Snickles and Rabid Cows: The Road to One Hundred Mile Victory at the Ute 100

43300771464_c810e1d99f_oNinety-seven runners fanned out across Ranger Station Road. It was 2:57 am, the stars were bright and the August air was crisp and dusty. Whether because of fear of waking up the neighbors, nervous bellies or both, everyone toeing the line at the inaugural Ute 100 was quiet. The only sound came from a few hushed conversations and the crunch of gravel road beneath running shoes. For a moment, as the clock struck 3, we all turned off our headlamps, looked at the sky and just soaked in the present.

As my light clicked off, I thought about why I was standing there, chilled and sleepy on that rural Utah road, in the middle of the night, about to embark on one of the crazier things I’ve ever done. The answer I came up with wasn’t what I expected. I was there because this was an adventure, but also because I could be. Because I have the luxury to choose to take on this challenge that lay ahead of me. No one in that small crowd was embarking on this test of human limits out of a fear for their lives or because they had to. We were there simply because we wanted to be and we could make that choice and that in and of itself made this endeavor worth it.

There’s something else about ultra running, too. It stirs the deepest feelings inside me and aside from falling in love with Evan, I don’t think there’s much else that compares. I’ve experienced some of my highest highs and lowest lows running (or nauseously hiking) on trails. And the lessons my body has taught me as it struggles over the edge of its comfort are lessons I’m not sure I could learn anywhere else. I won’t deny that of course, I love to compete as well, but even if I were the last person to cross the finish line, I would still indescribably love this crazy thing that I do.

As headlamps re-illuminated the road and the race director, Sean Blanton, waved us over the starting line, that deep well of emotion and nerves that had been simmering for days bubbled to the surface. A little embarrassed, but grateful for the cover of darkness, I held back tears and started running. This journey I had so nervously and excitedly anticipated had begun.

The first 14 miles of the course involves a little over four thousand feet of climbing. The entire race has a total of just under 20 thousand feet of climbing and the same of descent. If there’s anything I learned from my first hundred miler in 2015, it’s that fried quads will–for sure–ruin your day. Compounding that concern was the fact that when full of the race’s extensive list of mandatory gear, my Nathan running pack weighed close to ten pounds. I was nervous about how that added weight might impact the legs, too. So, I brought collapsible carbon-fiber trekking poles, which I’ve never run with before, to preserve my leg muscles as long as possible. I ended up carrying them the entire race and used them for every steep climb and descent, balancing them in my palm on the flatter sections.

After a three and half hour climb in the dark, following rainbow LEDs and reflective flagging up the mountain, I got to the Medicine Lakes Aid Station, mile 14.2. The sun was just coming up and the pinkish orange glow illuminated the scree fields above Medicine Lake. I arrived in time to see the number one lady, Joanna Ford, on her way out of the aid station. We high-fived. I wasn’t in too much of a hurry though, there were a lot of miles to go and I wasn’t about to repeat the mistake of going out too fast and suffering with a sour stomach for fifty miles. I just told myself to run my own race, the leaders would come back, or they wouldn’t and if not, good for them. So I refilled two soft flasks with Gatorade, ate a half of a Rice Krispy treat, drank a little cup of Coca Cola, thanked the awesome aid station volunteers and hit the trail again.

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Sunrise leaving Medicine Lakes Aid Station

I wasn’t half a mile from the aid station when my Nathan soft flask (that already leaks if you don’t get the lid on just so) blew a glued seam and the straw that’s usually a secured part of the lid came flying out, squirting me in the eyeball with orange Gatorade. I worried for a second about whether or not I had anything that would serve as a backup once I got to my crew in 4 to 5 hours—I did, thank goodness. But I’d already had another Nathan hydration mishap earlier that morning when my bladder hose—which I didn’t even know detached—came off somewhere in the huge meadow at the start where people were parking. Thankfully someone found it and brought it to the check-in table (whoever you are, BLESS YOU!). Seriously though, that’s three strikes, Nathan!

I suspect it was the early morning start combined with the more open and sun exposed meadows on the next 2,300 foot climb to Aid Station 2, but my stomach started to churn and eating became a chore earlier than I’d hoped. I tried not to worry about it and just made a deal with myself that if I could get a hundred calories in every hour, but no longer than the occasional hour and a half, I’d be okay. So I ate strawberry Pop Tarts in quarters because there’s something about returning to your six-year old garbage-food eating habits that makes eating while nauseated a little easier.

By Aid Station 2, another woman had passed me and I was in third place, but I tried not to think about it because I’d already decided that the goal of the first half was nothing more than to keep the wheels on. If I started to feel nauseated, I slowed down. And more than once, like a scolding mother, I told myself out loud to “just cool your jets.”

From Aid Station 2 to Geyser Pass at mile 32, where I could pick up Evan to keep me company up and over the high-point of Mann’s Peak (12,272 ft), it was a short climb and then a long descent on a graveled dirt road. It was so tempting to cruise this section, but I held myself back. I hiked the uphill at a concerted pace and ran the downhill in what I would normally describe as a “baby jog” using the poles. There was a road similar to this in the Pine to Palm 100, I cruised it, and I paid for it later. “Patience is a weapon,” Evan had reminded me that morning on the dark, thirty minute drive to the start. I held on to that wisdom when my ego told me I was going too slow.

I finally arrived at Geyser Pass sometime around eleven a.m., an hour later than I’d estimated. I met Evan, my parents and my champ of a step-son, Jack. He’s 11 and this was his first time crewing a hundred miler. He totally embraced the role and I think it helped when he was allowed to have the other half of the Coke I opened, but couldn’t finish before leaving. Also, what kid doesn’t want an excuse to dump ice water on their parent’s head? Once I’d sat down for a few minutes and drank some coconut water, my stomach felt immediately better. So Evan and I headed up the climb to Mann’s Peak with just a quick stop at the actual (non-crew accessible) aid station a few miles along for a quarter of a grilled cheese and ice in the hat.

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Nearing the summit of Mann’s Peak. PC: Evan Reimondo

The climb to Mann’s Peak is GOREGEOUS. And once we were in the alpine, it was disorienting to look down at the Behind the Rocks Wilderness (where we got engaged!) in the distance and remember that we were still in canyon country. We made a quick stop about halfway up to slather some Squirrel’s Nut Butter on the back of my heels. Better to avoid a blister than deal with one, I always say! We made it to the top in relatively good time. From there it was a steep descent on scree and then slippery, steep trail before running out the valley below along Mill Creek and finally to Warner Lake Campground and the Hazzard County Aid Station (mile 43).

At Hazzard County, I got to pick up my second pacer (given a “unicorn” bib in this race! Which I’m obviously a fan of), my good friend and fellow lady trail slayer, Sally Henkel. If you don’t know Sally, you’re going to want to correct that because you, my friend, are missing out. Sally is best known for her wit, humor and reputation for taking exactly zero shit from anyone. For the record, when I post about this race or anything for that matter with clever hashtags, you can pretty much bet those were all Sally’s inventions. For example, my crew being called the #pukeydukeypacercrew (I probably shouldn’t explain), or when ultrarunning is like being pregnant (neither of us would actually know) because you might like to eat a Snickers and a pickle together and ask for a #snickle. Sally’s job was to get me through the hottest 14 miles of the race. By this point it was a little after noon and the next section of the course descended onto the Jimmy Keen loop. While this section is still between 7500 and 8000 feet in elevation, the trail winds through nothing but baking, open oak scrub. So unless you have a comedian like Sal Gal with you and a shit-ton of ice packed into every upward facing crevice of your clothing and body, you may find yourself deep, and I do mean deep in the pain cave and hating your life.

 

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With Sally’s running comedy and Otter Pops in the cooler at the water drop, we made it through this section (surprisingly) pretty painlessly. We just kept looking at the single thunderhead in the distance and imagining that it was cooling us off. Who says it’s not okay to lie to yourself sometimes? We also saw a freshy bear poop and bear tracks on the trail not long before we popped out onto the La Sal Loop road ahead of the Miner’s Aid #1. Oh boy! Furry friends!

The aid station volunteers at Miner’s (mile 57) were incredible and as soon as I arrived, one had an ice pack on my neck while Evan was changing my shoes and socks and re-gooifying the hot spots on my heels. The rest of my crew, Spencer and Cerissa (my parents had taken Jack back to the Airbnb to cool off and relax for a while) helped me fill my pack and I felt ready to go again pretty quickly. I hadn’t seen Joanna (who’d been in first all day) since Medicine Lake, but she was here, sitting in the air conditioning of a car and recovering from her over-heated trip around the Jimmy Keen loop.

Competition feels strange for me in ultras. I suspect it’s because no matter how prepared you are, a race this long can go south—maybe it’s your fault, but often it can be something totally out of your control—and when that happens, the internal agony of moving through it, or deciding not to, is horrendous. I mean, that’s not to say there aren’t cocky ultra runners out there–there are–but in my honest opinion, they’re fools. So seeing Joanna sitting in the car recovering from the heat was exciting–because I’d caught up to first place–but I was also very much thinking “girl…I FEEL YOU.”

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The Miner’s loop at sunset PC: Cerissa Hoglander

I set out for the next hot, six mile loop back to Miner’s #2, mile 63, with my friend Cerissa, who is both a total badass and a total sweetheart. If you’re having a rough day, there’s probably no person better to have your back than her. She is so thoughtful and genuine that it’s no surprise that she’s damned good at this whole crewing and pacing thing. We finished the loop (which was half La Sal Loop Road pavement, but still gorgeous with Castleton Tower in the background) in time for the sun to be setting. We arrived at the Miner’s #2 Aid Station a little after 8pm, quicker than any of us expected, and Cerissa had to run up the hill to retrieve Sally, Spencer and Evan from their mullet cutting session. I ate some pizza and grilled cheese, drank some broth, speed changed into a dry sports bra and t-shirt, grabbed my mittens, arm warmers and head lamp and took to the trail again, this time with our friend Spencer Plumb.

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Spencer (new mullet on board) and me leaving Miner’s #2 PC: Sally Henkel

Spencer is one of those guys that you can’t not like. He’s a genuinely good human. Evan and I love him so much that he officiated our wedding exactly two years ago to the day and not far from where we were just then climbing another 2,000 feet back toward Warner Lake. As we climbed, I remembered something Spencer had said during our wedding ceremony about Evan vowing to give me peanut butter pickles and gummy bears during races and chuckled a little bit at just how real that was.

As we climbed, darkness fully enveloped us again. We decided to take it easy on the climb up the Miner’s Basin Trail and just get to the top feeling good. The race was on at this point and better to be able to move at all than to get over zealous and find ourselves (okay, myself) hunkering down at an aid station. I was still feeling good stomach-wise, but I could tell this was a tenuous state of being. It’s amazing how quickly you can go from feeling great to feeling like death in a hundred miler, so I don’t take feeling “fine” for granted. At the top, I tried running down for all of fifteen seconds before deciding to keep that slower pace on the final descent to Warner Lake. I think it takes me a while to get used to the dark sometimes, too, and on top of not wanting to break my face tripping on the steep, dark descent, I wasn’t ready to fry the quads just yet either. We arrived at Warner Lake aid station (mile 70ish) a full 6 miles, 4,000 feet of elevation change, and a very long three hours later.

