Siskiyou Out and Back 50k, you were a monster. A wicked, beautiful monster. A hungry monster who ate ultra runners for breakfast and then spat them out all over the mountainside.
Here, better late than never, is my account of the most difficult race I’ve run to date (excluding my first marathon). In case you have not the energy to read its entirety, let’s boil it down. The report includes:
#1: Frank discussions about bodily functions
#2: Close encounters of the porta-potty kind
So, read on, my ultra readers, I hope you’ll stick with me to the finish line.
In the days leading up to the race I was a mess of nervous energy. Can I do this? What if I fail? What if it hurts? What if I’m slow? What if I disappoint people? Eessh. Who needs that, right? I tried to quell the anxiety Thursday morning with an easy 5-mile loop around the bridges before work. My legs, however, pulled out a blistering 7 min/mile pace. Wowza, Legs, save some for race day, will ya! Their performance nevertheless put a smile on my face and instilled me with confidence. The flip side of pre-race anxiety is the amazing energy and sense of purpose I feel. Race time is go time and I look forward to it with as much excitement as dread.
My goals for this race were difficult to asses. The race would be at a high elevation with over 4000 feet of climbing in the race. The SOB 50k made my first 50k looked like a cake walk so I knew a PR was out of the question. My goal was simple: Survive. Race to the best of my ability.
Thursday night after work, I drove the 4+ hours down to Ashland, Oregon. At some point during the ridiculously long drive it occured to me that if I thought driving for close to five hours was ridiculous, how ridiculous would it be to run 4+ hours through the mountains? The thought was an unsettling reality check.
I arrived at the hotel late that night where I met my parents.* I hugged them and them collapsed into a coma on the slightly skeezy hotel bed.
* My parents are co-presidents of the Northern California chapter of the IHDFC (International Heather Daniel Fan Club). As co-presidents and founders they try to make to as many of my big races as possible. Their cheerleading capabilities are only eclipsed by their kickass parenting.
Day Before the Race:
I wake up and stumble to the bathroom. Dull crimson. A familar ache. WTF! After months of a menstural cycle-free existence, my body decides to gift me with a period. Thanks a lot, Body. Really. I feel unreasonably upset about this and spend the rest of the morning fretting like a 13-year old. I keep thinking that maybe getting my period is evidence that I haven’t been training hard enough, or running enough miles, or that I’m carting too much weight. Pre-race anxiety plus pre-race periods. Yuck, indeed!
Later my parents and I drive to a nearby town to do some shopping/sight seeing/eating. I pick up the race packet at the local run shop afternoon and go out for an early dinner. I consume chicken, veggies and a glass of white wine. No carb loading for this girl. For dessert I have a banana smothered in almond butter and some tea. I pack my bag and chat with my parents:
Dad: So, Bug, what do you think it’s going to be like tomorrow
Me: I think it’s going to be like walking on the moon.
Dad: How so?
Me: Well, you can train all you want to walk on the moon, but then you actually have to go out and do it.
5AM: Race day! Go time! Shower. Shave. I had planned to eat sardines and salad, my old standard, as a pre-race breakfast but I had neglected to put the sardines in the hotel fridge. While I may be a hardcore sardine eater, the thought of eating room temperature canned fish makes me queasy. I snack on some salad leaves. I stuff things into bags. I wait for my parents.
6AM: Stop for coffee. Drive to the top of the Mt. Ashland Ski Resort. Pass sign that says elevation 6100. Narrowly miss a deer as it hurls itself into the road. We arrive at the staging/start area , I step out of the car and realize just how cold it can be at this atltitude, this early in the day. I shiver and run to my new best friend, the porta potties. Inside I begin serious negotiations with a suddenly very upset stomach.
6:30AM: Second porta-potty visit. I use my phone-a-friend lifeline for additional moral support and race mojo. My dad snaps this picture. There is an option to have a drop bag available at one of the aid stations. I don’t imagine that I’ll need it, but I’ve prepared one just in case. Inside is an extra pair of shoes and socks and pair of shorts. Knowing that will be there waiting at mile 21 provides a comforting security blanket. Kind of like a binkey for ultra-runners. I drop off the drop bag, potty at the porta potty, and glide on the BodyGlide. It’s race and day and running 50k sounds like a fine idea.
