This week, I’m wearing a single blue toenail on the second toe of my right foot. I don’t usually paint my toenails, but when I do, it’s apparently with a subungal hematoma.
Every time I look down at my soon-to-be-shed toenail, a smile spreads across my face. It conjures high desert, views overflowing with snowcapped volcanoes, starting arch excitement (and anxiety), the welcome coolness of usually-maligned headwinds, the relief of summits, rush of descents, and that rattle snake at aid station 26.4.
At 32+ miles and 4,000+ft of elevation gain, this 50k-ish is the best sort of suffering and beauty. The final miles best reflect the spirit of the race: an IT-band-jarring descent followed by a curse-inducing climb to the ridge, all surrounded by views you can’t describe, you need to experience. The course is a legitimate challenge – if you want to test your merits at this distance, completing SRA is an accomplishment you’ll reminisce about for years to come (or if you’re like me, you’ll be back again next year).
UP AND (NOT SO) AT’EM
I was once told an adage by a runner I look up to: life stress is physical stress. If you’re stretched thin, it’ll show up in your recoveries, in your performance, in your energy reserves on runs.
Needless to say my reserves were nill at 6am race morning when I turned over in my sleeping bag to start getting dressed. The sun was already bright above the hills and the breezes cool through the cracked windows in the back of the Prius. I rented the car to drive out to Smith Rock the night before, and since I didn’t arrive till after dark, I just threw down the backseats for a night of intermittent snoozing near the packed Skull Hollow campgrounds, a place I’d pass through around mile 24 later that day.
I had already accepted that my finishing time, if I was lucky enough to finish, would suffer this year – my legs felt like lead, my head was foggy, my training was limited due to over-committing myself, but I was still so damn excited to be there! I run because it makes me feel alive, I run on trails because nature is my church. Ultimately, someone needs to be last – I’d still be proud to take that spot.
At the starting arch, I met a number of runners new to ultra distances and several 15-mile runners, too. I love hearing people’s stories – it gives them dimension and allows me the honor of celebrating with them when they attempt amazing things. Everyone that steps to the start of anything they’ve never done before is a hero in my book – they’re exploring their strength, they’re taking the risk of testing their limits without knowing what they’ll find on the other end. There’s so much to be gained and released when you run outside – it makes me giddy to see people discovering just what that entails.
Since I don’t track my time, splits, distance, anything, I like to have some other gauge for where I’m heading. I hadn’t even looked at the elevation profile or aid station breakdown, so I kindly asked the Ladies at check-in. Aid stations were at miles 7.6, 12.7, 19.4, and 26.4. I knew there was major climbing before the first aid station, a brutal section between 12-19, and a few other climbs scattered throughout. I felt as ready as I was going to be, and I settled into the scenery and away from all the to-do’s that awaited me after the finish line.
As always, GoBeyond Racing drew a slew of amazing people to their event. We were all excited, anxious, and ready for the countdown to 8am.
RUNNING ON EMPTY: MILES 1-12.7
As expected, we started at a fast clip. Every supported ultra I’ve ever run starts like this – faster than seems wise. Whether I wanted to stick with people or not, it wasn’t going to happen. I felt exhausted and a bit nauseated. My body felt like it was failing me before I even got to start.
On the way to the first aid station, there’s a large chunk of the day’s climbing. Once you get past the initial switch backs and come out onto a ridge, your legs are definitely primed for the rest of the course.
I was struggling immediately, but luckily I can speed hike like a motherfucker. I actually shuffled by some people who were running the hills in my typical awkwardly-forward-bent form (note: while not pretty, it helps keep the upper portion of Psoas engaged and reduces the pull on my disc and back injuries.). When I came out on the flat portion on the side of a hill, I kicked my leaden legs into gear and just enjoyed the flow.
I was still nauseated when my hands started to swell. I knew I was due for my period sometime soon, and it always messes with my electrolyte balance on long runs. Well, I thought, I’d just have to put my hands above my head as much as possible and take in extra sports drink. But with my stomach so angry, how the hell was I going to eat?
It was what is was, so I just kept moving onward towards that first aid station.
The stretch between aid station one and 12.7 is the most enjoyable part of the run – a lot of rolling downhill, a lot of views, and your legs are still fresh enough to really plow into them.
Unfortunately, I plowed into one a bit too quickly, lost my footing, and ate shit. When I stopped tumbling down the hill, I assessed the damage – bleeding knees and shins, acceptable pain – I’d be fine. I picked my nauseated, bloated, blood and dirt soaked self up and got back to enjoying the run into mile 12.7.
The daytime heat was starting to demand attention, my hands resembled the Michelin man, I felt on the verge of vomiting at all times, but I was still having a blast. The course, people, and moving my body still trumped any difficulties I was experiencing.