My parents and Jack were there waiting for us and I gladly took a seat on a log and wrapped my puffy coat around my shoulders while my mom put my warm hat on my head. At this point, it was something like 11:30 at night, I was exhausted, and food was again sounding like the last thing I wanted on Earth. As I winced and breathed through my exhaustion and gut discomfort, Jack told me he saw Joanna come through behind us and leave again. But in that moment, I didn’t care. Jack and my parents packed us food for the trail, restocked our fluids and we were off again.

Not far down the trail toward Trans La Sal, somewhere around midnight and 21 hours into the race, we found a cure to our slow pace and nausea when god damned Jurassic Park happened in the trees. Now, some people hallucinate in 100 milers and at least I think I’ve never experienced that myself, but something weird was going on because I heard freaking T-Rex in the darkness of the aspen forest to our right. Trying to sound a little more reasonable, I told Spencer it was either a werewolf or hunting dogs treeing a mountain lion. He was nice and let me run with that until suddenly there was rustling in the bushes next to us and more angry animal sounds and the only thing I could think to do was to hide behind the biggest tree in sight. I was mid-ninja dancing behind the perfect shield tree when Spencer finally yelled “AMBER! Let’s go! It’s just cows.” I sheepishly followed, but spent the rest of the race fully believing that at the very least, I had narrowly escaped being attacked by a herd of rabid cows. It wasn’t until I had a nap the next day that I realized how completely I’d misplaced my marbles in that moment. Bless his heart, Spencer never said a word. After that little adrenaline rush, though, I was good to go energy-wise and we ran most of the way to Trans La Sal, mile 74.2.

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Evan and Cerissa giving me a 1 am pep talk at mile 74.2. PC: Sally Henkel

I arrived at the aid station at 1:22am to Evan, Cerissa and Sally’s smiling faces. Evan though, made no bones about me getting out of the aid station at the same time as, if not before Joanna, who had arrived ahead of us. But the rest of my crew was giving me a leg and shoulder massage and I was enjoying the hell out of it while also trying to choke down more broth and I really didn’t want to get up and keep moving. Thankfully, Cerissa was ready to go for the next section and with Evan’s help, they pushed me out of my chair and back onto the trail for another 8 miles and 1,600 feet of climbing to the final aid station, La Sal Pass, mile 82. There I’d pick up Evan for the final 16 mile run to the finish.

These 8 miles were definitely the hardest of the race for me and Cerissa is a SAINT for pacing me through it. I was tired, nauseous and delirious and it took me 3 and a half hours to make it the full distance. Joanna had started this section with us and we had the pleasure of visiting with her for maybe the first half of it. But ultimately, I was feeling SO terrible and moving more and more slowly that she decided to move on alone. I stopped several times along the way to dry heave and respond to Cerissa’s conversation-making with unintelligible groans. She was so upbeat and cheery the whole time, despite the fact that it was three in the morning and she had to be about as exhausted as I was. After crossing a few, what felt like high points, and several false alarms, we finally made it to the La Sal Pass aid station at 4:50 am where Evan was waiting. Joanna was sitting at the aid station and a third woman had caught up to me and arrived at the same time.

There wasn’t much I needed to refill here food or fluid wise, so it was a matter of sipping on some broth for a second, realizing I couldn’t do it and then Evan saying “we need to get out of here. Now.” His urgency stemmed from the fact that Joanna and the third woman, Lee, had just left the aid station and I was now in third place with 16 miles to go and my butt was still planted in a camp chair. I said something whiny and totally unconvincing like “whatever, I’ll leave if you want me to, but I’m just going to throw up the whole time.” I got up despite my petulant mini tantrum and we left the aid station as the first hints of dawn started to add color to the sky. We made it, oh…20 steps before I stopped and barfed on the side of the trail. Thankfully though, unlike in Pine to Palm, I immediately felt better, so we started running and we didn’t stop.

The first few miles out of the last aid station are a gradual, swooping downhill where we passed both ladies and a group of men and headed for the base of the final, steep climb up the South Mountain Trail. It’s 1,600 feet. Straight. Up. We hit the climb and I tried not to think about the people right behind me. I hate being hunted late in a race. I’d gone the whole race up to now pushing worries about place out of my mind. I’d run my own race, it was paying off, and I was winning, but now was the time to pour the rest of the fuel in the tank. I really didn’t want to lose it.

So, for lack of a better descriptor, I climbed my freaking face off.

All the while, Evan reminded me not to look over my shoulder and to give it my most honest effort. The sun rose red behind us through the smoky horizon as we climbed and when we reached the top, I took just a second to soak it all in. I couldn’t see anyone behind us, but I thought I could hear people coming so we headed for the final 3,000-foot descent on Pole Canyon Trail as fast as we could (though Evan would tell you it could have been faster). At this point, the course rejoins where it started and I recognized where we were even though last time had been in the dark. I pushed through the discomfort in my stomach and legs. Almost. There.

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Running the last stretch to the finish PC: Evan Reimondo

Once we got to Pole Canyon road, it was roughly 5 ½ miles to the finish line on dirt and gravel roads. It felt like the end of a long tempo run and I was so thankful for that. It was the end of a hundred miler and here I was, running and doing so at more than a hobble! Maybe that’s pocket change to some runners, but not to me. I packed away the poles, Evan kept urging just one more Scratch gummy or Gin Gin in the cheek to keep the stomach in check and we were cruising. By the time we reached the main road, I was feeling good enough that even if we’d seen someone coming up behind us, I felt like I could put the hammer down. The last four miles of dirt road felt longer than I remembered, it was after 8am and it was getting hot. I was so glad not to be doing this any later. When we made that final dusty turn into the finish line and saw the clock and the RD with his hand up ready for a high five, I don’t think you could’ve wiped the smile off my face with anything.

I finished first woman and 15th overall in 29:35. I absolutely couldn’t have done that without the help of my crew and pacers and I’m not just saying that. Their humor, upbeat attitudes, encouragement, persistence and sanity when I’d lost my own kept me in the race and from crawling it in much later than I did. I’m so glad I got to meet Joanna and to share some miles with her, she seems super rad. She kept me honest and ran a hell of a race. Thanks to Sean “Run Bum” Blanton for putting on an excellent inaugural Ute 100! He promised it would be well organized, and it was. He also promised the course wasn’t meant to be hard…that part, I’m not so sure about 😉 Now I just have to decide whether or not to come back next year to defend that title! (Too soon! It’s too soon.)

Thanks to everyone who cheered me on in person and from afar. I really did feel those positive vibes and they helped me along without a doubt. I’ve said this before, but so much of ultra running—and especially 100 milers—for me is mental. You can train and you can stay healthy, but if your head isn’t in a positive place, it’s not going to happen. My friends and family helped me keep that positive mindset and I’m so grateful and ready to return the favor for any of their next big races.

If you’re still reading this: really!? You’re still here? I owe you an endurance reading medal. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.

 

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Zane Grey 50 Miler: What a day.

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Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

It’s been a year and a half since I approached a race with any seriousness. The last time I did that it was September of 2015 and I stubbornly death marched my way to the finish of the Pine to Palm 100 despite the fact that I had quite obviously come down with something that resembled the flu and spent 48 miles alternating vomiting and trying to vomit on the side of the trail. It turns out denial and determination are a powerful combo and while I don’t regret finishing P2P in the least, quite the opposite, the result for me was a year of total burnout. But in November of 2016, I was offered a position with the Grand Canyon Trust, an environmental organization that protects the Colorado Plateau, and Evan and I packed up and left our lovely community of friends in Lander, Wyoming and moved back to Flagstaff. The excitement of returning to the extensively accessible running trails of Northern Arizona after four years of no trail access from home or the office (sorry, Wyoming) was enough to put the racing fire back in the belly. Before we’d even finished packing up our house in Lander, Evan and I were both signed up for Zane Grey.

Zane Grey had been Evan’s very first 50 miler back in 2011 and, like it does to people, it made him suffer, so he was ready to come back in search of redemption. I’d never run the race myself, but I’d heard many intriguing stories from Evan and friends who had. The stories had one common theme: the course is one of the most difficult in the country, the loose rocks will make your life hell and if those don’t get to you, the temperature and/or endless climbs and descents will. You can bet the finish line is never a guarantee until you’ve crossed it and had a come-to-Jesus moment or two. I suspect something may be wrong with me because I tend to act on impulsive urges to sign up for races like this before my body has time to convince my mind that maybe that’s a crazy idea. But maybe that’s not a bad thing. 

My half-baked competition strategy going into this race was to keep the front ladies within striking distance from the start and, if I managed to hold on, see which of us had it in the end. That’s pretty standard, right? But for me, the point was maybe less the strategy itself and more a way to force some mental accountability and make myself consider the possibility of competing.

Here’s the truly embarrassing thing: I’m notorious for sandbagging myself. I tend to set race goals that feel safe. Safe from failure and even guilt. Frankly, to admit to myself that I might be able to achieve anything similar to elite runners who have made their training into a career has always caused me a deep sense of discomfort, like I’m being intrusive or reaching for something I haven’t earned. I picture how pathetic my 62-mile peak week and sedentary job must look next to someone who trains and races for a living. Ugh. That sounds even sillier when I write it down. But I think this perception of outside judgement is really just a proxy for what is actually my own voice and my own fear of putting it all on the line, taking a risk and pulling through the pain to reveal what I’m truly capable of. 

Just to be clear, I do not say this to shoot down anyone’s race goals. I think any ultra performance is well above average in and of itself. Finishing a race is always the goal and sometimes, you’re damn happy just to have that (my Pine to Palm experience for instance). But like many runners, I pour months of time and energy into my training on top of a stressful, often more than full-time job. What’s all of that for if in the end I just set a negative goal like: “I just hope I don’t suck?” This is a sport that I purport to love and that has truly become an identity for me. I should treat it and myself accordingly. So at Zane, I decided to practice being a little more bold and a little more brave and give myself and my training the credit it deserves. I have Evan to thank for being so insistent about this to the point that I finally acknowledged there was a problem.

As part of this newfound boldness, I made another decision that felt like putting myself out there. I decided not to worry about eating a particular food or staying on a regimented eating schedule for Zane. This seems contrary to what a lot of runners do and in previous races, I’ve dedicated a lot of thought to food. But in the past, my concern about bonking has seemed reliably to find me suffering at some point anyway from food that doesn’t want to digest and crippling nausea that slows me down as much as a good bonk ever could. So this time I decided to say screw it, calories aren’t as important as water and electrolytes. I opted to forget the gels and other weird running food, stick to the real stuff and eat only when it felt right. I’d also get some additional calories in through the Scratch mix that I’d refill in my hand bottle at every aid station. And I’d take salt pills every hour, because those things have felt like a magical cure for the pain cave on more than one occasion. This is actually what I do in training, so why it ever occurred to me that it should be different for races is…Oh that’s right, I’m just actually running my own race for once.

