They always say you can’t control the weather, but you can control your attitude. Challenging as it was at times, the weather could have been much worse. Mother Nature, however, still had some fun plans for me, and decided to inform me of said plans at about 4 pm the evening before the race. I was resolute – after all, I’ve been doing this thing for some 25 years now – but 100’s ain’t no marathon, so color this a “wrench.”
But first, let’s back up three weeks. My training logs started to lag because I was scared to write down the truth. Training was going awry due to an illness and a fall, and I was bummed. I caught DB’s cold-that-wasn’t-a-cold (because real men don’t get colds, they just get two week “tickles in their throat”), and had to reduce my 90 mile week to 80. But that wasn’t nearly as bad as what happened to the 100 mile week. I was due to run my “capstone” training run, a 40 miler, three weeks out from race day. We were both registered for the Green Jewel 50K, with plans to add on miles before and after to hit the 40 mile mark. Unfortunately, as we were walking to the car that morning, I slipped on a patch of dark ice in our driveway and took a hard fall, landing on my tailbone and jerking my left leg unnaturally out of its socket. I felt a bad pull in my left inner thigh/groin area, and knew the outlook was grim. We drove about 30 miles before I asked DB to pull over so I could test my leg; I ran for two minutes before telling him we were headed home. I was running-devastated.
My leg recovered quickly from the initial strain with a full day of rest. Quickly enough, in fact, that we decided to attempt the run at home on Sunday. DB, however, was in a foul running mood and a real energy drain; adding to that was the fact that while my leg was much improved, I still wasn’t quite sure I had any business running 40 miles on it. We called it at 27 miles, and I immediately started regretting it, feeling the psychological void of not having a 40 miler in prior to a 100 miler.
The best I could do was pull together a 50K three days later on a Wednesday afternoon. That run went beautifully at a 9:24 average pace, and having completed that just three days after the 27-miler wasn’t the same as 40, but enough to rebuild my confidence. I still pulled together 97 miles for the week, which I took happily all things considered. We then moved forward to taper, but I wasn’t entirely convinced. It had been a full year since I’d run a 100, and I hadn’t gotten in my key run, both physically and psychologically. I wasn’t concerned about finishing, but I was equally unsure about going for a PR sub-19 hour finish, and just how early the pain would start.
And that’s the main truth about how I felt heading into Umstead: out of practice. Nervous. Like first-timer nervous, even having completed ten of these beasts. I was worried I had forgotten the pain, and worse, forgotten how to deal with, manage, and overcome the pain. I laughed at how I used to tell people that even though it hurts so bad, there’s a point at which you become numb. As in being consciously aware of the fact that you’re in tremendous pain, but no longer being able to physically feel the pain. I worried that I had forgotten what it was like to be nauseated for 25 to 30 miles, to be so hungry that your stomach was growling, yet completely unable to face the task of actually swallowing food. I was worried that in spite of my training times, in spite of my experience, in spite of my willingness to go to these places, I had somehow “lost it” during that year long break – that break that I still knew I had needed so badly. So was I excited? Maybe. More so, I was well-tapered and just so ready to RUN. And nervous. About the pain. And the puking. And it was also supposed to be really cold.
And it was at this fine juncture, as we loaded supplies into our room and began to pack drop bags, that Mother Nature decided to deliver her special surprise. Now let’s not kid ourselves; I know how to do math and I had been suspiciously crampy on our flight that morning. Being on a natural cycle, however, means it’s somewhere “between” 28 – 32 days, depending upon what the moon decides. And this time, Mother Nature and the moon decided to call it a few days short, just to make life more fun and interesting. My counting and monitoring had it starting Monday morning at earliest, but I had packed supplies in case of emergency. I just hadn’t planned to actually need them.
And now I was extremely nervous. While I never considered dropping, what scared me the most was the running on day one. While this may be a good time to run hormonally (see our period posts), it is not a good day for me physically. My cramps are extreme (the kind you get put on birth control pills for), and my flow can be, shall we say, healthy. So I started praying, literally, that it would at least be manageable, and making plans for timed stops along the way. I got out the super plus big guns and tons of wet wipes; I planned to visit the ladies room 5 – 10 minutes before the start and then every two laps (4.5 hours) thereafter. After that, there was nothing to do but quit whining and put on my big girl running shorts. Well, pants, because it was in the 30’s at the start.
