Sunday, September 23, 2012

Redefining Brutal: Flagstaff Endurance Run Race Report

Where to start with this? Maybe with a link to the website:

(I wanted to copy and paste the elevation profile and map, but couldn't figure out how. So if you want to see a visual of the torture, go to the website and look at the elevation profile for the 50-mile race. Especially look at the really thick band of red right before Mile 40. I should have looked at it more closely when I was telling myself that even though I wasn't really in shape for this, if nothing else it would just be a nice day spent hiking around the forest in Flagstaff. Mmmm hmmm.)

Everyone knows I didn't really train for this and thought I could sort of wing it on 40 miles of running in the past month (very little of it on trails) and lots of biking. Plus, I did have a good Pikes Peak Double, so I had that in the bag going in. Well, compared to this... event (I can't call it a race; it was an endurance event), Pikes Peak was a walk in the park. Or a stroll on the beach. Or some other really nice, easy activity that did not at all compare to this. I cannot compare this to anything I've done, not even the OP-50, which was, up until today, the hardest thing I ever did and the worst I've ever felt in an event.

If you didn't look at the website, let me summarize: the course starts at about 7200' or so, and meanders around the forest with 5 significant climbs that go up to right around 9000' each. There's a total elevation gain of around 8000', which is the same as two Mt. Wrightsons (which I have never done, by the way -- perhaps I should have) or one Pikes Peak. My mindset going into this race was that I would plan to spend all day out there in the forest, walk any time I wanted, and just enjoy the hike. There were 29 people doing the 50-mile and I'm not sure how many doing the 50-k.

We started at 6:00 a.m. with perfect temperatures -- just slightly chilly in a long-sleeved shirt and shorts.  The first climb, up to the Sunset aid station, was not too bad. I walked it and so did most of the other runners. It would have been runnable if I had been in shape. The Sunset aid station was on top of a ridge line at almost 9000'. Immediately after leaving it the trail dropped down the side of the mountain. The ridge was lined with aspens, and their leaves were all blazing yellow for the fall. They were stunning. The view down into the valley below was also stunning. I did hear a couple of other runners say something unpleasant about how we would be climbing back up the mountainside at the end of the day, but I tried to ignore it. The trail dropped for about two miles and then came out to a dirt road that climbed for about four miles and then came to the Shultz aid station. Tom caught up to me right before the road. (I had to stop to pee and to retie my shoes since my feet were slipping all around in them. By the way, unlike the last 50-mile race I did, I did not emerge with a single gross or interesting shit story. I didn't even pee on my shoes. Boring!) Anyway, Tom and I were not in a hurry. He trained about as well as I did, and we strolled up the road chatting and not doing anything resembling racing. We were only at about Mile 11 and I felt like we were being a little too casual. I mean, neither one of us cared about time but there was a 16-hour limit for the course which I really thought I might end up coming pretty close to.

After the Shultz aid station, the course left the road and climbed a couple miles on trail before coming out to another road. This one went down. It was about three miles of beautiful downhill. I caught up to a guy named Mike, who was also a Tucson runner. I had never met him before. We ran together down the road into the Kachina aid station. They told us at this aid station that it was 3.3 miles to the next aid station, which was a turnaround. I didn't think there was an aid station -- I thought there were only three, Sunset, Schultz, and Kachina. But since they told me there was, I believed them and drank all my water before I got there. It turned out that the "aid station" wasn't. It was just a couple people sitting there checking numbers. They gave me a tiny bit of water from their personal stash, which I felt bad about but I didn't want to go the 3.3 miles back to Kachina without any water.

Mike and I were going to try to stay together but he started having trouble and eventually I just left him. I mean, I am all for staying together if you're doing the same pace but everyone should really run their own race unless it's pre-established that you're going to do it together. (Like escorting a friend through a first marathon, or something.) I never saw Mike after the turnaround and later found out he dropped though I don't know why.

The out-and-back also let me see exactly how far ahead of me everyone else was. I was keeping a loose count of the people who passed me and who I passed and the numbers didn't seem right. There were only about fifteen runners ahead of me and I knew there should be more than that. And there were I think six behind me, including Mike and Tom. I had the vague thought that there must be quite a few people dropping. I myself felt pretty good at this point. I was going slow but I was at the halfway point right around six hours, which really wasn't that bad considering the difficulty of the course.