Race Day

On race morning, after the usual pre-race night of tossing and turning and repeatedly checking the watch, our three alarms went off at 3:36, 3:40 and 3:42 from the front seat of my Subi. I set three alarms as if there’s some chance we could fall back to sleep on mornings like this. Yeah right. Not with a race on our brains. Evan and I wriggled out of our sleeping bags and began the pre-race process of forcing down a decent breakfast past the butterflies, sipping coffee and willing (maybe it’s more appropriate to say begging?) the body to poop before the 5 am start. Nobody likes a mid-race pitstop.

It was a 15-minute drive from the Houston Mesa campground to the start at Pine Trailhead. Evan turned on his favorite YouTube song for last-minute humored motivation, we checked in, dropped off our drop bags and made our way to the starting line shivering in our shorts, a headlamp and arm warmers in the brisk 30ish degree morning. The temperatures during the day at Zane Grey have often climbed into the 80s and 90s, but lucky for us, that wasn’t going to be the case this year. The high for Pine, Arizona on race day was forecasted to be a cool 60 degrees. I’ll take it.

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Zane Grey 50, 2017 starts. Photo: Joe Galope

The race started at 5am on the dot and the crowd of about 140 people funneled onto the Highline Trail, where they’d endeavor to remain for the next (what I later learned is now) 55 miles. It was too dark for the first few miles for me to get a great look at the runners ahead of me, but I was pretty sure there were only two ladies in front of me. Per my race-plan, I decided I’d stay close to them.

Within the first couple of miles, I realized I could manage to pass the closest woman and still remain well within the comfort zone, so I did, but only after pushing past that little voice in my head that said “but she looks stronger than you.” That put me behind a nice gal named Lauren Coury and a handful of men as we made our way toward the top of the first climb and sunrise. At the top, Lauren stepped off the trail for a moment and somewhat nervously, I took what I was pretty sure was the women’s lead along with a handful of men. Despite the fact that I felt really good those 8 miles before the first aid station, I’d be lying if I said the self-conscious thought didn’t still occur to me that maybe this was too fast for the start of this particular 50 miler. But I reminded myself of the goal and took comfort in the thought that sure, this could be too fast for me and the wheels could very well come off in 20 miles, that would suck. But maybe that won’t happen. Maybe this will turn out to be one hell of a race.

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Photo by Myke Hermsmeyer

I came into the first aid station – Geronimo – at mile 8. The aid station volunteers were completely on it. Thanks to them, I managed to get in and out of there in a matter of about 60 seconds despite having sloth fingers from the morning’s chilly air that made even manipulating my pack buckles a chore.

Mile 8 through the Washington Park aid station around mile 18 were pleasant and mostly runnable and I found myself chatting and joking with Lauren and another guy, Kent Green for a good chunk of it. It was here that Lauren kindly informed Kent and I that she’d learned the course was actually 55 miles this year thanks to trail maintenance that had added a mile or two to each section between aid stations. I thought, “I’ll just be grateful for the trail maintenance part and try not to think about those extra five miles for now.” I’m pretty sure relentless positivity is key to running well. It’s science.

Lauren and I ran into the Washington Park Aid Station together and she made the call to stop there given the fact that she’d run Lake Sonoma 50 just two weeks prior. I refilled my hand bottle with Scratch mix and water, left my arm warmers in my drop bag and hit the trail again still in the front and still feeling encouragingly great.

Before the next aid station (Hells Gate) at mile 23, I had to stop a few times to quickly massage a bit of tightness in the lower left leg and stretch my right IT Band. To my relief, that seemed to be keeping any bad twinges at bay. One memorable hiccup came when I was running alone on a section of trail through newly cleared manzanitas. An absent-minded trip over a cropped manzanita stem landed my right hip into another manzanita stem and my last bite of Larabar in the dirt. I cursed something out loud to myself about getting my shit together and kept going. I proceeded to trip twice more in the next ten minutes–seriously, Amber!–before managing to actually pick up my damn feet.

Hells Gate finally appeared around something more like mile 25, but I was still feeling good and the aid station volunteers were once again super helpful. One kid that couldn’t have been older than 10 even followed me up the steep, rocky hill just after the aid station to collect the paper cup I was still using when I left so I wouldn’t need to carry it. That was awesome.  

Between Hells Gate and the Fish Hatchery Aid Station, which landed on mile 35 of the new course, I came up on a nice guy named Albert and we ran and hiked together for the rest of the way to Fish Hatchery. It was on this section that we encountered the first questionable trail junction of the course and it was nice to have two of us there to sort out the right turn, which we did in short order. We passed the time on the last few mentally long miles until Fish Hatchery sharing stories and our excitement at picking up our respective pacers.

It was also in this conversation with Albert and hearing that he couldn’t remember seeing a lady in a long while that I started to feel pretty confident that I was indeed leading the race for women. What?!

At last, we descended the hill into Fish Hatchery–a refreshingly lively spot–and I was stoked to see my friend, co-worker and pacer, Ellen waiting for me. Ellen and I have never had the chance to run together despite our frequent attempts to make it work. Really, Ellen is just more disciplined than I am and leaves for her lunch run at noon while I tend to procrastinate until at least 1:30. So I was super excited for the chance to get to know her a little better and finally have an interaction that wasn’t work related. It’s also worth mentioning that Ellen agreed to pace me even though I asked her only a week before the race and she was doing a solo 40-mile backpack in the Grand Canyon for work starting early the next morning. Badass, right? No six pack of fancy trail beverages is going to quite do it for payback. I’ll have to be more creative.

Todd Trimble

Ellen and I giggle-fitting our way out of Fish Hatchery (newly mile 35). Photo: Todd Trimble

It was also at Fish Hatchery that I got the confirmation that I was in first place. That news, and the thought that the next lady could be right behind me refilled the fuel tank. We left the aid station quickly and in a bit of a laughing fit. About a hundred yards down the trail, I remembered my surprise stash of Trader Joe’s pop tarts in my pack from my last drop bag (it’s the small things in life) and the stoke was high. This was especially handy because in my rush to leave the aid, I’d forgotten my refilled ziplock of food on the table.

Ellen and I crossed Tonto Creek and immediately saw a blue and white flag off to the left, the “wrong way” signal of trail markings on the Zane Grey course, so without thinking much more about it, we continued straight on the trail along the creek chit chatting away. We weren’t a quarter mile down the trail when we saw another runner ahead of us that seemed to be reconsidering his location. We immediately found ourselves doing the same and turned back to figure out whether and where we’d missed a turn. Albert and his wife, who was pacing him at this point, came down the same trail shortly after and we all agreed something wasn’t right. The trail looked more like a fisherman’s social trail. Albert’s wife ran back faster than the rest of us and identified the problem – we were supposed to make a hairpin left turn at that blue and white ribbon, we’d gone straight. Suddenly worried that a woman may have caught up to us or even passed us in the few minutes we were off-course, a new fire was lit under our bottoms. Ellen and I quit talking and huffed it in a solid run up the switchbacking hill, hiking be damned, we were going to make up for that lost time. Once at the top and after passing a few places where we could see ahead of us a ways, we started to feel more reassured that we were still in the lead. Between the overall mileage and the long, steep climb on this section before See Canyon (mile 48), it was definitely the hardest section of the course for me. But thankfully I had Ellen to keep me upbeat company with stories and conversations about adventure. There were a few moments of utter silence as I gave myself the inevitably necessary inner pep-talks, but it felt like we managed to move well the whole time regardless. This, in and of itself, is of remark for me. I’ve never run an ultra without experiencing some deep, dark pain cave moment.

See Canyon felt like a long time coming, mostly because of the whole elongated course thing and also because we’d run into two guys helping with the race on this section who told us different mileages to go. Both of their accounts were longer than we expected. But finally, after a long descent and some surprising snowflakes that we first mistook for pollen (the temperature was no 80 degrees, but it didn’t feel like snow weather either), we ran into See Canyon. This was the last aid station before the finish with 7 miles to go. The aid station volunteers eliminated our worries that our slight detour might have cost us our place. No other women had been by, phew! And we lit out of there quickly and cheerfully ready to hammer out the last of this thing.

From See Canyon, there was one last creek crossing and a final longer climb through lush, shady forest that could easily cause one to question whether they were in Oregon or Arizona. A couple of miles along, Ellen started to rein herself in because of her 40 mile backpack in the Canyon the following day and we both agreed that I would just carry on ahead for the final 5 miles alone. I was relieved that Ellen was on board with taking the rest of the run easy on herself because it saved me the effort of insisting she do so otherwise. It’s so nice to partner with sensible, capable people like Ellen that mix wisdom and common-sense into their epic adventures. From the selfish standpoint of my race, this was also a fine time for her to reel herself in. By that point, I had the motivation I needed to scoot myself along at a faster clip in the fact that I was winning with the end practically in sight.

I told Ellen I’d see her at the finish line and at the top of the last climb, started to put the hammer down. This was where I really considered the possibility that I might be dreaming. I had been moving well all day. I’d had no memorable pain cave moments and in particular, I hadn’t run into stomach problems like I often (okay…always) have. The weather had been a perfect 60 degrees, and I was winning. Winning! What the hell was going on? For a second, I really thought I might cry.

Anytime I felt an urge to slow down in the final few miles swooping in and out of draws, I reminded myself that a lady could come around a corner behind me at any moment. I hated the idea of a 55th mile sprint finish, so best to keep as much of a gap between me and said unknown woman as possible. That’s something I’ve never experienced before–running off the front away from someone that may or may not actually be there. 

Finally, I started to hear the cars on highway 260 and my watch read 54.6 miles. I knew I was close. I picked up the pace even more–since high school cross country I’ve always managed to find a little more gas in the tank when I hear the finish line. Every coach I’ve ever had would lecture me that this means I should have been pushing myself harder sooner, but whatever. I’m doing this for fun, I’m pretty sure.

I crossed the finish line at 4:29pm in 11:29:40, and was excited to see Evan and his pacer/our good friend, Spencer waiting for me. It turned out Evan had raced his ass off and taken second place, 5 minutes behind Speedgoat Karl Meltzer and 3 minutes ahead of third place, Sion Lupowitz, who runs for Aravaipa. The race director, Joe Galope, came over and congratulated me. He handed me a first place trophy, a finisher’s medal, and a soft, warm fleece embroidered with “Zane Grey 50 mile,” which came in handy moments later as the chilly breeze overcame the heat of the effort.

Whoa, Zane Grey. What a day.

Ellen Heyn ZG50I am so thankful for the support and encouragement of my friends and family who cheered Evan and I on from afar, for the aid station volunteers who were on their game 110% of the time, and for Joe Galope’s work to organize yet another awesome Zane Grey 50 (though this was my first, it’s no mystery that this race is legendary). And mostly, thanks to Ellen, Spencer and Evan for being there for me in person. Even though Evan had his own race goals to think about, he was constantly insisting to me during training that winning or being in the top 3 was in the cards. Without his hammering it into my head, I might never have allowed myself to really consider it. Spencer and Ellen, you’re a couple of god damned heroes for making it down to Pine amongst your own busy schedules and Evan and I are in some deep trail debt to you both. Bring on the crewing and pacing requests!