Umstead is a loop course; eight loops of 12.5 miles. While it is often touted as an “easy” 100, the topography is certainly not flat. Umstead does not challenge with rocks or roots, but is primarily fire trail/crushed limestone, where the greatest worry is not falling or breaking toes, but digging countless stones and pebbles out of your shoes. The hills are not mountains, but they are real and they are plentiful, and they are run over and over again. And finally, there is a lot more downhill than people give this course credit for, and over 100 miles, that adds up. On the quads, on the knees, on the toes. A fast course for sure, with the best volunteer support I’ve ever experienced. “Easy,” however, is perhaps a misnomer.
Loop one passed rather quickly, as I ran it with DB and our friend Darrin. The three of us each had different strategies, but were around each other enough that we were essentially running together. Because of the morning chill, they had both opted not to carry water bottles on the early loops and use only the course support (one full aid station at 7 miles, and four water-only drops). I was getting frustrated with the extra stops, even though I was walking and running ahead. My nutrition was fine and I felt “fine,” but I didn’t feel great. I couldn’t find my rhythm and I felt off and kind of flat. I also knew it was early and that I needed to let it go. My first aid station took forever; so long that I was actually getting pissed about it. The weather was warming up so I had to get my pants and my heavier shirt off; then I couldn’t find what I needed in my drop bag; then my shoe was untied and then I still needed to get my water bottle filled because my drop bags were a little bit before the actual aid station. I actually freaked out in front of DB, like “this cannot happen again. It’s just taking way too long!” And then I was (finally!) back out on the course, desperately trying to change to my attitude.
Which went great until about 2.5 miles into the loop, when I got my first indication that even super plus wasn’t going to be enough. That’s right, ladies, I was less than three hours in and had already sprung a leak. I had no supplies with me (recall that “every two laps” plan?) and was now trying to run around this – situation – which was making itself more well-known with every step. Sprinting to an aid station during a 100 isn’t exactly great strategy, and I wasn’t sure if that would exacerbate the situation either. So I did the next best thing, the friend of high school girls everywhere, and jetted into the next porta-potty I saw so I could stuff my shorts with toilet paper. And then I got to run three more miles to the next aid station in shorts stuffed with toilet paper! Awesome!
At which point they got me fixed up, and I lamented another five minutes down the tube in a porta-potty cleaning up. The great news was that a wonderful volunteer had taken my aid station “order” before I went in, and had everything I needed waiting for me across the trail from the porta-potty when I came out. Jenn, you are and were amazing.
And I felt like a million less drippy bucks for about 15 minutes before the cramps started. The kind of cramps where your stomach is like a washcloth being twisted and wrung out, and they go all the way into your hips and the very tops of your legs. These are not the kind of cramps that exercise “helps,” but taking too much Tylenol and ibuprofen (or really any at all) is a pretty bad idea when you’re running, and I had been hoping not to take any until at least mile 75. So more unexpected choices – waste it now and hope I can get away without it later, or try to run with terrible stomach pain this early in the game? And so it was that the dark cloud returned and my mood darkened yet again. And I admit that I finished this second loop like an angry, petulant child. I wanted to curl up in bed and have my period, okay? And this is not even the kind of girl or runner that I am! But my stomach hurt, I was a bloody mess, and I simply could not conceive any decent plans for getting around this.
Then I remembered how I was already “all-in” for this Badwater thing, and how quitting a 100 at mile 25 because I had a bad period was not exactly the confidence boost I needed going into training.
I got back to the aid station. I allowed myself a single ibuprofen hoping that it would be enough to take the edge off. I quickly stripped my last shirt so I was down to tank and arm warmers. I grabbed my pre-packed Camelbak (I had planned to use the Camelbak for only the middle 50 miles since it was going to be a cooler day) and got out of dodge quickly, eating a muffin and potato chips as I went.
