Monday, October 10, 2011

Cranking the generator

(I planned to post about hiking the Grand Canyon with my dad, but ended up finishing my Slickrock 100 pacer report first. I'll post Grand Canyon pictures later.)

The situation was eerily similar to my "first date" with Beat at the Bear 100: I hatched a convoluted scheme to transport myself from somewhere many hours south to the halfway point of a 100-mile Utah trail race, only to stumble in at the last — and yet serendipitously perfect — moment to take a pacing job that I was unprepared for, mostly as an excuse to spend time with the person doing the running. This time around, I left Jacob Lake, Arizona, in the late morning on race day. My dad's tiny Toyota pickup puttered north as the last wisps of autumn's first snowfall faded from the ground.

The plan was to drive six hours to Moab, where I arranged to meet my friend Danni at the Slickrock 100, a brand new 100-mile trail race in the redrock desert. I hadn't seen Danni since I moved away from Montana in March, and looked forward to quality time spent chatting about past and future adventures, giggling randomly and generally catching up on life. The fact that we would also be plodding through the dark in the desert was an added bonus.

I made an unexpectedly long stop in Kanab to cope with symptoms from a head cold I'd been fighting all week, which flared up badly enough to make me feel concerned about driving. How was I going to rally enough to run with Danni in the Slickrock 100 when I already had 25 miles on my feet, was so congested I could barely breathe and felt disconcertingly nauseated on top of all of that? I sat at Subway sipping Diet Coke to hold down the panic gurgling up in my gut.

I managed to calm my stomach and continued north and then east to Moab, arriving at the finish line just before sunset. I learned the race organizers had completely rerouted the course after a large rainstorm washed out several sections of trail and made other regions completely impassable — in the desert, that can often mean neck-deep quicksand, potential rockslides and hidden craters. The reroute was understandable. But since the course changed, I had no idea where to go and no one could help me, because none of the volunteers knew either. The race director was essentially out in front of the runners, marking the course as he went, and communications back to volunteers appeared to be limited. Just when I was about to give up entirely and crawl into the bed of the truck to sleep for twelve hours, I randomly came across the race director, who was marking the last few miles of the course. He recommended I go to the Deadhorse checkpoint, which was at mile 53 of the new route.

I rushed up the highway and found the checkpoint at 8:30 p.m., which just happened to be the exact time that Danni arrived at the aid station. Luckily, Danni wanted to take a long break to eat some ramen and put on warm clothes, so I had time to change out of my jeans and into better socks and running shoes. I hadn't prepared any race supplies, so I just grabbed my hiking pack — complete with discarded wrappers, an old bagel and an unknown amount of water that I had hauled all the way from the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Add a flashlight and I was ready to go.

Danni looked strong and said she felt good. We made good time to the Gold Bar aid station at my mile 8.5, where Danni discovered she had a bad blister on her big toe. As she sat down to fix it, I noticed a massive plastic jug of florescent orange cheese balls on the table. It must have been five gallons worth, and looked as though not many racers had partaken. A young man at the aid station asked Danni if she wanted any cheese puffs. She refused, so he waited a second and then said, "Well then, how about some cheesy poofs?" She looked up and said, "yeah," then proceeded to eat several handfuls and ask for a bag so she could take more with her. I grabbed a handful of the greasy salty snacks myself, the only aid station food I ended up partaking in (I had an astonishing amount of my own food in my Grand Canyon leftovers.) They did hit the spot.

We started up Gemini Bridges jeep road, gabbing away, when we saw another racer walking toward us. "Have you guys seen any race markings?" he asked. "I haven't seen any in a while." I had to admit that I hadn't seen any race markings all night. The director marked the course with pink ribbons that had a little piece of silver duct tape on the end. The tape was about as shiny as a tin can, and did nothing to reflect light from our headlamps. In the dark, the pink ribbons became almost entirely invisible, hidden among the red dirt and juniper trees. I pulled up my GPS track and sure enough, we had veered almost a mile off the main track. Since I was the pacer and navigation was supposed to be my job, I felt a surge of guilt. The three of us ran quickly down to the point where the track crossed and realized we had completely missed seeing a Y-junction in the road, let alone the pink ribbons directing us in a different direction. I watched the track like a hawk as we continued on the jeep road, vowing not to veer off again.