I went through the Kachina aid station for the second time and then had six miles till I got back to the Shultz aid station for the second time. (For people who do not do ultras, you never EVER think of the whole distance. You would sit down and cry at the start line if you did. You have to go aid station to aid station, and those are manageable distances, about five to eight mile stretches.) Anyway, there was a three-something-mile climb back up the road and then a two-something-mile drop on the trail. I caught up to and passed three of the six other women in the race. (The other three were so far ahead of me I never saw them once they passed me on the Kachina out-and-back.) I beat everyone to the top of the climb and, even with stopping to pee again, also beat them down into the Schultz aid station. The one who came in right behind me  had introduced herself as T. She said she had a long, complicated first name so always went by T. She was nice. We grazed at the aid station and then left together to do the 5.6 miles to the Sunset aid station, but I was feeling much better than her so I took off and left her.

It was another big climb back up to Sunset. I felt good for the first two miles and then felt BAD. I walked the rest of it, slowly. When I finally dragged myself into Sunset (at Mile 37), I was completely on empty. They asked me what I needed and I told them I needed to lie down. They showed me to a sleeping bag and I crashed there. My legs and feet were shaking and I was starving but also nauseous. Finally I managed to get down a peanut butter sandwich or at least most of one. (One complaint about this race -- why no jelly in the peanut butter sandwiches? Seriously, do you know how hard it is to choke down peanut butter and dry bread? I ended up dipping my sandwich in my cup of Mountain Dew just to make it go down easier. Yes, looking back that sounds disgusting. However, food takes on an entirely different quality in ultras, and you do things you would never do in real life.)

I felt awful leaving Sunset. Rock-bottom. All three of the ladies I had passed after Kachina -- T, Stephanie, and one other whose name I didn't get -- came into Sunset and then out. Well, T was still there when I left but the other two took off looking great. I didn't understand that. The trail out of Sunset continued up the ridge line and then dropped down. Almost two thousand feet down, straight down. And we then had to climb back up the same two thousand foot drop. I thought of how I was basically a walking corpse dragging into Sunset, and the thought of doing that climb again with eight more miles in my legs was appalling. I was really ready to admit defeat and DNF right there. Korey, one of the fast Tucson runners, was dropping and I saw him sitting in the chair waiting for a ride down and was SO envious. My thinking went along the lines of, OK, I gave it a good try and a great effort, and I still got almost 40 miles in, so is it really worth it to keep going? What if I get to the bottom and physically can't make the climb back up? Will I just sit at the bottom while it gets dark and cold? All these things were running through my head, but yet I found myself standing up and allowing the aid station volunteers to shove me out on the trail again (after warning me that it was a really tough eight miles and was I sure I had enough fluids? No, I did not, only one bottle, but the thought of opening up my bag and getting the water bag out of there and filling it and readjusting everything was way too complicated.).

I wanted to cry walking out of that aid station. I pulled out my phone and texted Rob telling him I wanted to drop. I knew he would say if I felt that bad I should just drop. I waited for him to text me back saying that, and kept walking in the meantime. I wanted to hit 40 miles on my GPS before quitting. I got further and further from the aid station, still no text from Rob. The trail was beautiful here -- right through the aspens, yellow leaves all fiery from the start of the sunset -- but I could care less. All I could think about was my own suffering. Finally I got to the point where the trail started to drop again. It was either turn around here or keep going. Rob still hadn't texted me back giving me permission to drop. Also, I knew Tom was still behind me and knew he wouldn't drop no matter how bad he was suffering. Also, I've done 50+ races and never DNF'd, and always said as long as I could still move I would never DNF. ALSO, I wanted that pint glass finishers got. All right. Decision made, I would keep going.

Almost immediately I regretted that decision. The trail was basically straight down, and it was a mix of giant step-downs and loose slippery gravel-type under footing. The kind where if you step down too fast your feet will fly right out from under you. Every step down jolted my whole body, from the soles of my feet up to my shoulders. Every slippery gravel spot forced me to practically sit down and go down on my butt because I was so afraid of falling. I was wearing my Newtons and wished I had changed into my Hokas at the aid station. (I had them there, in my drop bag, but it seemed like too much trouble to put them on. Ultra-brain at work again. Any time you have a vague feeling that you "should" do something -- eat more, get your gloves out and put them on, change shoes -- and don't do it because it's too much trouble, you should take that as a sign that you are making a mistake.)