And within twenty minutes, I was on top of the world. In ultras, this is what you have to remember; that it can happen that quickly. The right formula can literally take you from dropping to flying in twenty minutes, or as Gabriel Flores once said: “I can be dying and then I can be flying.”
The only downside to this loop was learning that DB was going to have to drop due to injury. It was the right decision, but I was still sad for him. And then, as he instructed, I was back in my race, and damn had I finally found that rhythm.
Loop four was a huge deal; not only would it get me halfway and therefore be “all downhill from here” (heh), but I was still concerned about the potential effects of missing that 40-miler as prescribed. The worry was for naught. I had packed my Camelbak for two loops, so my aid station stop consisted only of having the bladder topped off and was over in less than two minutes. I ate a Pop-Tart walking out and hit it feeling rather invincible. And I was loving every minute of it, because I knew it wouldn’t last, because it never does. But I had it now, and it felt incredible. I was still working overtime to hold my pace back and stay conservative, my energy level was high, and I was starting to see female carnage at the aid stations. Call me competitive. It’s okay. I was especially psyched to “make up” the time from tampon stop #3 on the back half of the loop.
Darris got me out rather quickly, and while I was now on the “back half” of the race, I was also struggling with something that some ultra-runners aren’t great at admitting: boredom. I was just getting bored. My legs felt “fine,” but my energy was low. My mood was low. I was just generally “flat” and really not into the whole idea again. I seriously reminded myself that I didn’t want to disappoint our kitten and our three-legged dog. And then I also reminded myself that I better learn how to deal with boredom before I start training for and running … ummm … Badwater.
So I had four chugs of Coke at the aid station and soldiered on, but not without misgivings. I was running quite well. I was still fully running all of the minor uphills, and running at least halfway up the major ones before stopping to walk at designated shadows, branches or plants. I was just bored (so bored!) and starting to feel the temperature drop.
As I headed into loop 6, I now had both DB and our friend Darrin crewing, as a lingering Achilles problem had ended his day at mile 50. We stripped my wet arm-warmers and got me into a long-sleeve shirt; the problem being that the first six miles of the loop were still warm, but the back half was whipping up a chilly headwind as the temperatures starting dropping back to the low 40’s. I figured I could push the sleeves up on the first half and pull them down on the second. They checked what I was eating; DB reminded me that I had told him loops 5 and 6 would be the toughest. I looked at them both, wrapped in warm blankets and sleeping bags, dry and fed and finished and at peace, and plaintively whimpered: “Guys, tell me I have to do this.”
Which they did, so I did. Darrin implored me to take my iPod, but I didn’t want to waste it on loop 6 and truthfully, I’m just too damn regimented. I remembered the list of food options, and asked for a cup of potato soup. “Is cream of potato okay?” they asked. Oh hell, yes! Seriously, you need to run Umstead.
So I had my soup as I walked the uphill out of camp, and it was soooo good but I must also tell you that garlic and Gatorade are an horrific combination to burp.
I spent most of lap 6 kind of pissed off. The initial three miles were great (minus the lemon-lime-garlic burping), but then it was time for tampon stop #4. Later in the race, these were becoming more of a drag. I mean, seriously. Imagine that you are that tired, and that worn, and your legs are descending into serious Gumby territory, and now you have to:
- Remove gloves and Camelbak and set on ground, because who wants those in a porta-potty, and where?
- Remember that you forgot to remove the tampon from the Camelbak (every time! I did this EVERY TIME), so you must bend down (not an easy feat) to retrieve Camelbak and tampon.
- Get into porta-potty, quickly assess for misplaced fecal matter on seat, then navigate the changing process in this cramped and dirty area.
- Quickly use wet wipe packed in baggy with tampon so you don’t feel like completely disgusting indigent.
- Exit porta-potty, repeat flawed “bending” process, re-affix gloves and Camelbak, and proceed with running a 100-mile race.