Mile 12.7: water refill, watermelon intake that felt like the fresh tears of a unicorn, several chocolate energy-gel packets, and then onward to one of the hardest stretches of the course.
BREAKING THROUGH: MILES 12.7-19.4
The sun was one thing, but it was starting to radiate up from the ground. The sooner I could get to the stretch after mile 24, the climb to the last aid station, the sooner I could be in some shade. I picked up the pace and headed into That Climb before mile 19.
My legs, my head, my stomach – I was beginning to accept that this would just be the nature of my run when suddenly, everything lightened. My legs felt strong! My head felt clear! My hands looked less like sausages! My pants were moist…
Around mile 16, I realized I had started my period.
I ALWAYS bring TP on my runs (you just never know), so I was prepared. I took care of business the best I could and continued onward. Once the initial frustration was released, I was actually excited – getting my Lady Time seemed to have cleared up the exhaustion I was feeling.
I was able to settle into a rhythm heading towards mile 19.7, after which I feel 50ks really begin.
I speed hiked (like a motherfucker) past 5 men on That Climb, then picked up the pace to pass a couple more before rolling into the 19.7 aid station for more watermelon, water, and awesome volunteers.
I was ready for more ascending and the final aid station.
FIGHT TO THE FINISH: Miles 19.7-32+
I knew going into SRA that 90%+ of the course was completely exposed, that we were running in high desert, that it would be 80 degrees and sunny.
I did not consider, however, that it was a bit more humid than normal, meaning the heat that grew throughout the day was trapped in the air, leaving parts of the course akin to running through an oven.
That oven-y baking was at its worst leading into mile 24. Cramping at the end of the race is non bueno, so I used what fluids I had to keep up with the fluids the heat was pulling out of me.
I was running downhills and flats, hiking uphills, and leap-frogging with a wonderful running buddy (his first 50K, and he was kicking ass!) as I made my way to Skull Hollow for the second time that day, the oncoming respite of a shaded section pulled me onward as quickly as my legs would take me.
I was feeling thirsty. REALLY thirsty. And I had around 3 miles to the aid station.
Those 3 miles include a climb through a small gully that leaves you feeling a bit isolated, and when you’re feeling every step, you know you’re just out of reach of the aid station, and everything hurts, that short climb can feel like an eternity.
I didn’t have time to dwell on it – I needed water, I needed that aid station, so I made my way past a few people (with the help of a lovely Lady who paced me for a bit) to come out over the plateau and into the welcome sight of white tents and… cats?
The volunteers at just-over-a-marathon were all wearing some sort of cat covered gear. A santa cat t-shirt? Check. Galactic-cat pants? Check. A stuffed cat on a rock as a send-off to your final stretch of trail? Check. It was a cat wonderland, and the ridiculousness was a wonderful reminder to not take running through nature too seriously.
A volunteer handed me a red flavor-ice popsicle as I rolled in and the moisture was heaven to my dry mouth. I then discovered they not only had water, they had pickles… This aid station just continued to get better. The volunteers even helped shoo away a rattlesnake who had meandered into the tent. Thanks for keeping us safe, guys!
The final aid station is just 5 miles (ish) from the finish, and it’s a place I like to take a minute and regroup before the last push. I decided to ask someone what time it was, assuming I was waaaay behind my normal pacing. When he told me it was just 1:20pm, I was shocked. I was making far better time than I thought.
I downed another glass of water, picked myself up, and took off towards the finish.
A hop, a skip, a painful and extended descent, a riverside jaunt, a sprint across a foot bridge, a steep-as-fuck short climb, and another sprint across the finish line. Despite the challenges of the day, I turned in a barefoot-shoe PR and realized I likely could have broken 6 hours had I not struggled so badly in the first half.
I felt proud, I felt ecstatic, I felt relieved. Runs like this are a lot like living – you never know what the day will throw at you, but with drive, the right mindset, and some lovely company, you find a way to not only survive, but enjoy the process of getting there.
When I arrive home and slip back into too-long to-do lists, grad school, work, and everything else, I just remind myself that soon enough, I’ll be back to plodding my path along trails, running for entire days, smiling without concern for much beyond the several feet beyond where I stand.
Soon enough, another year will pass and I’ll be back in the high desert, running with wonderful people along an amazing course, steeping in all the sensations and ruminations that come up when you find it within yourself to run just a bit farther.
Till then, I’ll enjoy the memories conjured by a blue toenail on my beautifully callused foot 🙂
An aside: After three phenomenal runs with GoBeyond Racing, it’s hard to imagine running an organized event with anyone else. They draw in what they put out – authenticity, and people who run far simply because they love it. And the volunteers are phenomenal – thank you for your kindness, enthusiasm, WATERMELON(!) and PICKLES(!!), and for swatting that rattle snake away while wearing galactic-cat pants.