck with work. Perhaps that is lesson four -- the secret antidote. It was not pretty or fast or impressive. We did what any self-respecting ultra runners would do: shoved pancakes down our throats, held hands on the ridge to watch the sun hit the pink Paunsaugunt cliffs, lubed our asses, and marched onward with heads high to do the thing we said we’d do.
Sometimes your best is pathetic by some standards, and that’s ok. The effort behind a buckle is different every time. I'm not proud of our data, but data isn't everything. I am proud of our determination. I'm proud of our smiles and our willingness to suffer. In fact I'm full of pride. When you find yourself back in the reality of the suck of mile 83, remember this.
The stories of extreme will, of people that came through. the stories of extreme circumstances that they were not supposed to make it through - that’s what we are all capable of.
Just for fun, the wind never died down and a huge dust storm blasted us in the face for the last four miles. The finish line was covered in stinging silt and our buckle boxes were full of sand.
We went straight to the gong, held the mallet together, and struck it twice.
There is the athletic sport of the ultra and that is a fun game: who can get to the end the fastest. There is also the mental and emotional sport of the ultra, and sometimes that's the meandering canyon the race chooses to lead you through.
Are you willing to run that race, too?
Running with integrity has something to do with your will and your effort. It is your willingness to submit to the experience (the pain, the suffering, the hunger, the exhaustion, the heaviness, the pace) and the continued effort to sweat and move the best you can, one step at a time.
Lesson five: every truly good thing is a process.
That buckle on your shelf doesn't say you ran in 22 or 32 hours. If you run enough, your expectations will not always be realized. That's ok. We don't only run to meet our expectations, and the more you race the more your expectations evolve and mature.
A buckle signifies a badass day that you showed up and finished your committment.
P.S. The drive home.