7AM: I line up with the other runners in the chilly morning air, in a parking lot, under the simple start banner. It’s deceptively low key for the the gigantic task we’re about to undertake. I feel the heady mix of excitement and nerves. My strategy is simple. I’m going to go out slow and then go slower. I spy Cheri, one of the Portland-area runners, from Trail Factor. We chat for a few minutes. Then all of a sudden the race director yells, “Have Fun!” Just like that we’re off. Just 31 miles to go, y’all!
Miles 1-3: The race is downhill from the start and I take it slow. Real slow. There is plenty of time and plenty of hills to run. I’m grinning. It’s a beautiful day. I’ve got my lucky earrings on and Espresso Love GUs in my pocket.
The race kicks onto a single track, meanders uphill and forces the runners into a single file. It’s slow going and I’m frustrated by the pace. I pass a few runners. Soon we are running through a medow and I hear the familar yell of my mom. Wooo! Woooo! She says. “Boys,” I say to the runners around me, “you’re in for a treat. That my mom yelling. She yells for everyone.”
We pass my mom and the gigantic banner.The over-the-top enthusiasm of my parents breaks the ice. The runner behind me re-introduces himself. “Oh yeah, I ran with you at Hagg Lake” he says, “You ran the first loop with me and then dropped me!” We chat on and on about different races and then I start chatting with the guy in front me too. Soon we’re passing the second aid station and I’m feeling better and better with each mile. My mom is cheering like a mad woman in the middle of a forest and I can’t help but laugh. She is awesome.
Mile 5-7: I tuck in behind the runner in front. I can’t remember for the life of me what his name is, but I know he was wearing a red shirt and NikeFrees. He gives me great advice. Run slowly til you get to Mile 22. That’s where the race really begins. Internally I balk at the idea that Mile 22 is just the beginning. I push the thought aside and concentrate on moving fluidly and easily behind Mr. Nike Free
I had been worried about the altitude coming into the race. The slight incline in the first few miles left me breathless, now my breath is calm and even. I’m not experiencing any of the usual symptoms of running at altitude: dizziness, nausea, inability to catch your breath. I am relieved and keep on trucking conservatively.
Mile 9ish: Mr. Nike Ree and I pass the big aid station and the beginning of the first serious climb. It’s a forest service road. I stop for some electroltyes and leave my companion behind. I pass a few more runners and soon I am running by myself. The grade is steep, but I feel good. Great even. My stride is light. My spirits are high. Go go go!
Middle Miles: Phil the Garmin beeps to let me know I’m at 13 miles. In a regular marathon I’d be half way done by now. Not so today. I’m still climbing up, up, up and passing runners at a steady rate.
At mile 15 I pass another aid station and giggle. The table is topped with a delightful array of “ultra foods.” Potato chips, pretzels, peanut M&Ms, Oreos, Fig Newtons, flat Coke, and candy. Add some cupcakes and you could host a 10-year old’s birthday party. I decline the party foods, down an Espresso Love GU and I’m off. I pass another runner and say cheerfully, “Can you believe it!! Half-way done!” He looks at me and I can tell he does not share my optimism.
I feel fantastic and begin to pass more and more runners. It’s difficult to gauge my pace and how fast I should be running. I know there is a nasty climb ahead, so I stay conservative. When I remember to look, the views are absolutely incredible. The distance seems silly and overwhelming so I decide to break down the race into three parts; I’ll run to Mile 20. Then there’s Mile 20-25, and then the Finish – Mile 26-31. Running 15.5 miles seems a little daunting, but running three ‘bits” seems good, even reasonable. I pass runners here and there but mostly I run alone.
Mile 18: In marathons, mile 18 always feels impossible. I’m still in the teens and still 8 long miles from the finish line. When Phil beeps to alert me that I’m on Mile 18 I soberly reflect that Mile 23 is the new Mile 18. . .