Finally, to say I’m elated is an understatement. I’m so proud that I finally defeated my “you’re just an average runner not worthy of winning” self-talk. I’m proud that I won a race and did it with the challenge of being alone out front most of the day. And as nauseatingly cheesy as it sounds, I’m proud of being able to say (though not without a little inner squirming) that I’m proud. We should all obviously avoid arrogance, that shit’s repulsive and obnoxious. But so is the opposite extreme of utter self doubt and deprecation. It’s unhealthy and exhausting to resist reasonable self confidence in races, yes, but more importantly, in life in general. Perhaps races are just one way to practice. 

Full 2017 Race Results here.

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Keep Speaking Your Truth

img_1522Have you ever been told that you’re too much? Maybe the exact phrasing varied, but in so many words, the message was, “you have too much to say,” “you’re too political,” “you’re too opinionated,” “the words you speak do no good?” As a younger female advocate for the environment, for social justice, and for myself as a young, female professional, I can tell you that I have been told such things by men and women alike and in a variety of terms and tones. People have said it to my face with a smile on theirs, they’ve said it angrily on social media, and once I was even cornered in a hotel lobby by an angry CFO of a company my organization was working to stop from polluting an aquifer. The large man I’d never met before approached me as I waited for my ride and with shaking hands and a face red with anger (and probably a life rich in alcohol) practically spat his words at me: “I don’t know if this just makes you feel good to do what you’re doing, but you’re out of your element, you’re biting the hand that feeds you and you’d better be careful.”

It took me a while to take these things in stride and to figure out that it’s not me; that there are a lot of situations where a person feeling the pressure of change often tries to shame someone who’s working to create it. And I know that I am far from alone. My peers in different communities have been told the same genre of things from strangers and people they care about alike. And to be clear, sometimes it comes in the form of a blatant, condescending lecture from someone really trying hard to put me in someplace they think I belong, but often it comes from a place of perceived mentorship, like, “you’re smart, I’m glad you speak up for what you believe in, but you say too much.” To which I often think “so…what you meant to say just now is actually that you’re not glad that I speak up for what I believe in.” Sugar-coating or no, it all carries the same intent–to get the person who’s using their voice to stop.

At first, it hurt to hear these things. Before I realized where they came from, I worried that I was just a crazy person who couldn’t keep my mouth shut or really didn’t understand the facts I felt I’d studied so hard. I worried that maybe my experience really wasn’t good enough. I’m certain I’m not alone when I say that I try my best to be the type of person that looks in the mirror in the face of criticism and if I’m screwing up, I really do want to change it. I care. A lot. And the last thing I want to do is fail at making my corner of the world a better place. I’m a passionate person and I do know some things–not all things, but some. I know that climate change is real, it’s accelerated by man-made emissions and it’s serious. I know that without facts, our society loses its foundation for good decisions. I know that we should treat every human being as what they are–human beings. I know that I don’t know everything and I know that that’s okay because absolutely no one does. I know that good things don’t come from being right all of the time, they happen when we strive to inform ourselves with facts and good information and when we listen to one another and treat each other with compassion when we inevitably don’t get it right. I know that every human being–all of us–is fallible and that if we can’t acknowledge and accept that about ourselves and each other and forgive ourselves and each other when we inevitably get something wrong, then we’re setting ourselves up for misery. It takes so much precious, limited energy to be afraid, hateful and angry. I know that being human is a paradox. We aren’t our mistakes and we aren’t our achievements. We’re just people. Labels are everywhere and though our brains gravitate toward them in search of sweet simplicity, they’re not healthy. The truth is, we will try our damnedest to do right by the world, but occasionally, we will get it wrong and we have to be ready to own it and forgive ourselves for it and by the same token, we have to commit to forgive others for the same. Pride is a natural thing and it can be a dangerous thing. We have to learn to let it go. One of the best pieces of advice anyone ever gave me was to “imagine what your day would look like if you chose to look at it as if everyone you encountered was doing their absolute best.” The person letting loose their road rage at you, the woman taking her time in the grocery line; just imagine that they’re doing the best they can in the moment they’re in. The person laying on their horn and revving their engine at the back of your car (which actually happened to me on the way to the coffee shop from which I’m writing) might be on their way to the hospital, the woman stalling the grocery line might be a mother savoring the only time she has to herself this week.

Brené Brown is a best-selling author and social researcher. I was first introduced to her work in my yoga teacher training and it changed my life in a lot of ways. Brown says that we live in a world full of a deep sense of scarcity. “We wake up in the morning and we say, ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ And we hit the pillow saying, ‘I didn’t get enough done.'” We experience scarcity when we think we’re not skinny enough, fit enough, smart enough, successful enough, right enough. For Brown, we escape scarcity not by being better than others, smarter than others, more right than others, or more successful than others. We beat scarcity when we’re doing our best and we accept simply that we are “enough.”

Trying to carry this perspective myself has taken a lot of practice and I still don’t get it right all of the time, or frankly most of the time. But I take pride in at least understanding that in order to be happy, I need only to decide for myself that I am indeed full of imperfections, I don’t always get things right, but that’s okay. It’s enough that I try to get it right and that I acknowledge when I don’t. My successes, my mistakes, my fallibility, me. I am enough.

So that brings me back to the people that so many of us have encountered that knowingly or unknowingly try to quiet our voices. Not everyone has contemplated or had the courage to accept the notion of universal fallibility. These same people who denounce others don’t want to be wrong or inadequate themselves. They’ve gotten lost in this world of scarcity and when they don’t accept their own imperfection as something that is enough, they go through life always feeling inadequate. And the kicker is that often I don’t think they even realize it themselves. And actually, I’m going to stop there – I shouldn’t even use the word “they” because all of us have been here. I’d bet money on it.

Scarcity is why some women look at another woman who has achieved what they want–whether it be their looks, their talent, their success–and inherently feel a sense of dislike or aversion. It’s why co-workers feel an underlying sense of tension in the staff meeting when a colleague seems to get more credit for work that was done. Hell, it’s why anyone feels jealousy in any situation. When we’re worried about being perceived as inadequate and someone says or does something that triggers that jealousy or that sensation of inadequacy inside of us, instead of looking at why we feel this way, our instinct is to go on the defensive. We blame others for the way we feel around them instead of owning those feelings ourselves; instead of embracing vulnerability and having the courage to ask ourselves why we feel the way we do. When what another person says or does makes us feel inadequate and we don’t look in the mirror, but instead take that more instinctual route, the result is a reaction that says “it’s not me that’s not enough, it’s you that’s too much.”

So friends, acquaintances, people I have yet to meet and perhaps never will, whether you find yourself being shamed or doing the shaming, if no one has yet told you, let me be the first to say: you are enough. Your voice is important, perhaps now more than ever. It’s critical that you have the courage to be vulnerable, to look in the mirror, to ask yourself whether you’ve gotten it wrong this time or whether you’re doing exactly what you should be doing. When someone tries to shame you into silence, take a moment to understand where that urge to shame is coming from and forgive them; not because you’re better, but because you may make that very mistake yourself tomorrow. And then keep speaking your truth.

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When we know nothing else.

The last several days have had me thinking – hard – about what to do next. I’ve been wrestling with how to wrap my head around this new reality in our country and not just to understand it and how we got here, but how to deal with it. How do I speak to people, how do I speak about the problems I see, how do I pull out my frustrations and then turn to look at them in their entirety with all of their nooks and crannies in a way that is fair, truthful, realistic, productive and safe? How do I change what needs to be changed? Many times since Tuesday, the overwhelming nature of these questions has caused me to burst into tears because despite my effort, I still struggle to see reality through the lenses of so many different perspectives, much of them from experiences so different from my own that I couldn’t dream of understanding anything beyond the fact that, very simply, I don’t understand. In the last three days, I have felt true, raw hopelessness. I resist my initial urge to shame myself for these emotions and try to just feel them, to let them soak through my bones and to squeeze my heart and constrict my breath until the wave of pain passes.

I do not find myself standing before this very high, very thick, very ominous wall simply because I did not get what I want, nor is it there because I am a democrat in a newly republican government. The wall of pain and confusion and fear that stands before me, that I’m wringing my hands raw over how to scale, let alone to do it with grace is much more complex than that.

Whatever positive traits some may see in Donald Trump, which I have tried and failed to see for myself, I feel to my core that America has nevertheless just elected a bigoted, climate change denying, sexist, homophobic, racist, sociopathic sexual predator to the White House. Not only have we done that, but we have emboldened those in our country who share all or some of those horrific perspectives. Sure, not ALL who voted for Donald Trump did so with the understanding that these traits were what they were voting for or with the sense that they were in any way supporting those terrible things. Some voted for Trump because they are conservative and he wears the conservative label – simple as that. But regardless of the traits those people did vote for, I feel angry because whether they knew it or intended it, they also voted for those other, more abhorrent traits; they came with the very clearly marked package.

My initial reaction is to lash out in anger at Trump voters who say “I’m not sexist, homophobic or misogynist, I’m just a republican and so I voted for the republican nominee.” I feel such unadulterated anger at these people. I want to scream at them and to shame them for playing the victim because I look at my gay friends who are now afraid for how they will be treated in Trump’s America. That’s right, they’re afraid and have every right to be. That’s because he and the Republican Party have said clearly and repeatedly that their marriages should be invalidated. They have said that they believe things like “conversion therapy” should again be a thing and generally don’t acknowledge their sexual orientation as being anything ‘legitimate.’ Then I look at my friends who aren’t white, who aren’t Christian, or who immigrated here from another country and are also afraid for their day-to-day lives in Trump’s America. Trump has said clearly that he wants to ban entire religious groups from entering the country, that he wants to deport hard-working, tax-paying immigrants and his views have garnered support from such groups as the KKK. The list goes on of groups and important issues that his policies will harm – women, the environment, our children’s education, our national security. I want to tell Trump voters–no, I want to shout at them–“don’t you dare try brush off responsibility for supporting a man that represents so much hate, fear mongering and ignorance! Don’t you dare try to pretend that you don’t support racism, sexism, homophobia or xenophobia because whether or not you believe those to be values you yourself hold, you chose to support those very things when you cast your ballot for Donald J. Trump – a man who embodies those very things. Because now, real people, many of whom are my dearest friends, are going to pay for your choice.”

I feel this anger and frustration so strongly and yet I know this urge to lash out and point fingers and call names, the urge to shame people into understanding what it is they have done is no good. People don’t like to hear that they’re wrong. It’s human nature not to accept statements counter to your own belief systems and sometimes, no matter how strongly I feel about something, I know I have to acknowledge the possibility that I might not be correct. I know that lashing out in anger or in finger pointing or shaming only means that I am planting the exact same seed of hatred that I am so appalled has taken hold in our country. I know that I do not want to be a part of that.

I understand this, so my struggle continues to stir deep in my belly as I try to figure out how else to react. How else do I take action, resist complacency and disenchantment and continue to work for what’s right and good in the world while still practicing holding compassion for every single human being – no matter who they voted for or how different their beliefs or values might be (or seem to be) from mine?

