WARNING: If you have ever, EVER read my blog and had the thought, "TMI", or wished I wouldn't swear so much, you should probably stop reading right here. In the interest of honesty, I'm not holding anything back in this report. Seriously! If you go on, you have only yourself to blame. This includes family members with low tolerance for obscenity and for disgusting, detailed descriptions of body functions, as well as anyone I've been secretly dating for several months who might not be able to look at me the same way if you know how disgusting runners can be.
Up until this race, the most painful race experience I have ever had was the Mt. Lemmon Marathon, where I started with a stress fracture, decided to quit at Mile 3, decided not to quit at Mile 4, walked the whole thing in pain with every step because I decided I had something to prove, and took almost 6 1/2 hours to finish. I have had other athletic experiences that purely sucked, but I was transported to a whole new realm of suckiness at the Old Pueblo 50.
I went into this race with the mindset that I did not care how long it took me, I would just be out there all day and get it done. I was a little excited about it, because I knew it would be different from everything else I had ever done, but definitely was not excited about being on my feet, on trail, all day. When I arrived at the start line I was already cranky -- it was freezing, naturally, and even though I knew there was a 1/4-mile walk to the actual start line from the parking area, I didn't know that it was down a horribly steep and rocky hill. I went to pick up my number and then had to walk back up the steep, rocky hill to the car, where Mom was waiting and where it was at least a little warm, to organize my bag and pin on my number, before walking back down the steep, rocky hill to the start line so I could then turn around and run right back up it again when the race started. I shudder to think that in the rush to make sure I was ready and at the start line on time I nearly left my head lamp in the car. Nearly said, "Screw it, there's no way I'll be out there after dark; I won't need that." Oh, that would have been awful. Good thing I grabbed it at the last minute, reasoning that you never know what can happen out there.
One other thing I screwed up right away was that I didn't leave myself enough time to stand in the bathroom line. Big mistake! You don't want to be starting the race having to take a crap, but that's what I did, setting off on the wrong foot right away. I reasoned that I could just stop on the course and go whenever I wanted.
We waved goodbye to spectators and were outta' there. The sun wasn't up yet and the first few miles were on Forest Service roads before switching to trail. It was cold -- I couldn't feel my thighs at all even when I scratched them -- but not miserably freezing. No wind either, which was a relief because the night before it had been extremely windy -- air full of dust, trash cans blowing over, that kind of windy.
The first 7 miles of the course were familiar since I had run them on a TTR run. They weren't that hard or anything. But for some reason, my heart just wasn't in this, and I mean from about Mile 3 right on to the aid station at Mile 7. The roads and trails were full of sharp rocks that kept jabbing me in the soles of my feet. I was definitely suffering from that "princess and the pea" feeling, where my suffering is way out of proportion to the actual damage being inflicted on my feet. I did not want to be out there, not at all. I slowed down to a walk and it was crystal clear in my head that I hate trail running, that I've always hated it, that I always will hate it, and that there was no reason for me to spend this gorgeous Saturday doing something I hated. If I was this miserable at Mile Four, how was I possibly going to get through 46 more miles? (Of course, looking back I see my mistake; it was that I allowed myself, for even a few minutes, to think about the whole distance. You never, ever want to do that; you only want to think about the distance to the next aid station.) I walked and thought of all the things I would rather be doing while loads of other runners passed me. I walked pretty much all the way to the first aid station, where the trail spit us out onto a dirt road and suddenly my feet felt a lot better. I grabbed some pretzels and a cup of water and didn't linger at the aid station. Any little bit of feeling better was something to grab onto and go with without spending too much time analyzing it. (I think of my favorite endurance running quote all the time: "No matter how good or how bad you feel, it won't last.")
I had a not-too-bad stretch from Mile 7 to about 11 or so. I only had to pee, and not even badly, and there was a lot of nice downhill with just one big uphill in the middle. I briefly caught up to Renee and Chris; that was nice. I'm so glad Renee wears pink when she runs! Just the sight of bright pink cheered me up. Of course I didn't stay with them for long, since they are both faster and fitter than I am, but it was so nice to have company, even briefly.