As I was going down, and down, and down, I kept passing hikers. They were all Japanese. Seriously, like 20 or more of them, all spread apart. My ultra brain seized on that -- why so many Japanese? (Ultra brain also does that -- picks out things that aren't really that weird and starts perseverating on them. Ultra brain actually bears a surprising resemblance to LSD brain, come to think of it.) One of the little Japanese kids said to me, "Everyone else is ahead of you. well, not everyone, but 15 or 16 people at least." His mom tried to shush him but I just cracked up laughing hysterically. Of course everyone else was ahead of me! I couldn't stop laughing. The first time anything had seemed funny in many, many miles. Thank God for that punk little kid.

I finally reached the bottom of the trail. 6900'. I could not think about the fact that I had to climb back up to 9000'. Impossible. I worked on my game plan instead. I would walk the rest of the way, of course. Take one gel (my last remaining gel) at the bottom of the climb and drink half my water, eat a pack of Clif Bloks and drink the other half of my water when I hit 8000'. That was my plan and I stuck to it.

I was on probably a couple dozen trails and I only remember the name of one -- the Heart Trail, the one that led back up to the Sunset aid station. At the bottom was a sign saying, "Not advised for horses." Why? Because it was too steep and narrow. Ultra brain thought it was very funny that it was too steep for horses but not for runners with 43 miles in their legs. I started up, one slow, plodding step at a time. There was one guy visible ahead of me. His name was Mike and he was from Prescott. I'd met him somewhere else on the trail but couldn't remember where. I kept him in sight but then had to pee again. I started thinking about just peeing in my pants. I could totally understand why people do that in this kind of event -- it's not because you're in such a hurry and can't take the time to stop; it's because squatting down to pee is so painful and getting back up is difficult. I really considered it for a while but then decided I wasn't that bad off quite yet, and managed to pee the normal way without falling over. (I did tuck my shirt into my thong by accident but luckily discovered and fixed it before I caught up to Mike.)

Mike and I dragged ourselves up the mountain together but then he stopped. He said he had to sit for a while. On the one hand, that looked really tempting. On the other hand, I knew I didn't have to stop and that made me feel good because at least I was stronger than someone even though I was barely moving.

After another agonizing mile, I dragged into the Sunset aid station for the third time just as it was getting dark. I immediately headed for the sleeping bag, which was now in front of a portable heater. Lying down there was pure bliss. I closed my eyes and knew I could easily sleep for 12 hours right there. The volunteers were so great. One of them made me the peanut butter-banana sandwich I requested (which took me almost 20 minutes to get down); another brought me my drop bag and helped me put on long pants and another shirt since I was now shaking uncontrollably; another brought me a cup of hot chicken noodle soup; another hung out with me and cracked me up telling stories about stuff that happened to her in ultras and using the "F" word liberally. Lindsey from Sedona Running Company, you are the best! Eventually T and Mike dragged into the aid station behind me and we decided to head down together. Still no sign of Tom. I wondered if maybe he DNF'd but decided superstitiously that I didn't want to know because if he did then I would want to too.

The last five miles were almost all downhill, but very rocky. None of us were interested in running. T and I chattered the whole way; Mike stayed behind us and was silent, lost in his own suffering I guess. That trail became elastic at the end. (Elastic trail = a trail that stretches out at the end for way longer than its actual distance.) Worse, my GPS had measured long (probably due to all the stopping/starting and extremely slow pace) and I was at 51.8 miles when we finally crossed the finish line. Interestingly, I knew the exact mileage but not the exact time, and forgot to push "Stop" on my GPS. I know it was almost 9:00, so it took us almost 15 hours.

The finish line was nearly deserted. There was nothing hot and no one offering anything. In fact we wouldn't even have gotten our pint glasses except that I saw them sitting there and asked if I could have mine, and someone said "Sure" so I got it myself. I sat at the finish line and waited for Tom and found out that out of 29 starters, 7 had dropped. That was almost a 25% drop rate. I was extremely proud of myself for finishing with any time. I firmly believe that getting to the point where quitting seems like the most appealing thing in the world, and then pushing through and not quitting, is a lesson that can be applied to life too.

So would I do this race again? Hell no! Not even properly trained I wouldn't do it. That drop and climb at the end was a clear sign of sadism on the part of the guy who designed the course. And whose idea was it to put the longest stretch between aid stations -- eight miles -- there at the end? The course was well-marked and the aid stations were great (except for the lack of jelly in the peanut butter sandwiches), but... no. Never again. But will I do a 50 again? Sigh, probably. The feeling of accomplishment is just too precious, and can't be gotten any other way that I know of.

1 comment:

  1. You definitely write some of the best race reports... good job sticking it out to the bitter end. Well done! :)