I want so badly to understand the perspectives of people from every angle. If they believe something that is blatantly, factually false (denying climate change for instance) – I want to know why or how they came to hold that belief without holding their false beliefs against them nor condescendingly pitying them (as I admittedly have done before). If they believe one race, religion or sexual orientation is better than another, I truly want to understand why. This doesn’t mean that I want a world that accepts things like racism or homophobia, it just means that I am slowly coming to understand – truly understand – that real love and compassion trumps all fear and hate. We–all of us–must try to remember that we are all human and that humans make mistakes, that we are capable of being this, but also that and that no one is always or purely good or bad and that to call people hypocrites is often to deny their humanity. Being human is a paradox. I know that although I’m beginning to grasp this understanding, it is but the tip of the iceberg and that I will make mistakes and so I have to also have compassion for myself and for those around me when they make mistakes. I know that if we could all learn to embrace this practice and to remove our ego from the front seat whenever it creeps over the console and buckle it into the backseat again that this is how the world can become a better place.

So without knowing yet exactly what next steps to take, I do know that what will guide those next steps is compassion and a sense of humanity–for myself, for those like me and for those unlike me. I know that I will sometimes fail, but that is only because I am human and so are you, so I also promise to try again and again for the rest of my life because with each failure, we also gain new knowledge and skills with which to face life’s challenges with greater compassion and grace for next time. Right now, I can’t help but feel like I know very little, but of one thing I still feel confident–love and compassion will bring the world together, we need only to embrace it.

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Because we are Americans above all-else.

american-flag-10

Image from feelgrafix.com

I’ve been trying really hard to stay quiet about politics lately. I’m tired – not more tired than anyone else and definitely not because my life is especially hard. It’s just that, as I suspect is the same for many other Americans, my time and energy feel stretched thin and political conversations sound overwhelming and exhausting. As we all know, it takes a lot of energy to have a civil and balanced dialogue and perhaps even more to delve into anything that spirals below that. I’m getting ready for my wedding, which is happening in the next state in nine short days, I still have vows to write and things to wrap up at work – there are a lot of things I’d rather think about right now than the devolving state of our nation’s politics.

But the more I listen and read about the presidential election, the more I realize how selfish I’m being and the more I realize that electing Hillary Clinton as the next President of the United States is the single most important thing we, as Americans – political affiliations aside – can do for our country. PLEASE! Before you stop reading this in anticipation of a mere political rant, bear with me just a little further.

First, I realize how this sounds coming from me – likely one of the most liberal people in your news feed. You probably think: “Of course you feel that way, Amber. Trump is a Republican, you’re a Democrat. You don’t agree. Of course you think Clinton is the best choice, but haven’t you heard about her emails? Or how she lied about x, y, or z? Talk about an unfavorable candidate.” But I beg of you, please consider what I’m about to say because whether you’re a Bernie or Bust believer, an uninspired by either party “not-gonna-voter,” or a Trump supporter: I promise you, this is so much more important than a partisan rant.

Frankly, I did not come to this post a die hard “I’m With Her” fan. I was feelin’ the Bern, and hard. And I’ll be the first to admit that some of the questions around Hillary Clinton’s past decisions have had me scratching my head. But I’ve realized that the decision we’re facing now transcends the Bernie vs. Hillary, Democrat vs. Republican, Obama-lover vs. Obama-hater, did Hillary Clinton make bad decisions or not? debates. In fact, this may even be among the most novel and difficult of any decision Americans have historically been asked to make as typical Democrats and Republicans in an election. And just to be clear, if the tables were turned, and the same kind of situation required me to consider a vote across my own party lines for the sake of the greater good, I wouldn’t like it, but I’d like to believe that I would do it.

The thing is, no matter your party affiliation and no matter what your criticisms of Hillary Clinton may be, no matter what transgressions you think she’s committed with her email account or as Secretary of State, we are all – first and foremost – Americans. Americans who believe in freedom of speech and equal rights for all. We believe in the American Dream. These are among the core values we all share and have vowed to protect. So no matter what beliefs you have about Hillary Clinton, she has not consistently and without remorse, violated those values. Hillary Clinton, nor any previous general election candidate that I’ve ever disagreed with – not John McCain, not Mitt Romney, not George W. Bush – has been so utterly and completely unsuited, so lacking of the most basic sense of decency and character to serve as President of the United States as Donald Trump. In previous elections, had McCain or Romney won, I would have had a normal, “that’s how it goes, we live in a democracy,” sense of disappointment as I did (being a Democrat) when Bush won. But I wouldn’t have been worried that the country and the world were in such unimaginably serious peril as I am now. That’s why I’m about to explain to you, if you’ll hear me out, why I believe the alternative to a Clinton presidency is much, much worse.

I wholeheartedly believe that we – not as Democrats or Republicans, but as Americans – could not make a more dangerous decision than to elect Donald Trump as the next President of the United States. Whether we elect him by voting directly for him, by writing a scribble into the “Other” line, or by not voting at all, we will carry part of the responsibility for whatever is to come. The (unpopular) reality is: a vote that doesn’t go to Clinton, whether we like it or not, isn’t a protest, it isn’t going to make a magical third option appear. We’re looking at a two-way fork in the road: one leads to a President Clinton, the other to a President Trump. An absent vote for Clinton will simply be another indirect vote for the Trump/Pence ticket because (the electoral college conundrum aside) it’s one less tick-mark against a Trump presidency.

If you doubt my fears about Trump, just look at the Republican party’s own leaders. Even they cannot stomach half the things that come out of Donald Trump’s mouth and as you might well know, it’s not because they’re soft. They continuously find themselves firmly denouncing his actions and statements because beyond their undying loyalty to their political party, they know the damage that will be done if those ill-informed, hateful, knee-jerk ideas were to end up behind the helm of America. Like others, I happen to agree that these leaders have some reflecting to do on why their constant need for denunciations hasn’t eroded their already begrudging endorsements of Trump, but I think they’re coming around. Adding to the ranks of well-known Republicans doing this very thing, just today, Meg Whitman, a fundraiser for the republican party who made large donations to the Romney and Christie campaigns, called Trump a “demagogue” and said she plans to vote for Hillary Clinton. House Republican, Richard Hanna did the same.

To my friends who might support Trump, it is not my intention to devalue your frustrations with current political leaders. I know you’re upset and you want to see the direction of the country change. That is your right to feel that way and though I may disagree with you, thank goodness we live in a democracy, however many flaws it may have, and disagreement is allowed. I know that some folks appreciate that Trump is not politically correct. They like that he talks tough, doesn’t worry about hurting feelings and speaks to the raw emotion of many people’s long-standing frustrations. I can understand and respect the sentiment that sometimes American political discourse feels too rehearsed or overly-sensitive and perhaps it feels refreshing to see someone who just says what’s on his mind. But I promise, this is not a matter of mere, arguably innocent, political incorrectness. And whatever Trump says from the podium that speaks to your specific frustrations, I strongly believe that those words are empty. Why do I think that? Well, partly because his policies on issues – when he’s even said what they are, which isn’t often – would not and could not in reality lead to the change you might hope for. “We’re going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it”?? Really? He knows what to say to win people over, it’s just that he is not concerned with making those promises a reality.

You might be thinking, “what makes you so sure!? You’re just saying that because you don’t like him.” Well, you would be right on the latter. I don’t like him. But my dislike for him is not because of his party affiliation. I dislike him because he is capitalizing on real, human fear to generate an angry, hateful movement behind him that does not reflect who we are as Americans. American’s don’t cast blanket judgements on entire religions or races, for example, but his harmful rhetoric has and will continue to draw people into doing so. I don’t like him because he is deceiving so many decent, hardworking Americans for his own personal benefit all while making them believe he’s the one doing them a favor.

Some assumedly morally sound people have said they feel they can trust Trump because they cannot imagine why anyone would cause such a stir, even at the expense of earning the disdain of his own party, unless he was truly demonstrating his willingness to go to the mat for their cause. Maybe you’re among them. But my friends, you – by no fault of your own – are falling for the same dog and pony show that I have fallen for in my own past. Because I can think of one other reason why he would behave like that and it’s not because he’s a modern-day Robin Hood. Someone who was really going to mat for the poor and middle class wouldn’t try to convince underpaid Americans that they’re poor because they’re unilaterally lazy, or base a woman’s worth on her looks and then publicly degrade her with sexually harassing and/or sexist comments. Nope. Trump’s actions and promises stem from something very different – he is a textbook sociopath.

And I don’t say that melodramatically.

No, I have not gotten a doctorate degree in psychology since last we spoke. I have a master’s of science degree in Environmental Science and Policy. I obviously cannot officially diagnose someone and I don’t pretend to have those qualifications. But thankfully, others who do have those qualifications have already done that for me. But although I may not have a degree that qualifies me to know an abuser when I see one, I do have my own experience. For two and a half years, I had my own, very intimate and personal experience with someone who I didn’t know at the time has this personality disorder. It destroyed me, because I thought “what kind of idiot doesn’t realize it and get away when they’re being abused and manipulated?” It hasn’t been until recently that I’ve been able to talk about it outside of tearful, apologetic conversations with my fiance or my therapist. I’ve done a lot of research since learning that no, I’m not an idiot, I was drawn into the grasp of a classic sociopath. I also learned from my therapist that there’s no cure for sociopathy, if you’re unfortunate enough to have any sort of relationship with someone with this mental disorder, the only way to escape it is to get away from them. So now, needless to say, something that could have and did fool me in the past, I recognize all too well. To me, the only thing scarier than my own previous situation would be to see our entire country pulled into such a volatile grasp.

If you still have doubts, you’re totally justified: like I said, I’m not a psychologist, maybe a person’s own emotional trauma can make them see things that aren’t really there, and maybe you’re not a fan of The Atlantic. So please, take a look for yourself: a quick Google search will bring up plenty of credible descriptions of sociopathy that have Trump’s actions, statements and behavior written all over them.

In short, people with sociopathy, also known as Antisocial Personality Disorder, are disconnected with social norms – they do not feel sympathy, empathy, guilt, shame, or a sense of social morality and they tend to have an over-inflated sense of self importance. That disconnection with social norms combined with an inflated ego, enables them to be master manipulators of the very social norms they don’t have access to. The sense that they’re better than other people and the fact that they don’t feel guilty for screwing people over, makes for an ace combination resulting in, well…Trump. And yes, a sociopath is capable of great success, but at the cost of anyone and everyone who isn’t conveniently out of the way. Sociopaths can turn on the charm when they feel it will get them something they want, then as easily as a switch flips, when things don’t go their way, even minorly so, they often react with anger and hostility before switching back to the charmer role again without ever blinking an eye or feeling an ounce of guilt, shame or remorse for how they just behaved or treated other people. According to the Mayo Clinic, sociopathy is “a mental condition in which a person consistently shows no regard for right and wrong and ignores the rights and feelings of others…[sociopaths] tend to antagonize, manipulate or treat others harshly or with callous indifference. They show no guilt or remorse for their behavior.” Sound familiar? This is not, and cannot be the characteristics held by our nation’s Commander in Chief.

