BY TABATHA COLLINS – WOOT KITSAP FOUNDER IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST AND ALL AROUND TABULICIOUS PERSON
(Warning: This is going to be a LONG one plus I go off on lots of tangents so hopefully you can follow along without too many insane re-reads!)
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. Totally kidding! Ok, maybe not. For some reason, us “Ultra Runners” (ß---- yes, I can definitely call myself that now) really seem to be on a quest for the next best thing. Over the course of 100+ miles, I realized that there are places you cannot reach within yourself unless you experience a degree of suffering. I’m not saying that I don’t find happiness when I have a “perfect” race or from other events in my life, but this was something so much more.
So, WHY? Why run 100 miles? …to continually challenge myself, to check out the amazing scenery that the mountains repeatedly have to offer, to always look for the next best thing, to post my cool finisher’s belt buckle pic on FB and Instagram, or simply just because I love to run? Well, yes, that’s part of it. But really, to get through something like this, you have to have a deeper, more meaningful reason than that. You have to have something that is going to pull you through your darkest moments, your lowest lows, and most likely, some serious pain. It’s quite simple. Because I can. (ok, so it may not seem that deep and meaningful, but it actually encompasses a lot). There are others who can’t run due to injury, illness, death, lack of interest or motivation. One day, I may be one of those people. But right now, I’m not…and I can run. So, I do. Another part of the “why” is remembering all the amazing places that running has taken me. There’s a lot of things you have to say to yourself to get though 100 miles. Remembering these simple things really helped pull me through many challenges in this journey, as well as through several others in recent years.
I met a man before the race. Man: “Is this your first 100?” Me: “Yes.” Him:. “Well, here’s what’s going to happen. Somewhere, after you’ve ran through the day and made it through most of the night, it will hit you that you’re actually going to finish this thing. And it will hit you hard. And it’s the best feeling. The best feeling in the world.”
I specifically picked this race for a few reasons. First off, it was the same weekend as the UTMF series which some of my good running friends (ok, not good but unbelievably awesome running friends!! (since I’m sure they’ll be reading this--Insert winky smiley face here) were running so I thought it would be cool to “virtually” train and run our big races “together.” Secondly, it looked like one of the easier choices since it only had 10,800 feet of elevation gain as compared to the Cascade Crest 100 and Pine to Palm 100, both of which have over 20,000 feet. Well, it was naïve to think that there is such a thing as an “easy” 100 miler, and in actuality, the elevation was NOT what the website claimed.
Ok…so let’s get to the race. As far as logistics and everything else goes, it was pretty typical of the other ultras I’ve done recently. I drove down to the Mt. Hood National Forest in Oregon (note to self: buy a freaking book of road maps! Google Maps on the iPhone only works with cell reception). I arrived too late for the pre-race dinner but had brought some food from home so it was all good. (actually, very good…sweet potatoes and an avocado with salt. Yum!). There was an event parking lot where racers could sleep (which I did along with about 20 other race participants. I have my XTerra all set up for simple camping and it’s actually quite comfortable; double thick twin air mattress, windows cracked with fresh mountain air; can’t beat that!).
There’s nothing quite like awakening on a mountain, and to my surprise, I woke up to the most breathtaking view! (see pic at the top of this race report). There was good, hot coffee at the starting line and everyone hung out in this area from about 6 am on (race start was 8 am). This is pretty typical of ultra races. The “ultra community” is very unique from the world of road running. Ultra runners love to socialize and just “be,” to live in the moment. In general, they are very talkative, friendly, and down to earth people. Nature and being on trails is at the top of their priority list. Yeah, I can relate to this crowd.
The race began. Again, not like a road race. Maybe three people dash out but the other 157 of us just kind of meander across that opening threshold. All went well in the beginning. By “beginning,” I mean the first 45 miles (‘ish). Then, it sort of went downhill from there, well kind of. It’s all about perspective I suppose. I feel that, for the most part, I started off at a nice, easy pace. My first 50k was 2 hours slower than a 50k race I had done 2 months prior so thought this was a good indication I was taking it easy, since the elevation pretty much matched that of the previous event. However, in retrospect, I’m not sure if that going even slower would’ve helped what happened in the second half or if I would have been better off pushing a bit more in the beginning so I would have had the extra time when I was unable to push. I guess that’s something I’ll have to figure out with more experience. Going into the race I felt very well trained and prepared. All was good in the world.
