Last February, I attempted the Rocky Raccoon 100 and ended up writing a DNF report for iRunFar. Looking back, I wasn’t ready for a 100 in any sense of the word “ready” and I certainly wasn’t ready for a race. This August, I finished Leadville, and this time, I was ready… well, for most of it.
Part One: The First 50 Miles
When I bounced around in the dark just before the start of the Leadville 100, close to the front of a crowd of nearly 700 runners, I wasn’t thinking about the daunting task of running 100 miles. I just thought about how all I had to do was spend the day running, and end the day right back here, again in the dark, at the finish. I had expectations of course, goal times of arrival and departure from point to point along the way, but by being relaxed and focused, I rationalized I’d get there one way or another.
And so, we began – a mass wave of bobbing headlamps galloping downhill, around a corner and out of town. I started slow, as my sister Lauren had warned me I should. “Ashley, whatever you do, do not get to May Queen winded. You cannot be breathing hard when you get there.” I heard Lauren’s voice the whole way around Turquoise Lake. I had to force myself to slow down, to take my time, to relax. I decided anything under 2 hours was way too fast. I came in at 2 hours on the dot. I was on top of my hydration, nutrition and perhaps on the verge of being a little too on top on my electrolytes, but I felt like I had hardly run a step.
When I got to Fish Hatchery Aid Station (around mile 26) my calves and hamstrings had cramped from too much electrolytes… I had taken one SaltStick capsule every half hour from the start of the race, probably a little much for that time of morning. My cramps made me nervous and I eased off the pace and started drinking more water, I was hurting coming down Powerlines (which is a really steep downhill)and started thinking back to Rocky Raccoon and hoped I hadn’t made the same mistake that could potentially lead me to a DNF if I wasn’t careful.
This was a hard feeling to have so early in the race, especially because the next 4 miles were boring pavement followed by flat dirt road that lead runners down a section called Pipeline before eventually dropping into a beautiful area of the Colorado trail, rich with Aspen trees and lush foliage. Getting to this section, however, proved more challenging than I could have imagined.
As I ran down the pavement toward Halfmoon, I tried to relax, pull my shoulders down and take deep breaths, counting them with my strides, keeping my heart rate low. I slid the iPod that Jen, my crew leader, had let me borrow into my ears, and tried to focus on the music instead of running. The distraction of Girl Talk, Gregory Allen Isakov, Broken Social Scene and Ani DiFranco carried me, somehow, all the way to the Halfmoon Aid Station, some odd 32+ miles in.
I refueled and grabbed a cup of Coke that I downed on my way out, grimacing with each step. I willed the jolt of sugar and caffeine to give my legs some pep, but my hopes were quickly diminished as the plod along the double-track toward the Colorado Trail turn-off did not lend relief. I even found myself walking and stretching occasionally, trying to boost my morale and get some rejuvenation going in my muscles. Every effort to feel better, failed miserably and I succumbed to listening to the same Ani Difranco song over and over and over for at least a half hour, a method, I knew, would eventually work. I sang her powerful feminine empowering lyrics until I was back to enjoying the run. This didn’t happen until about 3 miles out from Twin Lakes when I passed a man looking rather despondent himself. We exchanged a few encouraging words and I looked back to see him running again a few minutes later, which made me smile and sing again: “Just can’t leave and you just can’t please. I was locked into being my mother’s daughter. I was just eating bread and water thinking nothing ever changes…If you’re not angry, you’re just stupid or you don’t care. How else can you react when you know something’s so unfair? When the man of the hour can kill half the world and more, make them slaves of a super-power and make them die poor. ” (By the way, Out of Range, is one of my favorite Ani songs. I recommend if you listen to nothing else she sings, you at least listen to this.)
I was so relieved to see my crew at Twin Lakes, I almost cried. The nearly 16-mile section I’d just completed from Fish Hatchery to the Twin Lakes Aid Station felt like an eternity. Just getting to Twin Lakes, as a mile marker, made me feel better.
A year earlier, around the same time of day, I had decided I wanted to run Leadville when I paced Bryon Powell from this aid station. When I arrived in Twin Lakes after coming off Independence Pass from Aspen, cars were lining the sides of the highway and I could see runners coming through the meadow around Twin Lakes.
This day, crowds lined the dirt streets of the little town cheering and waiting for their runners to come by. There must have been well over 300 non-runners in Twin Lakes, something I had never seen or even heard of in a trail race. It gave me goose bumps. I was immediately drawn into the excitement.