Mile 21: My mental capacity is dwindling. Big time. How many miles do I have to run? 50k is 31 miles, right? Or is it 32? If I’m at Mile 21 and the race is 31 miles, how many miles do I have left? I count them on my fingers twice. Ten miles. Ten miles. Or is it nine. Or eleven?
Mile 22: Only 9 miles left! I’m, like, so close to finishing, right? I grin because I’ve just decided that nine miles is “short.” The race begins a gentle, rolling uphill climb. I feel frisky and I pick up the pace. My legs agree that 9 miles is certainly close to the finish line. My mental capacity decreases and soon I’m thinking in fragments. Hill. Go. Legs. Mountains. Rock! . . .
Mile 23-26: Thoughts are hazy, life is getting harder. The uphill is a demoralizing grinder that is crushing me and the other runners. Suddenly a tightness in my chest, like heartburn, intensifies and leaves me gasping. I know what the problem is. There is an elephant is sitting on my ribcage. It is huge and it refuses to move. Why would an elephant sit on my chest? I’m not sure and I only that I can’t take a true breath. I try shallow breathes and I try longer, slower breathes. No dice. Hello, Elephant. I panic and start sobbing. Please go away. Please, please! I say to myself: just breathe as best you can, lungs, and I’m going to try to run as best I can. So we shuffle up the hill. I am 100% focused on trying to finish the race – elephant and all.
Mile 27: I pass Aaron and Greg – two talented Southern Oregon runners who I know. They shout encouragement and I yell back. Greg is especially enthusiastic and I am thrilled to see him. I try to feed off the morale boost, but my chest elephant is making me feel queasy. Despite the pain, I still pass other runners. Then I am at the last station where I gasp, “How long to the finish?” “2.8 miles” he says. I nod solemnly and push forward. Pain. My chest is burning, tight and heavy. My legs feel like ghosts. I feel empty. Hazy. Happy and sad at the same time.
I restart my lap time and decide that 2.7 miles seems too far. Instead I’ll just concentrate on running the next 10 minutes. Ten minutes is do-able, right? I run forward and check the time and see 2:10 looking back at me. Two minutes and ten seconds. That’s it? That’s all? This is going to be the longest ten minutes ever!
Mile 28-29: I just think about putting one foot in front of the other. Left. Right. Left. Right. Don’t think about your chest, Heather. Go. Forward.
Mile 30ish: The trail has leveled, but there is one last nasty surprise. We have to run up that damn forest service road. As I run through the meadow I can spy it rising up on the left. I groan. DO NOT MAKE ME RUN UPHILL!!! But at the same time I realize, Oh my god, all I have to do is run up this hill and then I’m done! With a tight chest and crampy calves, I start my crawl up the hill and toward the finish line. My parents are waiting at the top of the hill
My mom is yelling all manner of things, but what I hear is the one sentence from my dad, “You’re doing it,Bug!” I start to cry. I am a mess! I chug forward. So close to the finish.
Finish: I push past the finish line and I am spent. I don’t remember much of what happens after that for a bit. Someone hands me a bottle of beer and a medal and a pair of socks. I see Hal, the local running shop owner and the recent winner of the Western States 100 Race. We chat. I exit the finish area. I pick up a can of Coke which looks delicious and refreshing. I pop open the can, take a swig and immediately upchuck. Too soon, I guess. I chat with my parents and the elephant on my chest disappears.
Post Race: OK – if the idea of running 50k seems daunting,it’s only because you have yet to meet the people that come out to race. The commraderie is fantastic! Women congratulated me and encouraged me to keep up my great running, “You’ve got so much potential!” one of the runners said. Receiving a compliment made me glow. Seeing so many strong female runners was a true inspiration. I want to be one of them!
I took off my shoes and felt immediately better, I ate some food and chatted it up with the other runners – Jodie, Greg, JC, and Carly all of whom I already knew. There was also Denise who came up to me and said, “Are you Heather? The one that writes the blog! I love reading it. It’s so inspirational!” (Why, thank you!).
Conclusions: Damn, what a race!