During the first 45 miles, I didn’t listen to any music (which actually isn’t too uncommon these days, especially when running trails). I tried to take in everything around me. To no disappointment, there were spectacular views all around me. I really enjoyed running by all the small lakes and seeing the autumn colors starting to emerge.
I think more so because it’s been a few years since I’ve experienced this due to living in Okinawa (um, not that I’m complaining about living in Okinawa, mind you). But there was definitely lots of eye candy. The kind that I truly enjoy! I met and ran with a few different runners, but really spent most of the first half on my own. My goal was to make it to mile 45 before the sun went down, which I was able to accomplish.
Now here’s where I made a couple of mistakes. First off, I was NOT expecting the temperatures to drop as low as they did. I was not prepared for this AT ALL. I had paced a friend in the mountains a month prior and ran in a t-shirt and running skirt and had been perfectly fine. But this night was COLD! Maybe they mentioned this on the website and I just overlooked it. I’m not sure but I take total responsibility for not being prepared. We had been given a thick fleece zip-up jacket with our race swag so I thought this would be enough. It wasn’t. I put on a fresh tech t-shirt after the sun went down so my base layer would be dry plus arm sleeves. Over that, I had a long sleeve, thin tech pullover. Over that, I put on the fleece jacket. I had on gloves, a hat with a fleece head wrap, and my WOOT Buff around my neck. I was still freezing! My teeth were chattering for basically 12 hours and I felt coldness all the way to my bones. It seemed to get colder with every hour that passed and I could tell my body was very rigid, making it hard for me to run with any proper kind of form. I don’t have any memory of being this cold for this amount of time EVER (although I’m sure in the grand scheme of things, people have been much colder than that). On top of this, my flashlight batteries wore out within 2 hours. I brought back-up batteries, but those weren’t working either. Of course, I didn’t have an extra headlamp with me either so this caused me to slow down even further. Luckily, at the next aid station, a very nice volunteer let me use his freshly charged batteries. They failed within 30 minutes (apparently my flashlight was the real issue). Then, a generous runner gave me his spare headlamp to use. He was a true lifesaver, although shortly after, more “issues” began to emerge.
THE PAIN COMMENCED. I started having some discomfort on the sides of my knees and in both of my hips. I was expecting this to happen at some point. I mean, you can’t get through 100 miles without some degree of suffering, right?!? So, I had anticipated this to happen. But within 5 miles, the discomfort turned to pain, which turned to a sharper pain. Then, a few miles after this, I got a new pain. On my right foot. At first this didn’t worry me much until it turned out to be worse than the original pains, even overriding them. I’m not really sure if the other pain started to subside or a maybe I just got used to it or maybe the pain in my right foot just became more apparent, that I just started focusing on it more. All I know is that by mile 60 or so, I was unable to bend my right foot. If I did, I would have a severe, sharp shooting pain that moved from that spot though out my entire foot. (sorry for using the word “pain” so often in this paragraph but I looked it up in the Thesaurus and no other word seemed to do the job as well).
From that point on, I had to run a bit differently. Well, I’m not sure if you could even call it running. Hobble, limp, shuffle (thesaurus came in much more handy this time around). I tried changing up my gait, putting more weight on my left foot, striking my right foot at a different angle. Basically, it just got worse and worse, even when I kept it at a complete right angle and tried not to bend it. Of course, I’m hoping it’s nothing serious since I ran anyways. (I am icing and elevating as I write this) From this point on, I experienced some of the most intense pain I can ever remember having (yep, there’s that word again). But, as most ultra runners know, that is part of the whole experience.
But wait. It gets better. Even more sufferage (not to be confused with suffrage; I’m not even sure if it’s a real word but I’ve heard it used on several ultra runner podcasts). My hands swelled up once again. This is about the fourth time I’ve experienced this in the past several months. I’m not sure if it’s due to high elevation, if I am not balancing my electrolytes correctly, or just from pushing to the limits. But when it happens, I have to pee…A LOT….and there is absolutely no holding it. I have to go and I have to go now. So, stopping every 30 minutes or so in the last 5 hours of the run, well, it just added minutes to the clock that I could not get back. You have to scope out a spot, make sure no other runners are around, and try to get the job done as quickly as possible. It’s quite frustrating! I guess all I can really do is try to use these situations as a learning tool. Although I’m really struggling with the hand swelling/frequent urinating thing ß--sorry, if that’s too much details. (this is another trait of trail runners. We talk about just about anything and everything. No holds barred. I’m sure my son Gunnar will thank me for the cool wrestling reference one day.)