Trump may speak his mind, but the extent to which he does it is not normal. It’s not “tough love” or “telling people what they need to hear.” It’s sick. At the same time he’s claiming to hold dear our core American values, Trump has objectively denounced at least one entire religion, he’s thrown people out of his rallies because they disagree with him, he’s publicly sided with world leaders that have shown hostility toward America and even more unthinkable, he’s encouraged them to hack high-level, government emails. He claims to hold Christian values, but mocks the disabled and can’t answer basic questions about The Bible. He refers to public servants as “losers” and openly discriminates against and disrespects families of American soldiers. He treats women like objects, calls them things like “bimbos” for challenging him and doesn’t feel an ounce of guilt or remorse for doing it. The list goes on. This behavior is not a simple and innocent lack of political correctness, it demonstrates his complete disregard for America and for the American people, for anyone but himself. He is incapable of possessing the sense of moral responsibility that he would, at a bare minimum, need to have to lead this country and to serve as an example of leadership to the rest of the world. The leader of the United States needs to have a thick skin, to be tough and to be able to make tough decisions, yes. But don’t let anyone tell you that’s the same thing as being brash, impulsive, retaliatory and divisive. Being a strong leader, in any situation, let alone as President of the United States, does not involve a tendency to regularly lash out in defense of one’s own ego and especially not when the rest of the world and our national security hangs in the balance.

Trump may wear the Republican label, but he does not represent even the most core of American or Republican values. He represents fear, hate, a thirst for power and an unwillingness to take responsibility for anyone or anything, not even himself or his own actions. He represents someone with an effective veil of charm that regularly falls away to reveal a deep callousness and disregard for other human beings. The selfish, impulsive, guiltless, morally deficient character of Donald Trump cannot gain access to the nuclear codes and to the command of the strongest military in the world. Such a travesty would be a disaster for Republicans and Democrats alike because in the end, we are all citizens of this great country and all passengers on the same ship. This is why, if we all truly care about our country, we have to step up. We have to swallow our pride, put our differences aside and unite based on our commonly held, long-standing American values. The well-being of our country and perhaps even the world depends on it. We’re Americans above all else. It’s time to drop the pitch forks and live up to our name.
*If you’re still reading this, thank you from the bottom of my heart for hearing me out. Whether you agree with what I’ve just said or not may be another story, but I appreciate that you took the time to read and consider.

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Gutting it out at Pine to Palm 100

Wagner Butte II

Looking down the trail in the last 15 miles of the race.

After nearly a year of having my sights set on my first one hundred miler, this past weekend at the Pine to Palm 100 was my first attempt at that goal. The race is organized by Hal Koerner and runs from Williams, OR to Ashland, OR through the Siskiyou Mountain Range and it. is. beautiful.

For anyone who’s not so much interested in the nitty gritty details and thinking “no way in hell I’m wasting precious moments of my life reading this whole thing” (understandable), I’ll jump to the chase up front: Coming into the race, I was admittedly pretty much clueless as to what it takes to run a hundred miles. I mean, it’s like when someone with a fear of heights tells you skydiving isn’t scary because it’s so high that it’s hard to fathom just how high up you are. I couldn’t even fathom running this distance. I just tried to prepare myself for almost anything and got it in my head that most likely, my biggest battle would be in my head. Despite my inexperience and a bummer of a setback thanks to a pissed off knee after Speedgoat that basically had me twiddling my thumbs for what should have been the three peak weeks of my training, spoiler alert: I’m excited to report that I crossed the finish line! Just making it to the finish was my tertiary goal, and to achieving any goal in a hundred mile race where there’s so much opportunity for something to go awry, I say hell yeah! (My first goal was to run under 25 hours and second was to run under 28). There were definitely moments when I wasn’t sure if even my plan C was going to happen this time around.

This race had a few major takeaways for me:

  • I’ve finally become a hiker! If you know me, you know I’m a runner, not a hiker. Embracing this aspect of ultra-running has been a challenge for me. But I’m discovering that covering ground quickly on a good long climb isn’t beyond my reach.
  • Consuming 300 calories per hour is a good goal – set that repeating watch alarm to go off every 20 minutes!
  • Have patience when your world feels like it’s going to hell in a hand-basket. Things get better. Ride that roller coaster with the confidence that even the shittiest of feelings go away, it’s just a matter of when.
  • Always move forward. Every step – even a nauseous slow one – is one step closer to the finish.
  • Talking to yourself is acceptable.
  • Vomiting Coca-cola isn’t so bad, vomiting V8 sucks.

Pre-Race Logistics

I registered for this race last winter mostly because I’d heard that while it was a challenging course, it was a very runnable one (i.e. not Leadville – which I also entered the lottery for, but didn’t get in) and I’ve heard you should choose a race that suits your strengths for your first one. I’d second that last point now that I’ve experienced it. There are so many things to juggle in a race like this, it just makes sense not to throw in other unfamiliar territory if you can avoid it.

Evan and I decided to fly into Medford instead of drive – I thought 16 and a half hours in the car before asking my body to race for 24+ hours might be a bit much, much less ask it to sit there for another 16.5 hours afterward. We arrived early Thursday evening, picked up the rental car (actually truck – we rented a midsize sedan but were instead handed the keys to 100% pure AMURICA at the Enterprise counter) and headed to a quick dinner at a tapas bar downtown and then a hotel to get as much sleep as possible two nights out from the race. I’d been coming down with some kind of feverish yuck starting Sunday before the race and I was paranoid that it would finally get the better of me if I didn’t stay well-rested. The possibility of waking up the day before my first 100 miler with a fever and a sore throat sounded like one of the more awful potential setbacks that could stand between me and that finish line on Sunday.

My parents agreed to help Evan crew and I’m so glad they did. It was extremely helpful to have them both at aid stations and it meant a lot to share this experience with them. They were driving up on Thursday and arrived Friday night with the truckbed camper in hopes of making things more comfortable for a long weekend. My mom cooked a much more deluxe version of my traditional pre-race meal of salmon (she added a fancy peach and avocado topping), rice and broccoli while dad, Evan and I went to the race briefing.

Reading comments on forums before the race had me nervous that the roads into some aid stations would be too gnarly for a rental car, so I was glad dad would have his truck there just in case (for the record, my crew had no problems, even getting into Dutchman. The road was a little washboardy, but nothing like what I had imagined after reading some reports from previous years. There were many cars at the top).

My dad's photo of headlamps at the start.

My dad’s photo of headlamps at the start.

Race Day!

The race started at 6am on Saturday morning on Rock Creek Rd, roughly 6 miles from Pacifica Gardens where Hal Koerner (the race director) organized for everyone to camp for free the night before (thanks, Hal!). It’s good to note that it was at best a small walk and at worst about a mile walk to the start from where people parked their cars along the road. Some folks got to the start late because the bus dropped them off at the bottom of the hill or they parked at the bottom of the hill and had to walk further than they expected. So I was glad we left Pacifica Gardens at 5:20 to be safe.

The race starts in the dark with about a mile of uphill on pavement before cutting off onto singletrack. The concerns about not feeling so great for the previous several days and my knee troubles following Speedgoat that had me stressed out over the weeks leading up to the race faded into the dark and the familiar sense of humility and concentration that comes with running an ultramarathon settled in. My world became nothing but the headlamp lit trail in front of me, the sound of people around me breathing, some chatting back and forth, and focusing on finding a pace that acknowledged the fact that the forecast called for record high temperatures (100 degrees) and we had one hundred miles to go with 20k feet of climbing and the same of descent. It already felt hot and the sun hadn’t even poked its head over the horizon yet.

Most of the first 11 miles is one solid climb. I found a good alternating hiking and running pattern and took in the beauty of a smoky dawn.

Photographer, Paul Nelson's photo of sunrise on Saturday morning around mile 10.

Photographer, Paul Nelson’s photo of sunrise on Saturday morning around mile 10.

I’d taken three 16 oz Salomon soft flasks rather than the two I normally carry because of the temperature forecast and I was glad I did. I was out of fluid before there was any sign of the first aid station, even with the “topper” water station around mile 5. The descent from mile 11 to the 15 mile aid station felt surprisingly long and I found that the bottom of the descent was steeper than I had imagined. Nothing like worrying about what the terrain is doing to your quads with more than 85 miles to go! (But by the way, I made a concerted effort NOT to think that way. Just go from aid station to aid station, none of this counting down from one hundred and feeling discouraged crap).

After mile 15, the course moves onto a maintained, gradual downhill dirt road, which makes for super easy running and stays there the vast majority of the way to Seattle Bar at mile 28 where Evan and my parents were waiting for me.

Descending into Seattle Bar the outside of my right knee – the same one that had been misbehaving after Speedgoat – started acting tight so I stopped a couple of times to do a quick knee exercise Evan has showed me in the past, which involves holding your knee out in front of you and quickly flexing your leg to straight, holding it for a second, then releasing. It seemed to be helping, but my stomach was also starting to feel funky. In the back of my mind I thought, it’s too damned early in the day for this crap, but closer to the surface I was trying to maintain positive self-talk by telling myself things like “it’s cool. This happens. It will get better. Just manage it. Also, let’s sing T. Swift under our breath to ourselves because that’s something happy.”

Seattle Bar Aid Station, mile 28.

Seattle Bar Aid Station, mile 28.

Seattle Bar is at the bottom of a long, often exposed climb to the top of Stein Butte. The elevation profile says this is 5 miles long, but several people who’d run it before assured me it’s more like 6-8 miles to the next aid station at the top. When I rolled into Seattle Bar my stomach was already threatening to regurgitate the gels and fluid I’d been putting down every 20 minutes for the past five and a half hours. I weighed in, drank a cup of Coke, Evan gave me a Gin Gin to put in my cheek and my parents packed ice into my hat and the back of my shirt and ran a cold rag over my legs and back of the neck. I took a popsicle and my headphones so I could just grind out this climb and started the long ascent to the top of Stein Butte.

Despite the way I was hearing everyone talk about Stein Butte, I actually enjoyed it! My stomach started to settle not long after I left the aid station and I got into the hiking groove. I had to deal with more tight right knee problems toward the top, but a quick stop to stretch my IT band and hamstrings every now and then seemed to be working. I passed several folks by the time I reached the aid station at mile 33 and was feeling pretty good.

From mile 33, there’s more climbing along the ridge on a fire road before the course cuts off on singletrack for another long and steeper than I expected descent to the mile 42/45 aid station at Squaw Lake – the next place I’d see Evan and the parents.

Heading out for the lap around Squaw Lake at mile 42.

Heading out for the lap around Squaw Lake at mile 42.

By the time I got down to the lake I was pretty irritated at the downhill. Even trying not to bomb it, I could still feel that my quads were getting trashed. I came into the Squaw Lake aid station and handed off my pack to my crew to refill while Evan gave me a hand bottle of GU Rocktane for the two mile lap around the lake. I wasn’t two minutes into the beautiful, runnable, smooth trail around the lake when my stomach started going to hell again. I tried to manage running, but my stomach really hurt and I was pausing every few minutes to gag; partly hoping I wouldn’t puke, but also thinking I’d be grateful to purge and start over.