I tried to move quickly and transition my mind to the climb ahead up Hope Pass as I jogged out of Twin Lakes with my Mom, Jen and Jeremy by my side who gave me encouragement and cheered me on till I disappeared out of sight around the meadow. With my back hurting so bad, I was nervous I’d fall off my time goal. Somehow, even though I felt like I had been moving extremely slow, I was still on target pace, but was worried getting over Hope Pass might take a lot longer than I anticipated.
I started the climb hiking slowly, feeling more like I was moving backwards than making any progress toward the summit. I started walking bent over and shaking my upper body like a mop while holding my pack in front of my chest to relieve my shoulders. I can only imagine how strange this must have looked to the man breathing heavily two steps behind me.
I ran out of water halfway up the ascent. My mouth was so dry by the time I got to the Hopeless Aid Station at timber-line, I had to guzzle a few cups while an aid station worker filled up my bladder. Only, he didn’t fill it up. This was a sad truth I realized about 3 minutes before reaching the summit. As I sucked on my bladder hose, and no water flowed through. Oh Shit, I thought. This is it. I have more than 4 miles to go to the halfway point and I have nothing to drink. I had a hard time grasping the idea of the dusty Winfield Road without water.
So I resolved not to think about it. There was nothing I could do to get more water now, so I just pushed the thought away. Instead I thought about the view – the grandeur of the Collegiate Peaks before me and the bliss of high alpine running – while it lasted. There is nothing like the feeling of being close to timber-line on a fine cloudless day. I put on a smile, and ran that way the rest of the way down the pass.
When things got low, I found a song on the iPod to really get me going: “Tik Tok” by Kei$ha. And I don’t even like Kei$ha, but I like that song and it made me dance and sing as I hopped over rocks and off stumps, threw my hands in the air and hoped sideways, crossed my feet… however you can dance while running down a steep hill. (How I had the agility not to trip at close to 50-miles in, I have no idea.) But, I sang: “Wake up in the morning feeling like P-Diddy. Grab my glasses, I’m out the door, I’m gonna hit this city. Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle a jack cuz when I leave for the night, I ain’t comin’ back!….Don’t stop, make it POP, DJ blowin’ my speakers up. Tonight, I’m gonna fight, till I see the sunlight.”
When I was close to the trail-head, my friend Zeke and his pacer Noah were coming the other way. We stopped and said hi and exchanged a few words. Noah gave me a swig of his nearly empty water bottle, I thanked him, wished them well, and danced off down Winfield Road toward the turn-around. I was thirsty and in need of some electrolyte replenishment, but since there was no place to get that yet, I just decided to enjoy Kei$ha and keep up a rhythm passing runners up the road. “Everybody getting’ crunk….. we goin till they kick us out, or the Police shut us down…..”
PART 2: The Second 50
At Winfield, Jeremy tried to hand me a sandwich. I tried to ignore him and ate a handful of chips, grabbed some Coke and watermelon and downed a gel. I took two SaltStick capsules to be on the safe side, dropped my pack, took another few gulps of water and headed down the road hands free and feeling relaxed. I left Jeremy to catch up with the refilled pack and water-bottles. He, along with all my pacers, would be muling for me the rest of the race.
At the trail-head, we passed the third place woman and when I looked back, she was gone.
Jeremy paced me to Twin Lakes. He held my water for me and handed me gel, SaltStick capsules and water when I needed them. Since I was not keen on taking the gel, he started a timer and opened them and handed them to me when it was time. I bitched about this some, which I did to all my pacers on the way back, sometimes more than others, but eventually, I folded and shoved them in my mouth.
The second ascent back over Hope was hard, though not at first. I started feeling great, climbing in a slow easy rhythm. I passed co-worker Elinor Fish on her way down. I was glad to see her since I had planned on crossing paths somewhere on this section. She looked to be moving well, but sounded a little tired and she said her legs felt trashed. I knew she had a good pacer waiting for her at the turn-around, so I tried to give her some encouraging words and headed on my way up.
Just as we crossed the timber-line, I started to feel bad. I had a hard time moving forward and the pass was so crowded at this point, it felt like an over-jammed highway at rush hour. Gel packets littered the alpine grass and I started to get angry at people’s lack of responsibility and respect for the trail they were using. Did they not realize everything dropped up here had to be packed out? And when people started bumping into me and asking me to move as they came down-hill, I started getting even angrier. There was no place to go and there were too many people on this thin trail. I tried to ignore them and think about how beautiful it was – but I was tired and settled to just try and focus on getting to the summit and then down to the aid station on the other side.
