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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.