Where were we? Oh, mile 60. Yeah, so my running continued to get slower. The pain got worse. It kind of just went on and on like this for, well, like 40.95 more miles or so. Somewhere in here, I need to mention the hallucinations. I had heard about this happening but I seriously had no idea how intense they would be. If you had stuck me in a room with 40 drug addicts pumped out to the max on LSD, I’m sure I would have been the winner. It didn’t begin happening until the sun went down but it didn’t end until I finally went to sleep after the race. They were intense! (hell, I may run another one just for this experience. Once again, totally kidding. Well, maybe. Maybe not.) Trees, rocks, and bushes can turn into just about anything before your eyes…dancing spiders, shiny oyster shell trees, giant strips of bacon. I cannot make this stuff up. Apparently, I have a vivid imagination. Thank God I didn’t start that “The Black Tapes” podcast yet because it would’ve really freaked me out. Anyways, I tried to concentrate on looking at only the trail at that point and not the surrounding environment. But then, the trail would turn into a bridge over a stream (when it really didn’t) or start to move or something weird like that. So, I just figured I had to accept this strange new sensation and did my best to stay sane.
Throughout it all, I kept waiting for that moment the man at the beginning of the race had described. But as the race progressed and my situation worsened and worsened (and worsened…you get the point), the prospect of finishing within the 30 hours slowly diminished. I tried to keep hope. I came across a lot of runners who were in the same situation. Some bonding went on most definitely. We would pull each other though for one, two, or maybe five miles before one of us would be able to push on a bit further ahead. I’m anxious to look at race results to see how they all did! For most of the race, I remained hopeful. I knew the pace I needed to keep to get there. I finally got to the fourteenth aid station. (out of 16). 11.3 miles to the finish. Several of us arrived at the same time. I think we still had about 3 ½ hours to go. It sounded completely doable. But at this point, the elevation started rising again. With everything going on with my body, I was lucky if I could break a 20 minute pace. I guess it’s worth mentioning that when I stopped at this aid station, I saw the table move back and forth. More than once. I mentioned it to one of the volunteers who then replied, “No, it’s not moving.” Apparently, another hallucination. Go figure.
When I came upon the next aid station, it was pretty cool. This was the aid station with the giant chicken. Well, it was really a man but he was dressed in a giant chicken suit. About 100 feet before I come to where they are, someone yells, “runner coming in. What do you need?” (I feel pretty freaking important about right now.) I call out, “A spoonful of peanut butter, half a banana. But I don’t want to stop.” The lady yells to someone else, “Get her a spoonful of peanut butter, a half of banana, and throw in some mashed potatoes. ON THE FLY.” What the?!? Did that just happen? Yeah, it did. And then, as I pass and grab all the food, a giant chicken gives me a high five and says (I kid you not) “You totally killed this aid station! Brock. Brock.” and flapped his wings. Yeah. I love the Ultra World.
Once I hit the 10, 800 elevation mark, at first I was pretty stoked because I thought the course would get easier from hereon out and I’d be able to pick up the pace at least slightly. But then I remembered seeing the elevation profile on the race website and that there was climbing at the end, all the way to the finish. Yeah, 10,800. That may not be quite so accurate. I’m really not sure if it would have made a difference though because by now, my downhill running (which I normally love!) was about the same speed as my uphill running and much, MUCH more painful. “Running,” at this point, is a term I use very loosely. But, alas, I kept the hope. I continued to push through the pain. I had listened to music when it was dark (except when I came across other runners who wanted to chat) but now it had just turned to noise. Mostly what I did from hereon out was to try to think about different people I’ve been blessed with throughout my life and of good memories. Fortunately for me, I have a very good memory. A lot of these were of when my kids were little or of my brother Todd but some were more recent. Most were positive thoughts but occasionally even the thought of my daughter Madi’s death stare (Thanks Aunt Diana!) would pop into my head and give me a chuckle. It’s amazing how much we carry with us at any given time, sometimes not even aware of this.