After a bit, an approaching racer told us there was only 1.5 miles left to the next aid station, which I thought was strange because I knew it to be closer to five. Another time, Danni commented that it was weird how the trail seemed to go downhill both ways. The very steep drop into the too-soon checkpoint should have been a huge red flag, but the truth is we missed all of these warning signs until we arrived at the aid station and a familiar young man said, "weren't you here before?"

My stomach sank as I finally zoomed out on the GPS track we had been following and saw it dead-end right where we stood. We had backtracked to Gold Bar, five and a half miles later. Danni stomped her foot and let out a long, loud "F____________!" The volume even surprised me a little, but the frustration was mutual. The ever-friendly race volunteer held up the vat of orange balls and said in a cheerful voice, "So, do you want more cheesy poofs?"

The tension shattered and even Danni, as demoralized as she was, started laughing. She refused to blame me for the major navigational error even though it was really my fault since I was the one so confidently following a supposedly infallible GPS track. Then, just like he had for me earlier in the evening, the race director magically appeared out of seemingly nowhere and told us that because of confusion caused by the reroute, many of the racers had gone off course, and he was telling everyone that they could simply subtract their bonus mileage from the final spur at the end so that everyone could complete a fair hundred. Forgiving bonus miles is pretty much unprecedented in ultra-racing, but we weren't about to argue. I wanted to hug the race director, who I was sure had adverted a time-sucking morale blow that was my fault and may have cost Danni her race.

After that, I made finding pink ribbons my job, rooting them out of the darkness with my high-beam flashlight and determined hyper-vigilance. We still got lost a couple of times, once while looking for a turn we knew was coming but simply could not find. 1.5 more bonus miles.

Danni struggled with the usual issues of a 100-mile run: Sore feet, Advil loading, blisters, lack of appetite, malaise and extreme bloating. We compared ultrarunning to heavy drinking, and listed reasons why the latter might actually be healthier. I told little stories to fill the miles if I sensed Danni wanted to chat, and turned to silence when the mood called for it. My own feet started to hurt, my throat and sinuses were clogged with phlem, my body longed for sleep and I began to flag in my own motivation. The temperature dipped below freezing. We watched ice form on puddles and thick frost build on the brush. The windchill cut through to my core even after I put my Goretex shell on. It was a cold night. None of this rattled Danni in the least. Her determination held strong, as did her legs, and we moved much faster than I expected at that point in her race.

Once, while climbing an expansive slickrock plateau, we turned off our headlamps and jogged by the light of the nearly full moon. Sandstone slabs glowed in the silver light, and the frosted sand shimmered. Distant rock formations were as visible as they would be in daylight, but with the kind of stark definition and otherworldly colors that only moonlight can create. We ran in silence, with our footsteps adding soft rhythm to the oscillating melody of the wind. I glanced toward the startling clarity of the sky, stars upon stars splattered across the fathomless emptiness, and visualized the energy moving from them, across vast distances, through me. I like to believe that this energy is what continues when consciousness ceases. That whispers of life echo in the wind, and if we quiet our minds and release the burdens of our bodies, we can almost hear our part in the universal symphony. I sometimes question the sanity of my "hobbies," but the truth is I need this as much as air, these vivid moments to experience the universe on my own terms, in my own version of heaven — the stark, cold, ethereal desert. I move through the world like the ghost that I am and generate what feels like pure energy.

Danni probably could not tell that I was blissed out. She may have even been having one of her low points. I didn't say anything, I just hummed to myself the earworm that had been following me across the desert, a song whose lyrics reflected my feelings, "Generator First Floor" by the Freelance Whales.