The downhill ended and the course entered a flat, sandy wash, one of my least favorite running environments. All that sand -- yuck! Suddenly I realized I was tired of having to pee so decided to just stop and pee. At that point that was all I had to do. I was hopeful that even though I started the race without taking a crap, maybe that problem had mysteriously just gone away and would not come back. Ha ha ha, silly me! But at Mile Eleven everything was fine.
The next aid station was at Mile Thirteen. Most of the aid stations had the same foods -- the good stuff, PB&J sandwiches, turkey rolled up in tortillas, M&M's, pretzels, some kind of cookies or brownies, bananas, potatoes cut in chunks next to a bowl of salt to dip them in, am I forgetting anything? Oh and soda and some kind of sports drink and energy gels and water. I grazed the buffet at the aid station and while I was doing that, Miro from TTR appeared. I had run with him briefly on the miserable Tanque Verde loop a couple weeks before. It's so nice to see familiar faces out there in Tortureville -- oops, I mean on the race course. I stayed with him and a couple other guys I didn't know for the next couple miles, which went up and up and up a rocky trail/road. It was so steep we made no attempt to run it. We could see the top, a pass far, far away. When we finally got to the top the road dropped down below us, just as steep as the hill we had just climbed. It was so steep and rocky that I barely managed a jog down it. I was very afraid of falling. You could see the valley floor spread out below us, far, far below us. I left Miro behind; he doesn't like running down hills because he doesn't want to fall. I didn't want to fall either but I was afraid not to take advantage of a spot in the course where gravity was on my side.
I caught up to Christy, another TTR runner, on this downhill. We stayed together for a while. Again, so nice to see someone familiar! She slipped on some rocks and bloodied up her hands some, but got right back up again and kept going. We stayed together most of the way down the hill and then, towards the bottom, I got to feeling pretty good and managed to pick up my pace all the way to the Mile Nineteen aid station. I stuffed my face again there, and refilled my water bottle and dropped another Nuun tab in, and took off my long-sleeved shirt since it was now getting just a little warm. I allowed myself a cup of Coke for the first time. SO GOOD! I never would have thought of drinking soda for fuel, but it works. That caffeine gave me a welcome jolt that powered me right up the next couple of long, gradual uphills and into a nice flat section that lasted almost all the way to the next aid station at Mile 25.
The Mile 25 aid station was being manned by Steve, Mike, and Dallas. I don't know whether I was happier to see them, or to know that somehow I had made it halfway through the course, and was feeling pretty good with no intention of dropping. Of course, I knew that the hardest part was still ahead in terms of climbing, and I also knew that I wasn't REALLY at the halfway point because the course was really something like 51.4 miles, not 50, but still. I had made the halfway point at 5 hours and 12 minutes, so finishing in less than 12 hours seemed totally possible. Totally! Ha.
I stuffed my face at this aid station with a little bit of everything. I had a cup of Coke -- delicious, wonderful Coke -- and then stood there looking longingly at the cups of Coke and wanting another one. A little voice inside of me said, "Not too much carbonation... your stomach..." and another, louder voice said, "Fuck it! Just have one more!" So I did, gulping it down with enthusiasm, and it tasted so amazingly good I decided it was worth it no matter what the results were.
Next up was a 4-mile climb up a dirt road. This was a good dirt road that even passenger cars could drive on. I could see it winding up through the hills ahead of me and it didn't look fun, but I was still jogging, albeit slowly. The next aid station was at Mile 29 (this was the same one that had been Mile 7 earlier in the day since we were completing a giant loop). Just four short miles, no problem. I passed a bunch of people, including a team of super-fit-looking TriSports guys. I looked at their super-fit bodies and wondered why they were so far back in the race when they looked like they should be up in the front. I was all alone when my Garmin beeped 26 and I thought to myself, "I just finished a marathon. I know! Let's do another one!" I had to stop and walk because I was laughing so hard, and I was sorry that no one was there to share that incredibly witty thought with.