When I got back to Evan and my parents at mile 45 I was really fighting the nausea. I drank a small bit of V8 thinking that the salt would help. I grabbed my refilled pack and gave Evan a quick kiss on the way out. I made it about twenty feet down the road and promptly lost what calories I’d just got down on the side of the road to the semi-amusement of two men walking to their truck behind me who commented “god, there’s no vanity in ultra-running.” I laughed and replied, “Nope! Do you wanna know more?”

I felt a little better after puking and continued an easy jog down the dirt road trying to replenish what I’d just lost with Roctane. I was at least thankful that I’d been going to the bathroom regularly all day, so I knew I wasn’t dehydrated.

In a couple of miles, the course turned off the main dirt road and headed up another two-track road into the forest before turning again onto singletrack at the top of a saddle. The climb up the two-track was – surprise – miserable. I had a GU in my hand the whole way up just trying to muster the power to finish it, but I couldn’t. My stomach felt terrible and despite trying to puke several times while I hiked there wasn’t anything in my stomach to offer relief. By the time I turned onto the singletrack and paused to fill my water bottle at the water station there, my attempts at optimism were drained and I had a little breakdown in front of a complete stranger. Said stranger’s name turned out to be Dennis, a wildland firefighter from Redding who was running his first 100 too. We hiked and talked for about another mile on single track that traverses up the side of the mountain with amazing views of the mountains and the late afternoon sun. I finally started to get a handle on my nausea so I started running again and said goodbye to Dennis for now.

Changing shoes and socks at Hanley Gap, mile 52.

Changing shoes and socks at Hanley Gap, mile 52.

This section of singletrack finally ended at a dirt road at Hanley Gap – the mile 50 and 52 aid station. Evan and my mom and dad took my pack again to refill it while I took the hand bottle of Roctane up to the peak to retrieve a baby diaper (not joking) as proof that I summited. The way back down was when it became clear to me that my quads were definitely in trouble. I was trying to run down the steep hill and it was just a ridiculous hobble. A couple people going up were kind enough to offer encouragement with statements like “you’re looking great!” and “this mountain is your bitch!” and I wanted to reply “now I know you’re lying. We all know I look like death warmed over right now.” But I appreciated the laugh. When I got back down to the aid station the sun was setting and I had an angry stomach again. I sat on a cooler while my dad helped me change my socks and shoes and I changed into a dry shirt. I sipped some chicken broth, which seemed to be going down nicely, so I had two more cups of it in a desperate attempt to input sodium and calories before heading off for my few hours in the dark by myself.

The next 8 miles to mile 60, surprisingly, were a high for me. It was all on pretty decent dirt road, which made for easier running in the dark and I was enjoying running in my own little bubble of light and listening to happy music. The best part was that I was still able to run at a pretty good pace even if the downhill was a little painful. And given all of the black bear poop I saw on the trails during the day, I only saw something rustle in the bushes at the edge of my headlamp light once and never again, which was A-okay with me. About a mile before the aid station I saw the bright glow of a reflective hydration pack ahead and recognized I was coming up behind a nice guy named Dave whom we’d camped next to at Pacifica Gardens the night before the race. I called out “Dave! Is that you?!” I was stoked to have someone to run with.

It was after the mile 60 aid station, on the five mile climb to Dutchman Peak that I fell into another dark place. Thankfully though, Dave and I were hiking together and we were talking and marveling at the cool insects and snakes we were seeing on the road in between my pauses to dry heave. He insists that he wasn’t waiting back with me, that he would have gone that pace anyway, but I’m not sure I believe him. I sure appreciated the company though.

After battling the stomach for another hour or so, I decided to risk it and stop eating entirely and just drink water for a while hoping that would help clear out whatever glob was just sitting in my stomach not digesting. Thankfully that seemed to work and I started to feel better again. Shortly after that, I could hear the blasting music from the Dutchman Peak aid station at mile 65 off in the dark. That was where I would pick up Evan and finally have someone to keep me permanent company after such a rough day with a 50k still to go.

I got to Dutchman Peak at about 11:00pm and was happy to find Evan and my dad waiting for me with a warmer layer at the base of the peak. We hiked up the road to the aid station where I got more chicken broth and some ginger ale. After descending the peak I caved on my original goal of avoiding liver damage and took two Aleve in hopes of taking the edge off of my fried quad muscles.

After leaving Dutchman, the course makes its way onto the first singletrack since coming into Hanley Gap (mile 50). Evan was trying to keep us moving at a decent pace, but it soon became clear that my quads were done and the most I could muster was an occasional awkward momentum-dependant shuffle before slowing to a hike again. I found that the fastest I could move was either after gaining momentum in the hobble on semi flat sections or hiking up a hill. It was pretty hard for both of us to accept that we were probably going to be hiking our way through the last 32 miles.

The lights and comfort of Long John Saddle aid station, mile 74

The lights and comfort of Long John Saddle aid station, mile 74

We saw my parents for the last time before the finish at the mile 74 aid station at Long John Saddle. I had more stomach problems here, but the rotten cherry on top was the fact that it was 2 am and all I wanted to do was lie down in a warm bed and sleep for hours. I tried a bite of grilled cheese, decided it was a no-go and we got the hell outta there as quick as possible since the only piece of mind was found in knowing we were making forward progress and while the camp chairs, lights, and warm food were inviting it wasn’t getting us closer to the finish.

The next 6 miles followed a maintained dirt road to the Wagner Peak trailhead at mile 80 and the next aid station. I can say with certainty that these were the worst 6 miles of the race for me. Even though I had arm warmers, a light shell and a buff, I was cold. I was also pretty sure I might fall asleep on my feet. That combined with the fact that I couldn’t move efficiently anymore to make this be over with more quickly was extremely frustrating. Thank goodness for Evan reassuring me that we were doing fine, even if we were moving agonizingly slowly.

At mile 80 I was fried. I sat down in a camp chair for the first time the whole race and decided I needed to sort things out before heading up the steepest climb on the course to Wagner Butte. I couldn’t fathom going another step, let alone up a peak. My stomach was upset. Again. And this time not even the chicken broth was making it feel better. It started to creep into my mind that I might not finish this race and I thought how awful it would be to quit when I was so close, but so far away. So I did what any reasonable two year old would do: I cried and took a 20 minute nap on one of the cots at the aid station. When Evan woke me up to see if I was ready to hit the trail, I couldn’t believe that my stomach actually felt worse. I was shivering and pouring sweat at the same time. It was awful. I kept trying to eat pieces of boiled potato and it wasn’t going down. I was pretty sure my race was over. By this time, the sun was starting to light up the sky and Evan helped me out of the immediate aid station area so I could throw-up away from the good people that were staying up all night volunteering to help runners on their way. That’s when Evan said – “if you want this bad enough, we can walk the rest of the way out of here and we’d be done by noon.” It was an instantaneous decision for me. I wanted so badly not to drop out that any option was a good one for me. Even with an upset stomach, I can walk. Why was I not considering that as an option before? Walking isn’t glorious or fast or impressive, but it could mean the difference between a DNF and an F and that was significant. The aid station captain weighed me to make sure there was nothing more serious going on and we lit out of there like a herd of turtles in time for the sun to come up.

The sunrise, putting away the headlamp, and Evan’s trail dance party behind me felt like it gave me the boost in the fuel tank that I needed. I was immediately in better spirits, even after I stopped two more times to throw up the Coca-Cola I’d just drank before leaving the aid station. Evan kept things light with commentary such as “haha, look, it’s still fizzy!” I gave him a playful middle finger without turning around.

I battled the stomach with Gin Gins in my cheek for the LAST time until the turn-off to Wagner Butte and from there on out it was just a battle of the muscles. We scrambled up to the overlook at Wagner and grabbed a green pin flag that we had to turn in at mile 90 as proof of our summit. I gingerly made my way up and down the scrambly boulders at the top and we decided on a modest goal of managing the leg muscles enough to maintain 3 miles per hour on the last 15 miles of solid downhill (for reference, that’s how fast we’d aim to hike if we were trying to move quickly on a backpacking trip….so by running standards, we’re talking super slow). That sounded manageable, but I still worried that I wouldn’t be able to move even that fast. Frustrating.

From Wagner Butte, the course is 5 miles of single track that seemed only to get steeper the farther down we went and my legs let me know how unhappy they were about it. Finally, the trail spit us out onto another dirt road where we found the aid station and pancakes. Mmm…pancakes. I took one for the road wrapped around a piece of banana. This was the point where I truly felt like “yes! I’m going to finish this damned thing. I’ll crawl these last ten and a half miles if I have to.

Thank goodness for Evan's creativity.

Thank goodness for Evan’s creativity. “Ok, Amber. I want you to channel your inner angry old man with this thing, okay? Move with crippled fury!”

The course follows an endless dirt road downhill for 4.5 miles before turning onto another dirt road where you can see Ashland below you…forever, while never seeming to actually get any closer to it. Then it’s about 2.5 miles of sun-exposed trail (a.k.a. hell on earth) and finally a mile of steep, cruel pavement to the finish in downtown Ashland’s Lithia Park. The last mile and a half of the course, I was hobbling downhill with one of Evan’s custom tree-branch trekking poles – one of a kind, really– and I was so happy/exhausted that I had the crazy giggles and everything Evan said had me nearly blinded with laughing tears.

We crossed the finish line in an excruciating 30 hours and 45 minutes. I was tenth woman. The heat was bad enough that it apparently affected a lot of folks. Of the 121 runners that started in Williams, only 75 finished and apparently most of the drops were from complications from the heat.

Coming into the finish in 30:45

Coming into the finish in 30:45

Lessons Learned

Coming into the race I told myself I would have three goals. I’d shoot for my first goal and move down the line if things didn’t go as planned. That really helped me not to sweat the things that I couldn’t control – running 100 miles is stressful enough without fretting that “there’s no way I can make my original time goal so this whole race is shot.” I kept moving, kept staying positive and when I failed at that, my crew filled that role well and I was able to end my adventure on a high note. I finished my first 100 miles. Heck yes. I’ll do it again next year, but this time I’ll have at least some inkling about what I’m doing. Don’t tell Evan I said that, I don’t think he’s ready for this again just yet;) And in all fairness, next year is probably his chance to run and my chance to crew, but I can dream.

I feel confident that I’m capable of a much stouter performance in the future, but for now I’m happy to know that I’m capable of gutting it out when the world seems to be working against me – less than ideal training, knee struggles, a race-week bug, and record heat. Running 100 miles feels like 40% training, 10% luck and 50% winning a mental game against yourself.

Finisher's Schwag. Thank you, Hal Koerner and volunteers for putting on such an awesome event!

Finisher’s Schwag. Thank you, Hal Koerner and volunteers for putting on such an awesome event!

Today my legs hate me and my feet would murder me if they could hold a knife, but I’m so stoked. I can’t emphasize enough how grateful I am to all of the incredible volunteers who manned aid stations in the heat and the cold, lost sleep, and worked their tails off to make sure that everyone had the best shot at finishing as possible. I also cannot even begin to explain how thankful I am to my parents and Evan for listening to my worries for weeks leading up to this race, for traveling all the way to Oregon to hurry up and then wait in the 100+ degree heat and then the cold in the middle of the night to make sure that I had what I needed to keep moving. I’m currently in ultrarunning Karma debt. So if anyone needs a hand at their next race, let me know!

