Thursday, June 09, 2011

100-mile stare

I still vividly remember the first time I interacted with a runner in the midst of a 100-mile trail run. It was July 2007, on a rock-strewn trail just below Resurrection Pass on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska. My ex, Geoff, was running the 50-mile version of the Resurrection Pass 100. I borrowed a mountain bike from a friend and planned to shadow Geoff's trail and cheer him on when I passed. Of course, I made the mistake of leaving about a 45 miles after the race started, so of course I never caught up to him (this is before I realized that I on a mountain bike had no chance of moving faster than Geoff Roes on foot, even in a self-supported 50-mile run.) It rained buckets all day long, until the muddy, rocky singletrack wore the borrowed bike's rim brakes to metal and I had to walk most of the descents. I was walking my bike down one of the last steep sections of trail when I passed a woman bathed in chocolate-colored mud and walking with a pronounced limp.

The organizers of the unofficial race started the 100-miler at about 3 p.m. the afternoon before in an effort to wrap up the 100-mile and 50-mile race at about the same time. This woman had been racing for nearly 24 hours and still had about 16 or 17 more miles to go. She wasn't moving much faster than 3 mph, maybe 2, downhill, and her stilted body language spoke to an intense difficulty in each step. At the time, that kind of effort was nearly impossible for me to comprehend.

The Resurrection Pass 100 had only two aid stations, one at mile 44 and another at 88. The cruelest part of the 88-mile checkpoint was that it was also the finish. Racers had to leave from that checkpoint and run another six miles uphill on a steep gravel road, and then turn around to wrap up the 100. More than a few competitors, unable to face the psychological Everest of the spur, have called it quits at mile 88. I would even meet another woman a couple more miles down the trail who swore it was her plan to do exactly that. I just assumed that was the fate that awaited this obviously suffering runner.

"Wow, this is a full-on mud trap," I said as I passed, trying to inject just a bit of humor into the situation since I was walking a mountain bike downhill and we were both caked in grime. And even though I already knew the answer, I asked, "Are you in the 50-mile race or the 100?"

"The 100," she said in a raspy voice.

"How are you feeling?"

"My calves are shot," she replied. "Feet are painful. I'm wiping out a lot."

My brakes are shot," I said. "I'll probably have to walk most of the way back to Hope."

She looked at me with this bloodshot, memorably intense look of determination in her eyes. "Rather be you than me," she said. "But I'm going to finish this. Even if it takes me all night."

I nodded. "Great race. Good luck."

"Good luck," she replied.

I never did learn whether or not the woman finished the race. But I believe she did, and even though I never learned her name, she lingers in my memory as the kind of "hard woman" that I admire and seek to emulate. I still think of the look in her eyes when I encounter moments of weakness and pain, and it really has made a difference in my outlook over the years.

I've since had a few of my own "100-mile-stare" experiences, both on the outside and inside-looking-in. Few "single-day" endurance efforts fascinate me more than a 100-mile run. I'm really looking forward to traveling to San Diego this weekend, meeting some of the 150 runners signed up for this endeavor, and shadowing the race myself as a pacer. Despite recent injuries, my friend Martina has decided to start the race after all. The original plan was for me to pace her, and I still hope to do so if she pushes beyond mile 50. Whereas for Beat the SD100 is almost a longer "training run," it's a truly unique experience for Martina, and pacing her — if the opportunity arises — may just provide a wholly new education in determination.

The Tour Divide also starts this weekend, Friday morning to be exact. I won't really have a chance to follow the progress of the race at all until Monday, but it will be interesting to see where the starting field of 70 southbound and 15 northbound riders are strung along the course three days into the race. It's a unique year because of flooding and record snowpack in the Rockies. Significant sections of the course have been rerouted, but the riders are still likely to encounter plenty of swollen streams and snow fields. And despite the re-route, there's still a good chance my overall women's course record will fall this year. Cricket Butler, now a two-time veteran of the Tour Divide, delayed her start to June 30 and as far as I understand it, plans to ride the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route in its entirety. Cricket beat me handily in every single stage of TransRockies last summer, so I know she's a better mountain biker than me. I'll be cheering her on especially starting June 30, but I wish all of riders the best of luck and an amazing experience.

I'm just wrapping up the final proof on my own Tour Divide story and hope to have the paperback ready to distribute by next week. I've received some interesting feedback from readers so far, several of whom either know me personally or are directly involved with Tour Divide racing. To make a sweeping generalization, the women I've heard from have been almost overwhelmingly positive, while men seem to have a more reserved viewpoint on the book, using terms such as "brutally honest" and sometimes an outright "too personal." This book is quite personal, and I admit probably more than a little uncomfortable at times. It's a book about coping with what emotionally amounted to a divorce as much as it's a book about racing a mountain bike 2,700 miles.

In the name of full disclosure, I probably should have titled the book "How to Ride the Tour Divide When You're Kind of an Emotional Wreck." After I wrote up the first draft, I went through a range of outlooks about this book, from deciding I would never publish it to trying to re-write the entire thing so I could gloss over the personal stuff. In the end, I decided it was important to my integrity as an artist to maintain a raw kind of honesty, because ultimately that was the truth of the experience. The 2009 Tour Divide happened during an unsettled and upsetting chapter in my life, and my reactions, and the way I interacted with others — including my ex-boyfriend and fellow racers — weren't always admirable or fair. I've since adjusted my outlook and have an amicable relationship with Geoff — in fact, I'm really, really excited for this year's Western States 100 — but the period of time I captured in my book is, amid scenes of overwhelming beauty, sometimes ugly.

So there you have it. I hope you'll still read the book and share your honest opinions with me. Writing, just like endurance racing, is an endless learning process.

Also, for kicks, I recently distributed a few "lender" copies at a bibliophile Web site called LibraryThing to get reactions from readers who had never heard of the Tour Divide and probably had little interest in endurance racing. So far I've already received a few short reviews. You can read them here.

If you want to read along during the Tour Divide but don't have an e-Reader, you can purchase a PDF of the book that will work on any computer with Adobe Reader or other PDF viewer program at a 20-percent discount — $7.16 — for the duration of the race at this link. You can click on the "preview" link below the book cover to preview the first 20 pages. Signed paperbacks will be available for $15.95 plus shipping within the next week or two.


  1. I dropped at the 88 mile mark the next year and need to go back to erase that demon.

    I am pretty sure you were talking to Jill the year Geoff ran the 50 at Rez. I also think that is the first time I met you.

    Anyways, have fun at SD100. I was signed up but work obligations forced me to skip it this year. You will love the course. It is awesome.

  2. I meant Jane. Jane dropped at 88 that year.

  3. Just bought the kindle version, can't wait to read.

    FYI - like the new look but for us getting older folk, the font is really hard to read - too thin and light!

  4. Hey Jill, I read your blog but generally don't comment. Your books are fantastic, I enjoy your honesty, it really sells the rest of the narrative. You are a compelling story teller and I love that I am reading about your life. Thanks for sharing, I will buy the next one too!

  5. Thanks for changing your font. I can now go back and read the posts that were illegible before.

  6. The "brutal honesty" is precisely what makes your books so good, it underscores the fact that you're a normal person (well, an insane sort of normal person!) doing extraordinary things.

    Good luck this weekend!


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