I was nauseous but knew I needed to get some more calories in my system. I tried to eat Cheetos and broth, but threw up next to the trail as a woman I had never seen flew by, looking much stronger than me. She had come out of nowhere and was not the same woman I had passed earlier. I felt a little disheartened here, but knew, if I kept my pace, (not an easy thought when you’re puking up the little you have in your system little more than half-way in) I would pass her again and pass the other two in front. I just had to focus. But my stomach hurt too bad to run, so we walked until I got it together. And then I put in Kei$ha again, and we danced down from Hope Pass for a while. Then we talked about our wedding (Jeremy and I are engaged) and we talked about what he and the rest of the crew had done all day waiting for me and I got my mind off running for a while. So much, so that when we rolled into Twin Lakes, I was still ahead of schedule. If I kept it together, I was going to run a sub-20 hour 100. I was ready for this, I knew I could do it, but I knew this next section to Fish Hatchery would make or break that deal.
My friend, Peter Heitzman paced me here. This section became an interesting space of feeling good, feeling great, feeling bad and feeling worse. And they all came in waves like this, one after the next, and in no particular order. I could go from feeling totally elated to having to force myself with every positive thought I could muster to keep running, to stay relaxed. And I often walked. I had a hard time eating, I dry–heaved and nearly threw up, I cried a lot about how lucky I was to be able to run and how no one should take this for granted. About how beautiful the trail was and how sad the beetle-kill on the trees was. Then I cried because my sister had shown up an hour before and would be waiting for us at Treeline. She had left Colorado Springs after running the Pikes Peak Ascent, and was now here to help me to the finish. This was a surprise, since she planned on running the marathon the next day. Peter listened and responded and talked and was patient but he was getting worried and I could tell. I hadn’t eaten in a while and I had a hard time getting food down, so he made me walk to eat and then I couldn’t do more than walk or I’d throw up the little bit I had in my stomach.
I kept glancing at my watch, willing the next aid station to come into view, willing my family to come into view, willing myself to Fish Hatchery. It was hard. It was early evening and the sun had positioned itself at just the spot I could tell that darkness would come quickly.
When it finally came, I was running with Bryon Powell, down the boring flat road into Fish Hatchery. I was running well, but feeling bad and I was behind my pace. Way behind. I was so nauseous, it didn’t matter. My sub-20 hour time goal had vanished somewhere back in the woods before the pavement when I had to walk to keep my food down. I had no goal, but to get to Fish Hatchery and then from Fish Hatchery, I just had to get to May Queen. And once I got to May Queen, I just had to leave May Queen…because, if I left, there was no place to go, but the finish.
Bryon hustled me through Fish Hatchery as quickly as he could and then down the road to Powerlines – a wide, steep gullied trail along a row of powerlines that takes you to the top of Sugarloaf Pass. I had dreaded this section all day and had hoped to get here before total darkness. But, with the way I’d fallen apart the last few hours, that didn’t happen.
This ended up being one of the hardest parts of the whole race and a section I am sure I lost at least an hour completing. What happened next, was the one thing I really had not prepared for at all. I was so tired (I am used to going to bed at 9) that I nearly fell asleep several times on the way up. I had to stop and close my eyes. I wanted to want to move forward to keep going at the pace Bryon wanted, but I couldn’t. I could hardly fight my eyes and I couldn’t figure out a way to make my body want to do anything aside from sleep. The ground looked soft and the night was cool. All I wanted was a nap. As headlamps bobbed behind us on the climb and I saw then approaching, I tried to force myself to wake up. But, It wasn’t until we reached the single-track once we’d gotten down off the pass, that I started to run again. I think this was because Bryon and I talked about work and people and topics that got me going. I ran the whole Colorado Trail section into May Queen, again, like Hope Pass, easily hopping over rocks and jumping off roots. I was amazed at how easily the running came and I also knew I should take advantage of it, because I feared I might get tired again. I had no desire to listen to my iPod anymore, but another Ani song came on in my mind: “This little girl breaks furniture, this little girl breaks laws….and we were always half crazy and look at you now…”
I drink too much coffee. I love coffee. And I tried to give it up before the race, just so that caffeine could have an effect on me late in the race, but I never tried hard enough. I never really considered the sleep issue was going to be this plaguing. But it was. I drank half a can of coke at May Queen, before Jeremy picked me up to take me on home, but even that did nothing to make me alert.
When Jeremy and I left May Queen I started getting so tired I couldn’t move. I flopped on the trail, in tears, feeling hopeless. This was the first time during the race I really questioned whether or not I could do it. Deep down, I knew I could, but I was afraid I might have to sleep for a while and finish in the daylight. This was a thought I tried to push out of my mind. But, as I kept falling over asleep, with Jeremy nudging me awake every few minutes the idea of finishing in even a reasonable time started to slip.
