Saturday, October 06, 2012

I'm waking up

2012 Bear 100 race report, part three

Photo by Danni Coffman
When I was a pre-teen in suburban Salt Lake City, I lived for "sleepovers." Between school, church, and home life, I generally operated within a strict routine of expectations and rules, but sleepovers were a free pass to completely let loose. My friends and I would huddle in sleeping bags in my back yard playhouse, taunt each other with truth-or-dare challenges, and gorge on salty snacks and sugar. As soon as all lights in the house went dark, we'd climb the fence and run wild through the neighborhood streets, decorating other friends' yards with toilet paper and prowling the empty aisles of the local 24-hour grocery store. We'd vow to stay awake long enough to watch the sunrise, and would to resort to silly games just to keep ourselves awake. Some of my favorite childhood memories emerged during these unruly hours when the whole world was ours and it felt like absolutely anything could happen. I could never come up with an adult excuse for slumber party fun — until I discovered hundred-mile ultramarathons. Guiltless sugar binging, giggling, and exhaustion-triggered silliness ... these may have been a few of my ulterior motives when I coaxed my friend Danni to travel all the way from Montana just to run with me through the northern Utah mountains all night and well into the following day.

 
Danni is a great sport. I tried to warn her that forty-eight miles of the Bear 100 was going to take at least sixteen hours, that she might have to witness a temper tantrum or two, and because it was a point-to-point race, there was no easy way for her to cut out once she started running with me. She was basically committing to a slow, sleep-deprived fifty-miler. But Danni is my ideal pacer — she tells great stories, never complains, and doesn't make me get out of the chair at the aid stations. In fact, she'll sit down right next to me with a handful of quesadillas and remind me that she's tired too, and I'll have to do my own butt-kicking if I want to get out of there, because she has no incentive to leave. I love Danni. She's the best. 

As soon as Danni joined me at Tony Grove, the race almost instantly turned from tough to almost a breeze, at least for a while. Shortly after we left the aid station, I got wrapped up in what she later termed "lovey dovey feelings," and went on and on about my memories of 2010 and running with Beat. As we worked our way up a thousand-foot climb out of Tony Grove, I kept repeating, "I don't remember this climb. I could have sworn this entire section was downhill. In fact, I remember the rest of the race being downhill. When did they put these climbs in here?" When the descent finally did begin, we started flying. Danni and I passed about two dozen people in the next ten miles while we were moving effortlessly, giggling and chatting. "Beat made me run this whole section in 2010, too," I said. "I didn't even know how to run at all back then and I was all freaked out that we were going to have to run like this for the rest of the race."

As the night wore on, temperatures plummeted to freezing or even a couple of degrees lower. Frost coated the grass and ice started to form in my water valve. Danni's stories got progressively better, including high school hijinks that would blow any of my sleepover stories out of the water. The laughs helped buffer the deteriorating condition of my feet and quads, which had effectively started falling apart. At mile seventy, we plopped down next to the fire and enjoyed the hospitality of the best aid station of the race, Logan River. Someone kept handing me grilled cheese sandwiches as I muttered about being sucked in by "the evils of the chair." Danni just looked at me and said something to the effect of, "I know I'm your pacer, but it's like 3 a.m. and really cold and we've only done twenty of the fifty miles I signed up to do and I'm already really tired. You're on your own." See what I mean? Danni's the best. I'd rather run alone than try to keep up with someone who makes it look too easy. 

During the climb up Peterson Hollow, my lungs gave out. I'd been having some trouble with breathing since the first pass, but by mile seventy-one I sincerely believed that there was no longer enough oxygen in the air. I blamed altitude, but in hindsight, my breathing difficulties were more likely an combined effect of exhaustion and dehydration. Still, I was short of breath, gasping, and generally unable to speak in full sentences whenever we were climbing. Danni and I both felt good after our long rest at Logan River and she encouraged me to step it up a notch, which sounded like a great idea to me. But it only took about five minutes of determined running before the world started spinning and I felt the blackout effects of hypoxia. It took minutes of much slower walking to recover enough to even respond to Danni. I felt frustrated because my legs were regaining strength and I'd taped up my more troublesome blisters, so my feet were feeling better, too. But I couldn't breathe. What could I do about that?

As we neared Peterson Pass, a strong sense of familiarity cut through my flickering consciousness. The full moonlight sparkled on frosty sagebrush bushes, and in a far distances I could see the lights of Highway 89. "This ... is it!" I gasped at Danni. "This ... is the ... place where ... Beat ... gave me ... the rock!" I was certain of it. In 2010, Beat gave me a marble-veined stone that he picked up in Italy as he asked me whether I was interested in dating. I returned to the Bear 100 with this golfball-sized rock and carried it in my backpack through the entire race just so I could pull it out at this exact point, take a photograph, and bring the moment full circle. Danni had even joked that I might get a kiss if I was lucky (I didn't get a kiss from Beat in 2010 either, because, he confessed later, he felt sweaty and wretched.) But now, at this point in the night, with my lungs screaming for air and my exhausted mind frustrated by the diminished capabilities of my body, I just kept marching without stopping. I guess it's just as well. The moment was still beautiful, all the same.