I finally (is there a way to super, DUPER stress that word “finally” here) hit the last aid station! A volunteer said to me, “only 3.6 miles left. You’ve got 50 minutes. You can do this!” I looked at her and almost cried (again!) and replied, very half heartedly I’m sure, “No. No, I can’t.” Then a few seconds after that, I said, “Well, not in 50 minutes that is. But I will finish.” Then I turned and moved on. That’s when I had the moment the man had told me about. I realized that this whole thing is not about a time or a belt buckle or a cool FB ego status. This is my journey. Every moment, every single step that I encountered in this whole nearly 30 hours of being on my feet, it belongs to me and only me. There IS joy in the suffering! Absolutely!
So, the ultimate question. Would I do it again? Without hesitation! There was one moment in this whole adventure that made the experience so worth it. The sunrise. Yes, that’s it. “Just” an ordinary sunrise, one of 365 others that will take place this year. But, yet, it wasn’t. It was one of those extreme orange/red hued ones. But the thing is, I had been longing for that sunrise so badly. I was tired and freezing and in pain and so sick of being in the darkness with my crazy night visions. When this moment occurred, I had just gone though the absolute best aid station on the course. A man made me a bacon & guacamole quesadilla, I’d been given a hot cup of coffee and some yummy soup broth. But I was in a low spot. A lady there told me, “only 5.5 miles to the next aid station” and I said, “but how much longer to the finish?” She told me, “NEVER think about that. Just concentrate on getting to the next aid station.” I actually thought that was some great advice and much needed at the time. Right after I left (this was one of two stations that I did linger at a bit longer than I should have, but if I hadn’t, I may not have been able to continue so who knows if that would’ve made a difference in the grand scheme of things) then within a mile of this, there it was, THAT sunrise and then” it” happened….I just burst into tears. But, I don’t even know how to explain these tears. Saying, “tears of happiness” would be so underrated because the emotions, the depth of what I was feeling at that exact moment…I’ve never had anything hit me like that, not life, not death, NOTHING. I just can’t even put it into words. That one specific moment made it all worth it for me; the entire 100 (POINT 95) miles.
Pretty much from this point on, it basically became a bit of a cry fest. Someone looked at me a certain way. I cried. The sun hit a tree at the right angle. I cried. I was full of all kind of emotion and ready to explode at any given moment. Much, much worse than the 9th month of pregnancy! I don’t know if the 3.6 mile distance that those final aid station workers told me was accurate but it felt like an eternity from that moment on. I’m pretty sure it took me about 2 hours. Mainly what happened was I lost hope. I knew I wasn’t going to make it in time so I stopped trying. I started realizing that my body really (I mean REALLY hurt!). I walked very, very slow. I ran out of water within the first mile. Fortunately for me, I ran into a super nice guy who was hiking and must have noticed my state of complete distress and offered me some of his. Very cool! Somewhere around mile 97 or so, my watch died. I didn’t even care. When I was getting close to the finish line, I heard someone yelling behind me “Fu*&$#% 3 miles, this is more like 6 miles!” and all kinds of angry, profane things. I started to worry about my safety but as he drew closer, I realized I wasn’t the last one on the course. This was another runner and this was how he was finishing his race. He was so angry. It just made me realize…”geez, I guess I’m not as bad off as I thought. I could be him.”
When I got to the finish, I was in a sad state. I never crossed the line. I did pay note of my time. 31:30. Oh joy. But, my mood instantly changed as I was approached by a male paramedic (I’m sure this guy has been pictured on one of those calendars that I’ve seen floating around…no kidding!) and suddenly my mood began to change. He looked at my ankle and got me some ice, carried my drop bags back to my truck for me, and genuinely helped me out…”Is there anything else you need? Are you hungry?” A bit of a guardian angel in some very nice REI tech pants, I might add. Then, basically I got in my truck, washed off my body and feet with wet wipes, and I went to sleep…for about 16 hours. I woke up to a less amazing sunset than the day. Yes, it was less amazing but something had happened. I felt an extreme sense of peace. An absolute harmonious, all is well with the world, utter content feeling. So then, I headed back home.
When I arrived home, my daughter Jesse presented me with a basket of dark chocolate, wine, apples, and a home grown tomato right off the vine, which I ate whole. Then and there.) Oh that Jesse.
As I nearly finish writing this race recap, Gunnar comes and sits down next to me on the couch to read before bed. He looks up at me and says, “…so…did you finish your race.” Me: “Yes, I did. But, I didn’t get that cool belt buckle because I didn’t do it in under 30 hours.” Gunnar: “What?!? You mean you did it all for nothing?” (someday, maybe…I’ll let him read this).