Eventually Jeremy jumped ahead of me and started talking after I complained that he wasn’t saying enough to keep me awake. He started talking and moving faster. I just watched his feet and kept up, shaking my head occasionally when I felt myself nodding off again. My stride felt easy and relaxed and as long as we ran, I felt awake, but the moment our pace slowed, I felt my eyes growing heavy.
It seemed to take all night to get around Turquoise Lake and when we finally reached the flat dirt road that would carry us almost to the Boulevard after a short detour on the pavement, I felt so weary and tired again, I plopped on the ground, after declaring to have seen a giant dead horse across the road ahead, and fell asleep.
Jeremy woke me up, “Honey, we have to go.” OK. I got up and started going, running from side-to-side, wishing I could just run and sleep at the same time while also kicking myself for not giving up caffeine or at least bringing some drug, whatever that would be!, to keep me awake.
I tried to pull it together again, but couldn’t. When we reached the start of the Boulevard, with only 3 miles to go, I plopped down in the middle of the road, legs outstretched in front of me, hung my head and fell asleep. In 45 seconds, Jeremy woke me up. I tried to stand and couldn’t. I fell down again and we went through the 45-second nap once more. A second time I tried to get up, made it a few steps before falling down again. The fourth time, he only let me nap for 20 seconds. I stood up, and said. “OK, let’s go. Do you think I have a kick? Let’s try and have a kick.” So we kicked. I don’t know where it came from or how it happened. But we ran hard, at least 8 minute pace, probably the last two miles we hit sub-8 pace. I was amazed my legs had that in them and I felt rested, like I could run forever, the gradual incline of the Boulevard didn’t even exist to me. I ran the hill like it was a tempo workout.
When we hit the pavement and made the turn onto 6th street and the final stretch home, a smile spread across my face because I knew I’d made it. I glanced at my watch; it was just past 23 hours, way off my original time goal, but still way ahead of where I was just 6 months ago, crying on the car ride home from a mile-80 DNF. I had made it and somehow, managed to hold on to 3rd place.
PART 3: the FINISH
I crossed the finish line and Jen, my friend and crew leader, came running over. My mom threw her arms out and Jeremy rounded the corner with a smile. My sister was there, and my friend and pacer Peter were all there to walk with me back to the house we rented up on 4th street.
I was amazed that I had really done it. I knew I could run 100-miles, that I have the ability, the fitness, but mentally, I’ve always struggled. I’ve never been tough or able to fight through pain during races, but here, I had just run 100 miles and I had at least proved to myself I could fight through some of it. I had fought the sleep, I had fought the stomach issues and the other aches and pains. Though, not as well as I would have liked, but I had fought them, I had overcome some bit of them all and I had made it to the end. If anything, this was a start for me; a first step at getting to the roots of my mental weaknesses, learning where they are, when they arise and how to contain them and work with them.
It’s funny, because now, I don’t even remember how bad I really felt during the low times. I don’t think my legs were hurting all that bad, I don’t think I was having trouble breathing, but who knows? It’s interesting how quickly I let myself forget what bad really felt like – and I did so almost immediately after I crossed the finish line, as though crossing that yellow tape gave me the powers to forget most of the suffering and I was left with a euphoric nostalgia about the day past, a strange feeling of relief and accomplishment, exhaustion and bliss. It was the kind of complex emotional state I’ve never experienced at the end of any race of shorter distance. I felt like I had done, for myself, something epic.
I don’t think you walk away from a 100-mile race with any huge philosophical understanding or revelation about the world and I don’t think it is in any way a total life-changing experience, as not many things are. But what I did find, is that I walked away from a 100-mile race feeling a sense that I had uncovered a lot about the underbelly of my mind, my will, my heart, my ability to push past discomfort and the importance of having people who care about you there when you need them.
The thing is, when we run in a race that lasts from dark to dark or longer, we choose to run it. We know it is going to be hard and we know it is going to be painful. We go into it knowing we will have to push through if we want to succeed. And that level of “push” is what takes us where we do or don’t want to go. But the mere fact that we choose to put ourselves here and experience a distance on foot, that is not to be taken lightly, is something we should never take for granted. The fact that we can run, that we have friends and family to support us in our endeavors, makes us all very lucky. And on top of this, choosing to suffer, as we do when the countdown begins in a 100-mile race, we allow ourselves to become stronger, and more understanding. This, above any time goal or podium finish, is what makes the 100-miler so incredible and the lessons we take away, so invaluable.
Now, find “Lucky Ones” by Broken Social Scene, listen to it and then find “Kastrup Airport” by Playdoh and listen to that.