At Beaver Lodge, I pulled off my shoes to assess the condition of my feet, and became distressed with the multitude of blisters. I know blisters are just blisters, but there were still twenty-four miles to go and I stressed about how much pain they were going to cause me in that distance. I again took much too long of a break as I carefully taped my feet, taking my time so I didn't just make things worse. As the second dawn emerged, Danni and I began the long slump of a climb to Beaver Creek Summit, with me still gasping for air and now griping about my hurty feet. The fun hours of the sleepover had ended. We were entering the grumpy consequences of a sleepless morning.

Danni, of course, kept a great attitude. She randomly broke out into song and invented lyrics about Advil, causing me to smile despite my sour mood. She joked that she had no doubt I was going to finish this thing because "my people" (the Mormons) were so good at suffering and hardship. The sun climbed higher and the day grew warmer. There still wasn't enough oxygen in the air; the only difference was now it was hot again.

I thought we'd never reach the final aid station, Ranger Dip, at mile 92. When we finally got there, I noticed a large white sheet of paper with instructions to mark down any racers who dropped from the race at that aid station. While I'd seen many names on previous sheets, this one had none. "I should drop out here," I remarked to Danni. "I'd be the first one!" I was joking, sort of. But the truth is, I almost would have rather taken a DNF in the Bear 100 than run the last eight miles. I knew what lied ahead, and I was sure those miles promised only hardship and pain. Of course, you can't drop out at mile 92 of a hundred-miler, pretty much no matter what. That's the rub of committing to these things and then dragging your friend into the madness.

We launched up a climb called "Lift-Off," by far the steepest ascent of the course on a near-vertical jeep track. As we trudged up to "Gates of Paradise" — the final pass — I expressed my trepidation. "I could climb like this all day," I lamented. "But that descent on the other side is soul-crushing."

Once we reached 9,500 feet, we had less than seven miles to descend to 5,900 feet with just enough little climbs thrown in to keep the thing steep and painful. I knew my feet and quads were going to burn no matter what, so I vowed that I would run, for as long as I could, just to shorten the time it would take. The problem is I don't even run that kind of terrain when I'm fresh and strong. It was a rocky, steep jeep road, and loose enough that any misplaced step would send me into a full butt slide. When I ran the Bear with Beat in 2010, I suffered so much through that last descent that I actually walked parts of it backward. I told Danni I would need to tap "the magic of iPod" and scanned my Shuffle for the angriest music possible. When I channeled all of that anger toward my throbbing feet and legs, I found I was able to run.

Photo by Danni Coffman
It worked, albeit slowly, for nearly four miles. The road was even flattening out, and the descent was becoming less steep as we approached Bear Lake. But suddenly and unexpectedly, like a taser shock to my legs, everything came to a crashing halt. I put my foot down into one last jolt of electric pain, and my body finally rebelled. My willpower crumbled. So much anger coursed through my blood that I was seeing white, and had Danni not been there, I likely would have collapsed on the dirt in a tantrum fit for a toddler. As it was, I could scarcely contain my rage. I muttered something about having to pee and darted into the bushes, holding my head in my hands and trying to quell the inner screaming. Since I was back there, I figured I should pee anyway. In hindsight, it must have been a most hilarious scene — a 33-year-old woman squatting behind a tree with her pants down, rocking back and forth, clutching her forehead, and biting her own arm to prevent a real, screaming, crying temper tantrum.

I emerged from the bushes and informed Danni I wouldn't be running any more. "It's just that I hate this road so much," I moaned. She was very sweet about it; I think she could tell I was dangling on the precarious edge of emotional meltdown. We walked, very slowly, the final three miles, even as we crossed through town and Fish Haven residents started cheering, "you're almost there!" With the finish line in sight, we passed clapping spectators. "That must be the best feeling," one said of my inevitable finish of the hundred-mile race. "My feet hurt!" was all I could say in response. Yes, the screaming toddler hadn't left my system yet. But I have to admit that it did feel good to see the word "Finish" in big red letters.

I finished the Bear 100 in 33 hours and 27 minutes, logging my first finish in a "summer" hundred-miler, and my third hundred miler on foot. I owe the lion's share of the credit to Danni for the laughs and the unflaggingly upbeat company, and also to Beat for the inspiration and mentoring. And of course a little credit goes to Great-Great-Grandpa Ira, not for the so-called "suffering genes," but for the example that, really, everyone has what it takes to persevere through hardships as long as they keep moving forward.