We get up early just to start cranking the generator
Our limbs have been asleep, we need to get the blood back in them
We're finding every day, several ways that we could be friends

We keep on churning and the lights inside the house turn on
And in our native language we are chanting ancient songs
And when we quiet down, the house chants on without us

Despite my navigational failures and selfish bliss-seeking, I was able to redeem myself as a pacer in small ways. I successfully located all of the pink ribbons in the most difficult navigational section of the course, a rugged and forested jeep maze that another racer referred to as "the Easter Egg hunt." I found spare batteries in my pack for Danni's dying headlamp and kept her updated on the stats after her Garmin died. We started up the 22-mile spur that the race organizer had supposedly cut to 18 and we planned to cut to 15 to match up with Garmin's stats. The sun rose as we moved across the plateau, and suddenly for the first time since I arrived in Moab, I could see real color in the landscape. Slickrock fins appeared like petrified waves across Canyonlands National Park in the distance, revealing the presence of the places that ripple through my past — the Colorado River, Island in the Sky, and the White Rim. The morning dawned clear and gorgeous. So we were both shocked — and despite seriously sore feet almost disappointed — when the race director cut us off with only 4.5 miles on the Garmin.

"We haven't gone nine miles," Danni argued with him. "We're only supposed to go seven and it hasn't even been that."

He said the storm had created an impassable hole in the road a mile ahead and insisted we had traveled nine miles. We thought he was sleep-deprived and significantly disoriented. Looking back, he may have meant the round trip. But either way it brought the distance of the Slickrock 100 down to something closer to 90, and our own extra-bonus-miles Slickrock down to something between 95 and 97 miles. We debated doing more extra bonus miles to bring Danni's personal total to 100, but once you've been given an out, even three extra miles is tough to manage mentally. We reasoned that Garmin stats are rarely perfect and perhaps with the usual margin of error she had done 100 anyway. We mustered a solid run into the finish at 8:24 a.m., giving Danni a 25:24 finish. I ran with her for 43 miles in a little less than 12 hours, only one of which was in daylight.

Danni was deservingly thrilled, although her own bliss may have been muted by extreme fatigue and the fact she had retained what looked like at least ten extra pounds of water weight. Her hands and lower legs looked like the Michelin Man. We debated what might have gone wrong with her nutrition but couldn't come up with any definitive theories. Sometimes these things just happen. Which, kids, is why it's not healthy to run 100 miles. But it is, in its own way, lots of fun.

Beat finished the race in just over 22 hours. We saw him once on the course, where he claimed his feet hurt and he hadn't quite recovered from the Tor des Geants so he was going to quit the race before the final spur, at what was supposed to be mile 78 and turned out to be mile 81. But then he DNF'd his DNF and ended up earning his well-deserved belt buckle. Danni and I joked about how funny it would be if he quit before the last, easy, nine-mile spur. We celebrated with 50K finisher Meghan Hicks at my favorite southern Utah haunt, Ray's Tavern in Green River.

So there is my pacer report, which is considerably longer with less photos than Danni's actual race report. I think Danni does know this about me — that I only sign on for long-suffer fests so I can write lengthy reports about them on my blog, and also so I can get blissed out on exhausted night running, and of course spend time with Danni, who is a super awesome chick that lives entirely too far away in Kalispell, Montana. It's funny that my circle of friends conducts reunions this way, but I wouldn't have it any other way.


  1. Congrats, Jill! What an inspiring post!

  2. Most of all I loved the part where you wanted to get the giggles in. I can picture Danni and the giggles. They go perfectly together.

  3. I am so glad that you enjoyed yourself. With you, it's hard to know what you're thinking or feeling until you write it down and I read it :-) I was really worried you were miserable. I'm so happy that you were able to capture some bliss. Although I wasn't 100% in terms of company I really enjoyed the time spent with you and definitely will visit soon. I will need respite from the dreariness of winter and you should come here for Su training. I'm SOOOOO in. Again, I appreciate you coming to pace me. I thought you were awesome and you are totally not responsible for us getting lost. It was my race and while I wanted company you weren't responsible for anything. I am responsible for myself.

  4. That looks really beautiful. The Grand Canyon is breathtaking. When I was in college I decided I wanted to go there, so during spring break I hopped on a train to Flagstaff, found myself a hostel, bussed up to the GC the next day, and hiked along the rim by myself. It was so very worth it.

    I enjoy your blog. It's inspiring and the writing is terrific.


Feedback is always appreciated!