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Adventures at Speedgoat!

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Sometimes I like to surprise people and sometimes those people happen to include me, myself and I. Look, Wyoming winters can be long and sometimes a person might be driven to do crazy things, you know, like register for a 50k that boasts the title of “toughest in the U.S.” Woops!

IMG_8645

My elevation profile from Strava

The Speedgoat 50k was held on July 25th and is organized by ultrarunner extraordinaire, Karl Meltzer. It consists of 11,900 feet of climbing and around 11,200 feet of descent in the rugged Wasatch Mountains near Snowbird Ski Resort in Utah. How does one fit that kind of elevation change into 32 miles? With a lot of grueling straight up and quad-destroying straight down, that’s how. Nice work, Karl. Not a lot of folks can claim to have driven so many calm, collected people to curse out loud.

In other words – the Speedgoat course is exactly the opposite of what I would have in the past described with words like fun, satisfying, or desirable.

But like I said, sometimes I surprise myself.

When I registered for Speedgoat, I was in the process of looking for a 50 mile race as a tune-up for my goal race, the Pine to Palm 100, which is in Oregon on September 12th. My initial thought was that I should definitely do something longer than a 50k, but as I looked over past results and the course elevation profile it occurred to me that this is no ordinary 32 miles. Finishing times for this guy are more akin to what a typical 50 miler might have and with that much up and down combined with how I typically avoid that sort of thing in a race, it was sure to be excellent training in the art of suffering for me. And since I expect I’ll be dealing with a lot of suffering in the 24ish hours between September 12th and 13th, I was sold. Along with the “guaranteed to suffer” bonus, I had also conned my girlfriend, Sara Hooker into registering with me (thanks, Sara!!), so obviously everything was gonna be just fine.

Race Day!

Come race week, Sara called me to say she’d been taken out with a nasty respiratory illness and was no longer able to make the race. Nooo! Bummed and maybe a little more nervous at the thought of staring up from the starting line of this baby by myself, I resolved to tell myself “it’s no big deal, this is just a training event. Think of it as a long, beautiful (painful, life-hating) day in the mountains and don’t worry about competing, at least for the first bit.” Also, I decided that I’d prepare my mind for the worst and assume that none of the course was going to be runnable and that I’d be scrambling and power hiking all day. That way, I’d feel lucky whenever I was able to run. Eh? See what I did there? Mind tricks. Ultrarunners learn to get good at these games…or at least this one does.

Evan ended up traveling down with me and planned to actively spectate the race from at least three of the uppermost aid stations, which gave me a bit of comfort. It’s amazing what familiar faces can do when you find yourself lost in the pain cave.

As I stood at the starting line, I ran into fellow Landerite and good friend Tavis Eddy, who was about to start his third (I hope I’m not messing that up) Speedgoat and he introduced me to another incredible runner, Becky Wheeler. I recognized her immediately as “the badass woman with pigtails who blazed past me” on a long uphill in the El Vaquero 50k when I was running half that distance as a “comeback” from a ruptured appendix back in 2013. Strong ladies always manage to leave a mark in my memory, even if I never see their face or learn their name. I love being inspired.

The race started a few minutes past 6:30am. Becky and I started toward the front of the hoard and it gave me goosebumps to look back from a few switchbacks up and see the long human caterpillar winding up the mountain behind us. The course starts with a long climb, first up a moderate, switchbacking dirt road, then on single track, then back onto what could have only been a snowcat path, because it was steep and rocky as a m-effer. I just concentrated on power hiking.

It was 8.5 miles to the first aid station at Hidden Peak, and as we were heading up the first climb, I told Becky – probably more as a way of telling myself – that I planned to take the first 9 miles conservatively and then reassess how I felt from there. This turned out to be an excellent plan. I focused on running the more mellow slopes and power hiking the steeps (something I am very much still working on and Becky is a crusher at) and reached the Hidden Peak aid station – and Evan – in 2 hours and 10 minutes. Evan told me I was around 13th lady – which surprised me, considering the caliber of women who typically run this race. I moved through the aid fast, Evan filled my bottles and re-briefed me on the miles ahead as I chugged a cup of Coke, stuffed a few swedish fish and a piece of watermelon in my mouth and went on my way.

From Hidden Peak, it’s a cruisey beautiful downhill run through nearly chest-high wildflowers and then dusty, slippery, steep and rocky trail to the Mineral Basin aid station around mile 11. I only almost fell once. I moved right through here since I’d just resupplied not fifteen minutes ago. A creek crossing and another short, but steep climb later brought me to the top of the last climb before the turn-around at Pacific Mine, which was just six, steep downhill, rocky, creekbed/4-wheel drive road miles away. This was the next time I surprised myself.

Technical downhill has to this point not been my strong suit. I sprained my ankle badly running fast down a trail in 2012 and I’ve been a pansy about bombing downhills ever since. But lately, at Evan’s prodding, I’ve also been practicing it a lot. I’ve been working on quick feet, hinging forward at the hips and being in a more athletic stance to relieve stress on the low-back and knees and focusing on nothing else but where the next foot placement is as I’m already mid-air and going for it. I found that I easily passed one lady and four guys while running comfortably. That felt good!

I was in and out of the Pacific Mine aid station in about 60 seconds, thanks to the volunteers who were on their game. They filled my two half-liter bottles and had them back to me by the time I’d drank my cup of Coke and taken a popsicle for the road. There was a mile of flat running for which to finish my pink Otter Pop before the long, loose-footed, toasty five-mile climb back to Mineral Basin aid station at mile 20 (take note of that mileage ;)).

Leaving Mineral Basin, my spirits were lifted with more Coke and news from a volunteer that the mileage at that point was greater than I’d thought it was. But in case I dared to think the climbing I’d done to that point was hard, little did I know, I was heading for what was decidedly the hardest two climbs of the day. The first of which was up the side of Mineral Basin and straight up the backside of Mt Baldy at 11,000 ft. The last bit of the climb to the summit of Mt Baldy was roughly 1,000ft of vertical over less than a mile, it was off trail and moving up consisted mostly of going for clumps of grass for footing with my hands out in front of me, either on the ground or just above it ready to help push me up the next step. I maintained the goal of one step at a time, don’t stop, “you’ll be to the top before you know it.” And then I was!

When I crested the top I was SO RELIEVED. I hadn’t entirely committed the aid stations and their mileage to memory, but I could see Hidden Peak, the final aid station before the five-ish mile descent to the finish only about a mile away along the ridge! Evan was there too and cheering me on. As I ran up to him he asked how I felt, I could only think to respond by pointing back at the backside of Mt Baldy and saying “that was probably the closest thing to my worst nightmare.” But that was all okay now, because I was done climbing for the day and the finish was only about 6 miles away. That’s when Evan said, Tunnels Aid station is just right up here. I said, “Huh? Why would they have two aid stations so close to one another?” And that’s when reality struck. Evan said, “well technically, they’re close for me, but not that close together for you, you have to go back down the other side and back up again, sorry about it.” On top of that, I also learned that while a volunteer at Mineral Basin had insisted that station had been at mile 23.4, I was actually only just now at mile 23.4!

Bad news all around.

But that’s life sometimes, eh? So I resolved to just forget about it, think positively and go with the flow- if I know one thing about ultrarunning it’s that a shitty attitude has serious effects and those effects are never good. Onward to the next point.

Summiting the final climb to Hidden Peak at mile 27! Photo Cred: Evan Reimondo

Summiting the final climb to Hidden Peak at mile 27! Photo Cred: Evan Reimondo

I went through Tunnels aid station quickly with a kind gentleman pouring an entire pitcher of ice water down the back of my shirt (complete with sizable ice chunks that hung out in the back of my bra for the next 15 minutes. Thank GOD) and headed through the tunnel and down, down for another mile or more, climbed up a sun-exposed, but sweet, narrow ridge–the second hardest climb of the day in my opinion–met a nice girl named Lydia Gaylord who’d been in front of me all day, and finally reached Hidden Peak, mile 27 and the last aid station before the finish!

Even though I was through the aid station pretty quickly, another woman caught up and ran right through the aid station without stopping. Crap. So I booked it out of there with Evan yelling behind me that “this is where it’s down to the wire!!” I was at least 150 yards behind her and prayed that my newfound downhill running skills could help me catch her. Thankfully, that panned out for me. I was moving well over the metallic sound of the packed scree trail and passed her before we were back below tree-line and I ended up with a couple of men I’d been going back and forth with all day. We maneuvered another steep, off-trail downhill and up three more short, steep climbs that are additions to the formerly all downhill final miles of the course.

Before long we were back on the course we’d come up that morning and for the first time all day I found myself cursing the fact that we were only on gently sloped single track. It seemed to be endlessly switchbacking across the slope, making the finish line so close, but so far away!

I came back up on another new friend, Patrick, who’d done the last bit of climbing with me. Then the single-track opened up to dirt road for the last 150 yards or so and I took that opportunity to step on the gas and pass three guys before crossing the finish line where Karl Meltzer had both of his hands up saying “whoa, whoa, whoa” and handed me a handful of finisher’s schwag (a Black Diamond Speedgoat hat, Drymax Speedgoat socks and a creative finisher’s medal shaped like a goat), a volunteer handed me an Ultraspire handbottle filled with iced recovery drink and Evan was there with a smile and a sweaty hug. I have to admit, having a kick at the end of that race felt a little absurd, I shouldn’t have had anything in the tank, but if it happens, I suppose it’s good to dump it.

It was only after the race, when Evan was looking at the live results, that we realized my next surprise of the day. I’d finished 11th woman! And – painfully – only missed tenth place by 10 seconds. I hadn’t even seen the next woman in front of me thanks to the thick forest and I had clearly been closing on her quickly because I hadn’t seen her all day. Damn. But 11th place in a race that was way out of my comfort zone and that draws so many tough women? I can live with that.

I want to thank Karl Meltzer and his team of stellar volunteers for putting on such an awesome, well-run event! (After Saturday, I think I’d even call  Speedgoat “fun,” even if it’s Type 2 fun, and I might even do it again next year! Wait, did I just write that out loud?) The race volunteers were out of this world and so helpful. Many thanks to Evan for dealing with my pre-race, anxiety-filled, sleepless night and running around all day to cheer me on and keep the friends and family updated! I also want to say thank you to my lovely, supportive friends and family who filled my Facebook feed and phone with cheers and encouraging words. I loved reading through them that night. You have no idea how much that meant to me 🙂 Y’all are just the best.

It’s now Thursday after the race and my soreness has been gone for a day already. I got in a four-ish mile hike on Sunday, took Monday off, aqua-jogged on Tuesday and ran five easy miles around town yesterday. The quads and right knee still feel a little weird, but I don’t think in any sort of bad way. This week is focused on recovery, icing the knee and taking ibuprofen as needed. I’ll ramp up the mileage again next week!

Onward to Pine to Palm!

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Feeling stoked on a great race and enjoying my salt-covered Sea Level Sucks cotton/poly t-shirt.

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