Then, abruptly, all the happiness disappeared, drained right out my feet or something, and I was miserable. Worse, my stomach suddenly had had enough, and all of a sudden I realized both that I was very nauseous, and that I was definitely going to have to stop and take that crap somewhere, and soon. I was looking for a good place to do that while I mentally reviewed my fueling strategy to see where I went wrong and where this nausea was coming from. I had been drinking plenty but not too much, and taking a salt pill every hour, and mixing GU and real food in what I thought was the right proportion. The only thing I could blame it on was that second cup of Coke at the aid station. Well, it didn't really matter what I blamed it on at this point; there was absolutely nowhere to discreetly poop out here. Steep mountainside going up on one side, steep drop off going waaaaaay down on the other side. Then, suddenly, salvation! There was a little bridge with a tiny footpath leading off the road underneath it. Amazingly, there were no runners in sight either behind me or ahead of me. I ducked out of sight and followed the trail underneath the bridge. There was a big black cow down there licking on a salt lick. It bolted when it saw me, ran about twenty feet and then just stood there staring at me. The wash under the bridge was full of cow poop so I totally didn't feel bad about defiling it. "Thank you for letting me use your bathroom," I told the cow, who never stopped staring at me the whole time. I was proud of myself for bringing TP this time, and even the exact right amount. Ha! I did something right.
I expected to feel better after that, but I didn't. I continued feeling crappy. That had to be the longest 4 miles in the world. I was all alone and started talking to myself and swearing at the road: "Fuck you, you stupid piece-of-shit uphill rocky road to hell. I hate you and I hate this. Where would I rather be than here? Goddam near anywhere!" By the time I was about 3 1/2 miles up the road, I was reduced to pleading with the road: "Just end, you fucking bastard. End, end, end. You've got to end some time..." Near the top of the hill, the great people at aid station 7/29 had put a series of encouraging signs, probably at least a couple dozen of them. One said, "There's a giant booger hanging out of your nose." Then, beneath that, in smaller letters, "Made you look! Or, made you pick!" I knew I didn't have a giant booger hanging out of my nose but I picked it anyway just to have something to do because I was so bored of that road.
I staggered into Mile 29 feeling like crap. I had some potatoes and bananas, a handful of Tums, and, incredibly (given the results of last time), another cup of Coke and one of Mountain Dew too. I couldn't help it, it was like my body was craving it so bad that it completely overrode my brain's good judgment. There were a couple people dropping out; I heard someone saying that into his radio. I figured I'd better get out of there before I gave in to that same urge myself. It was there, trust me! I took off and entered the worst 4 miles of my entire life.
The next aid station was at Mile 33 and I knew it was mostly uphill to there, but I didn't know how completely I would fall apart. Suddenly I was dizzy, sick, and exhausted. My head was spinning and the sun was too bright. I felt sand in my shoes so I sat down right in the trail and took them off and dumped them out. It was hard to put them back on and hard to tie them and REALLY hard to stand up. I wondered idly if I was going to die. Somewhere the phrase "relentless forward progress" started repeating in my head and I kept going. One foot after another. It was very close to the same feeling I had staring up at the mountain of doom at Mile 27 of the Redington 50k. Thankfully this was only a few hundred feet of climb instead of a thousand. I started having sick thoughts of dropping at the Mile 33 aid station. My Garmin beeped 31 miles and I realized from here on every step would make this the furthest I had ever run. That was probably the only good thought I had on that whole stretch.
When I got to the Mile 33 aid station I staggered into a chair, handed my water to someone to be refilled, and sat in that chair for about ten minutes. My nausea lessened dramatically, and I realized I wasn't going to quit. Besides, I knew Joan was at the Mile 40 aid station, all the way from West Virginia! and was expecting to see me go through there, and if I didn't, well, that would be just terrible. So I had some more food -- a lot more, something of everything. Christy came into the aid station while I was sitting there and she looked great. Fueled up and took off and I knew I wasn't going to see her again, and, sure enough, I didn't.