Now: I realize that some of you may be wondering why I was not combining this process with my regular crewing at the beginning of each lap, and there are actually 3 rather valid reasons:
- That was originally the plan, but the bathroom at the start/finish was off-course, and about a four minute round-trip from the aid station. Over the course of the race, that would have added up to 20 minutes.
- The bathroom at the start/finish was also indoors, which is dangerous. The comforts of indoors, warm running water, and seeing oneself in a mirror during such endeavors is not conducive to continuing on, and doing so quickly.
- The porta-potty I ended up using, which was initially the one that I used for the toilet-paper stuffing, was at the very bottom of a hill that was serious enough to be walked after the first or second loop. This was a very good thing, because power-hiking this four-minute hill after these stops allowed me gradually roll back into a running groove (and complete the Camelbak affixing and re-gloving) while making actual forward progress.
And to add a final note on the matter, I’m pretty darn sure I had my entire March period in a single day, and it was during the race.
I kept eating. I kept drinking. I was relieved that my stomach was holding up. But I was also back to being bored and pissed. The cramps were back. And damn it, I wanted a blanket too!!! I just couldn’t seem to stop thinking about how warm and dry and fed those guys looked wrapped up in those blankets, and how nice it would be to just. stop. running. Running with cramps. Had I known they were also sleeping on yoga mats in front of a fire during my loops, well …
But I was also running up those hills and holding onto that pace. I had coffee, music, ibuprofen and chocolate covered donuts coming, and I can’t lie: the more women I passed who were also on lap 6, the more it improved my outlook. I was continuing to run even splits, and it was continuing to (slowly) work like a charm.
It was at this point that I hit my lowest low of the day.
I returned to camp and knew I needed a major crew. I didn’t want to waste the time, but it was cold and getting colder. A few years ago at Rocky Raccoon, I made the mistake of not having enough clothes, and when I hit an unexpected wall I not only came close to hypothermia, but also had to literally bum clothes off another runner’s pacer’s back. Not again.
Aid stations are a gamble. Spending too much time in them can cost you dearly; at the same time, seven minutes spent taking care of yourself can often save you ten on the course.
I sat and barked orders, and guys were wonderful. It was jacket first, so I didn’t get cold sitting. Next it was coffee, so I could chug it during the rest of the proceedings. The iPod was affixed and fired up as I drank coffee and took the ibuprofen. The gels were stuffed into the jacket pockets so they were easily accessible, and the bag of chocolate covered donuts was set out to take on the go. I was done with the Camelbak and they had already had my handheld filled, so the proceedings actually didn’t take that long. I stood and began to make my way to the official aid station to head back out and started shaking violently. I knew I would warm up, but that I had to get moving fast. I shoved down two of the donuts and started shaking worse. The temperature had dropped back into the (high) 30’s and the back half was colder.
“PANTS!” I yelled at the guys as I came back down the hill.
They dug and found them, but they were wet. “Wet or cold?” I asked, handing them the pants.
“I think just cold,” DB said. But when quickly compared to my post-race clothes (and other wet items in my drop bag), it became evident that one of my water bottles had leaked on my pants and discarded shirts. Now I started freaking out. I was standing there, shivering violently, with 25 miles/five hours to go in 30 degree temperatures that were dropping, and my pants were wet.
So I did what any logical person in this situation would do. I put on my Old Navy flannel pajama pants and got the hell out of there, shivering and eating another donut as I went. And as I climbed up that hill out of the aid station, with techno/house music thumping in my ears, it was all I could do not to turn around, because I was so incredibly cold, and I wanted a blanket, and 75 miles was a damn good Badwater training run.
So I said out loud, and loudly to myself: “Don’t you DARE go back to that aid station. Don’t you DARE turn back around.”
And I did it because I knew there were crews and spectators there. And I knew they wouldn’t let me turn around. And this was so important, because the very last thing that I wanted in that moment, the very last thing that I wanted in this earthly world – was a stupid BLANKET.
And within twenty minutes, I was on top of the world. I was flying. I was singing (or at least mumbling) and contemplating on how music was the most beautiful thing in the world. Except for the sky. Cold nights mean clear skies, and they were unbelievably stunning. I didn’t know if I had that sub-19, but I knew nothing – not even walking – would stop me from getting in under 20 hours. And after a year off from 100’s, running even my second or third best time – a time in the 19’s – was going to be enough today.
But until then, I was still fighting. And I was running up those hills. And I was listening to house. In my JAMMIES! And they had hot chocolate at the aid station, which meant that even though I was having trouble swallowing I could dip chocolate chip cookies in it so they would be soft and mushy and easy to swallow and that was like – CALORIES!!! I felt so good I even thought about skipping the last tampon change! But most importantly, I knew that I absolutely, under no circumstances, could stop at that last aid station. I could not stop where the guys were. I had to get hot chocolate and cookies, dip them on the walk out, and GET OUT. Time was close. The sub-19 was unlikely unless this high continued in a serious way, and my stomach was losing its fortitude to boot, but a PR was still in sight. I could not risk getting chills, and I most definitely could not risk anymore bullsh*t whining about blankets.
I did as I had instructed myself. I proceeded on the airport spur and convinced myself I had gotten off-course because it was suddenly so incredibly long. I refused – REFUSED – to walk until I got to the bona fide hill at mile 3. I was crashing hard; my left kneecap or patella or whatever it is was making itself known in an injurious way; my stomach was growling in spite of being nauseated; and finally, I became aware in the distant, still functioning recesses of my mind that skipping that last tampon change would be a pretty big mistake.
I mustered like a tiny general (in pajamas, no less) outside the porta-potty. I decided to maneuver myself into a cross-legged sitting position, hoping to stretch the kneecap while I forced down a single gel and some crushed potato chips in my pocket. During this time, I would also get the tampon out of my pocket and prepare for this last indignity, now to be performed in a dark porta-potty. I made haste to do all of this quickly, but haste was no longer a real option. I got the first swallow of Clif SHOT back by pretending I was taking a pill; the second and third attempts were immediately regurgitated in a suspicious looking pile right outside the porta-potty. That experiment having failed, I proceeded with the business at hand, resolving to eat the potato chips on the uphill. Which I then tried to run in an attempt to make up time. Which was a mistake since my legs had little feeling left in them and were quite happy to protest. So walking for the hills it was.
Look. This last lap was a mess. I did everything I could to resolve it. I pushed. I pushed so hard. I cried fake tears when “Bang My Head” came on my iPod when I just couldn’t find mile 6 and honestly felt like my kitten was cheering me on from home when I heard the line “Horton hears a who” in “Groove is in the Heart.” And then my thoughts were no longer lucid again, and I just kept running the life out of myself along with the health out of my kneecap, because what did I have left to lose?
With less than four miles to go, at the bottom of a very steep hill, I came upon a woman and her pacer. We exchanged grunted ultra pleasantries, with her asking what loop I was on.
“Eight,” I replied. “You?”
And I knew what I had to, pain be damned, and after congratulating her on a great race, I started running up that hill.
I waited until I couldn’t see the headlights behind me anymore to scream in excrutiating pain.
I refused to look at my watch. If the PR was out of reach, I was afraid I would give in and stop running. The digging, the digging, the digging. I dug so deep, and I hurt so, so badly. I knew somewhere how much it hurt. I actually screamed a couple of times because it hurt so badly. But it was still there, and the truth remained: I was conscious of the pain, but I no longer felt it.
Bang my head against the wall
Though I feel light headed, now I know I will not fall
I will rise above it all
Found what I was searching for
Though I feel light headed, I should have failed, and nailed the floor
Instead I rose above it all
I allowed myself a glance at my watch at mile 12, with half a mile to go, and learned that I would PR. It would not be a huge PR, but it would be enough. God, would it be enough.
I ran up the steps. Yes, the finish is uphill, on steps. I ran up the steps. In my pajamas. About a 100 feet out, I completely wiped out. A face plant style fall. I got up. I ran. I finished. I PR’d by 11 minutes, enough to earn the Blackford family PR for the distance. And in the happiest of surprises, third place female as well.
Yeah. It was all worth it. Can someone get me a blanket, please?