I felt not too bad leaving Mile 33 because I knew there was a big downhill coming up. I reached the start of that downhill in about a mile and wanted to cry when I saw how rocky and steep it was. That wasn't any more runnable than the uphill! I spent a couple miles swearing at the rocks while I picked my way through them at a snail's pace. I hated that whole seven-mile stretch. My nausea came back about three miles in and I really couldn't do much running, a few steps here and there. Also, I had to pee again. I stopped and did that at Mile 39. No cows this time although there were some omnious-looking carrion birds circling overhead. Does anyone else get nervous when they see those things on a long run? I always feel like maybe the birds know something I don't know.
I could hear the music of the Mile 40 aid station from quite a ways back. God, what a great sound. There was a little uphill leading up to it and Joan came out to greet me. That was great! I told her how I had been thinking, "I can't quit or I won't see Joan" for a lot of miles. I want to be an aid station volunteer next year; there is no better way to make yourself appear godlike to someone else than to offer them food, drink, and a place to sit 40 miles into a 50-mile race.
Ten miles left! 80% done. I remembered that the race hit its highest point elevation-wise (5900') somewhere around Mile 44, and that it was nearly all downhill from there. The course leading out of Mile 40 was on a wide dirt road with a very gentle climb. I tried jogging but my stomach let me know that was not an option. I gave in: fine, I'll walk the rest of it. Ten stinking miles, I can walk that no problem. And maybe that would have been true, but then, suddenly, I had to take a crap! Again! This was definitely not in the plan. I didn't have any more TP. No way was I going to go with no TP. Forget it, I would just walk and NOT GO.
A mile of miserable walking later, I decided that wouldn't work. I was going to have to stop, TP or no. I was looking for a good place, of which there were none on this road. There were campsites on one side -- no matter what, I wasn't going to foul a campsite -- and waist-high weeds, the kind with all the little stickers, on the other. I knew that we had just a couple miles of road and then we would get to trail and surely I could find a spot there. Then at that point, someone caught up to me and I realized it was Chris from TTR. I'd last seen him at Mile 11 or so, looking strong, and I had no idea where or how I had passed him. I mean, he told me but my brain didn't process it for some reason. He said he was walking the rest of it too and would stick with me if that was okay. It was more than okay to have company. Looking back, it is quite obvious that I should have just asked him if he had any TP. I mean, at that point, who cares? But I didn't, I just decided that nope, I wasn't going to go after all; I was going to stick with Chris and finish this damn thing and then shit in a real bathroom at the end.
There was one more person coming up the road behind us. We looked and saw that it was Renee. Joan had told me back at the aid station that she hadn't seen Renee come through and that she wasn't on the drop list, but I think I had just assumed that Joan had somehow missed Renee because I knew she was far ahead of me. But no, this was definitely Renee, I knew because of the pink. She caught up to us and told us what had happened. She got off trail somehow and ran 2 1/2 or so miles out of her way. Somehow she ran into Jane, who ended up winning the women's race, and realized what happened, and had to backtrack to the point where she got off course. She said it was very discouraging, but even reporting something discouraging she didn't sound much less positive than usual. Now THAT was impressive! Even more impressive was when she started running and left us in the dust. How you bounce back from something that unfortunate I don't know.
We started our last steep climb up to the top of the last steep hill. I was trudging along behind Chris and this other girl we'd run into along the way, getting a little further behind with every switchback. That ended up not mattering; actually, it was a good thing.
I swear I thought it was just a fart, but it wasn't, it was more. I've never done that before! Well, at least that answered my question of whether I would have to stop or not. I found a spot about a foot off trail -- if anyone else had come by... well, I'm just glad no one did. I didn't have TP but found that both GU wrappers and rocks can be surprisingly flexible in function when necessary. At that point I really didn't care about much anymore. I was still so nauseous, I was spending all my energy just trying not to puke. Once I was back on the trail again, another runner came behind me. We chatted about how we were doing and I told him how nauseous I was. He gave me a couple of Tums. I thanked him profusely and realized what a dumbass I was for forgetting that the Mile 40 aid station would have had Tums too and I should have eaten them there.
The sun was beginning to go down and I was still 7 or 8 miles from the finish. The trail was now beautiful, easy downhill, eminently runnable but I couldn't even run a single step. How depressing! I hit Mile 46 and started looking for the aid station. Nothing. No sounds, no sight of tent canopies in the distance, nothing. I kept walking on that beautiful, smooth singletrack, wishing I could run. Mile 46.5 and still no aid station. Finally, at Mile 46.9, I got there. The sun was really going down now. I collapsed in a chair and put on my long-sleeved shirt since it was now getting cold. The guy at the aid station brought me a bowl of soup, the only thing I could possibly imagine eating. I was so cold that the warm soup felt like an infusion of strength directly into my system. I also asked for Tums. "How many can I take at once?" I asked the guy. "The bottle says 2 to 4," he said. "Give me 8," I said, and he didn't bat an eye, just did it. Have I mentioned I love aid station volunteers? While I was sitting there, dazed and tired and starting to shiver, I glanced at the parked vehicles and saw Joe P.'s truck. "That's Joe P.'s truck," I said in a monotone, "but where's Joe P?" The volunteer told me he was out hanging glow sticks. I was so bummed to hear that I wasn't going to see him! If there was ever a time I would have loved to see Joe P., that was it.
I would have liked to just stay in that chair, but I was really starting to shake from the cold and I knew I'd better get going. Also, I was thinking of my mom at the finish line and how she was probably freezing but wouldn't wait in the car because she was expecting me to finish any time now. I got up out of the chair and said, "I'm going." The guy pointed up at a little hill in the distance and said, "Just over that ridge."
I power-walked out of there and almost immediately my Garmin hit 47. Now, I knew the course was long but I held onto a faint hope that all the people who told me that were wrong and in reality it was exactly 50 miles. I got to the top of that little hill at 48.something and found myself up on a ridge, looking way down to the left at Kentucky Camp, the finish line, waaaaaaay down there. Definitely more than a mile away. Any hope I'd had of finishing before dark disappeared. I switched on my head lamp (remembering back to that impossibly distant moment that morning when I almost didn't bring it: "There's no way I'll still be out there after dark", ha ha) and plodded across that interminable ridge till I got to the left-turn trail that took me down the hill.
Full dark came as I went down the hill. I hit Mile 50 on my Garmin. DING! 50-mile race over, right? Wrong! The trail evened out and was pretty flat. I caught up to another headlamp bobbing in the dark ahead of me. It belonged to a girl named Susan from Prescott. She and I bitched about the cold, nausea, the long course for the entire remaining mile and something to the finish. The finish itself actually came up out of nowhere. Just a few lights, and a few remaining spectators. The clock read 13:10 but I didn't even care about that. I waved to Mom and then staggered over to the bench and lay down on my back and shivered and said through clacking teeth, "Never, ever, ever, EVER again. Never."
Joan was there and she brought me soup. Someone handed me my belt buckle, which I had almost forgotten about. I drank the soup and then we got out of there. That quarter-mile up the hill to the car was the most brutal stretch of the whole race. I was shivering so hard I couldn't talk right, and I was so nauseous that I couldn't drive home; Mom had to do it. I was positive that I had been forever traumatized by that brutal day of suffering. I tried it once, I hated it, I don't have to do it again. Except...
Okay, a couple days later I was thinking that if it weren't for my nausea problem, that 50 miles is actually pretty doable. I mean, I finished it, and, contrary to my prediction, wasn't even close to the last person in. Then I thought that if I bought some Hokas I bet my sore foot problem would be fixed, which would fix a big part of my mental problem too. Then I pulled up the US Ultrarunning calendar, not because I want to register for a race but just because I want to see, you know, which races within driving distance in the next couple months are still open. Then I looked at the elevation charts of some of them and I kind of think I would prefer one that had all the uphill in the first half and all the downhill in the second, like the Bishop High Sierra 50-mile in May. Then I clicked on "Register Now" and...
Just kidding, I haven't done that. Geez, I need at least a couple more days to think about it. I would like to redeem myself, though; I know I can do better than 13 hours...