Wednesday, December 19, 2012

2012 in races

Moment of awe during the Susitna 100
December is a cathartic month, because it's the time of year most of us reflect on our experiences and accomplishments during the past twelve months. Although racing is certainly not the only satisfying thing I've done in 2012, I did do a lot of it. With my last race of 2012 behind me, it's fun to look back on all of the events in a rather full year. People have different ways of ranking their race experiences. Rather than time or performance, I value races for how much they push me out of my comfort zone, force me to dig deep into my reserves, and reward me with renewed perspective and a better understanding of myself and the world around me. So, in that light, here are my 2012 race experiences, from the toughest on down.

1. Stagecoach 400 | self-supported bikepacking | Southern California | April 27 to 30 

It was my first moment of clarity in a mind-numbingly tough day — while lingering over a cold chicken sandwich at the Subway in the town of Alpine, I finally glanced at a clock. "9:15 p.m.? That can't be right." But as hard reality set in, it made sense. It had been dark for an hour. With the exception of an hourlong breakfast, I had been riding, pushing, and struggling nearly nonstop since 4:45 that morning. This meant it had taken me sixteen hours to travel seventy miles. Sixteen hours! I pushed away the sandwich I had no appetite for, and called Beat.

"What are you still doing in Alpine?" he asked me. "How much farther are you going to ride tonight?"

Trying to remember how to spell my name on the Stagecoach 400
finisher sheet at Hub Cyclery in Idyllwild. It was midnight, I was
shattered, and I genuinely didn't remember. Photo by Matt Slater.
I didn't know what to say. What could I say? That I was completely shattered by less than two hundred miles of mountain biking during what was supposed to be a semi-relaxed tour? That I was pretty sure I was going to get a hotel room in Alpine, call my sister in Huntington Beach, and end this punishment? That in just 36 hours, the Stagecoach 400 had caused me to question everything about my mental toughness and physical capabilities? That earlier that morning, I had to wedge my knee between two boulders just to keep myself from tumbling down a near-vertical sandy slope while I waited for my heart rate to calm down? That I was pretty sure I was going to have to take two months off to recover my apparently demolished fitness?

"I don't know, maybe twenty more miles," I replied with a resigned sigh. Few distances have ever felt so far.

Now, eight months later, I still can't determine exactly why I struggled so much during my three days and 13 hours on the Stagecoach route. It was a perfect storm of reaching a low point of recovery after the winter season, binging too heavily on riding thanks to new-bike love (I still love you, Moots), expecting the route to be much less strenuous and technical than it was, and not adequately preparing. The race was free (and really, a great contribution on the part of Brendan and Mary Collier), and I certainly got my money's worth of suffering. Not since the 2009 Tour Divide have I experienced the same levels of psychic entropy, personal uncertainty, and even despair. I know ... weird. It's taken me a while to admit these feelings to myself, as the Stagecoach really was supposed to be a fun diversion before I started training for UTMB. I value these negative emotions for the strengths they helped me sharpen, but I won't be back to the Stagecoach 400 route (and really, it's a beautiful, fun bike route.) But it was a dark place for me, one I'm not rushing to relive. Race report part one, part two, part three, part four, part five (wow, I know.)

2. Sustina 100 | winter running | Point McKenzie, Alaska | February 18 to 19

Susitna feet, well-done
The Susitna 100 was possibly my most well-executed race yet — and it was still really hard. I set out with a plan for a 36-hour race that set a specific goal for the first checkpoint, a limit on the time I would spend at each checkpoint thereafter, and a consistent moving pace at or above 3 mph. I know, the pace sounds slow, but anyone who has dragged a sled across soft snow for a hundred miles understands the relative difficulty of winter trekking to everyday trail running — it's like a hundred miles of moderate climbing, with a huge weight hanging off your hips. I was well ahead of my schedule until mile 80, when I had a slow meltdown. On top of an energy bonk I incurred even though I had consumed more than 6,000 calories, I had also managed to steam-cook my feet inside my vapor barrier socks. Yes, in temperatures as low as 5 below zero, I actually boiled my feet in their own juices. The pins-and-needles pain was tear-inducing, but those tears may also have been a result of sleepy fatigue. Yes, there were tears. The last fifteen miles were slow and grueling, and I took any excuse I could find to stop and rest, but I still finished under my goal in 35:42. And now I wish I could go back because I'm convinced I could shave another three-plus hours off that, and would be excited to try. Alas, no Susitna 100 in 2013. Maybe the following year. Race report part one, part two, part three, part four.

3. White Mountains 100 | snow biking | Fairbanks, Alaska | March 26

Nearing the cracking point, Cache Mountain Divide
Like the Stagecoach 400, the White Mountains became a long slog-fest due to my own complacency. I spent so much of the winter focused on preparing for the Susitna 100, that the White Mountains 100 was more of an afterthought. What I thought was that I could just pound out a hundred miles on a fat bike with no specific training. Easy peasy. The day before the race, several inches of new snow fell on the Whites, and the result was a strenuous bike-wrestling match for anyone unlucky enough to end up behind the lead pack after they tore up the trail. I had my meltdown in a blizzard on top of Cache Mountain Divide, only fifty miles in, and had to dig deep and deeper from that point on. The truth is, I don't remember much about the back half; I was in survival mode, just trying to put one pedal in front of the other. Looking back, this was the start of an energy deficit that spiraled into a rough spring for my body. Race report part one, part two, part three

4. Bear 100 | mountain running | Logan, Utah | September 28 to 29

Most hated descent. Photo by the awesome Danni Coffman.
It seems ridiculous to place a hundred-mile-long mountain run with 23,000 feet of climbing below a fun snow bike race. But after back-and-forth consideration, I decided that the Bear 100 was, in many ways, less tough for me than the WM100. Much of that relative ease should be credited to my friend Danni, who came out to Utah and paced me for the last fifty miles, turning the "back-half suffer-fest" into a fun sleepover party. Besides a minor mid-race bonk, a few blisters, and the fact that I'm a timid and grumpy downhill runner, the Bear 100 couldn't have gone much better for me. I ate well, my feet didn't hurt all the much, and my legs felt strong for the distance. It's all relative, of course; I was in a decent amount of pain on the final downhill, but overall I was happy with my experience. I played it conservative because my overarching goal was to finish, which I did in 33:28. Someday I'd like to go back and push that under thirty hours. Someday. Race report part one, part two, part three.

5. UTMB | mountain running | Chamonix, France | August 31 to September 1

The elusive Mont Blanc as seen at the start of UTMB
I had a grand vision for UTMB — 46 hours of running, hiking, and crawling over the rocky trails of the Alps in the shadow of Mont Blanc. There would be snowstorms, wind, rain, blisters, tears, sunrises, breathtaking vistas, redemption, and enlightenment. It was set to be my toughest single-stage endurance challenge yet. Seven hours before the race start, the rug was yanked underneath my dream. Truly dangerous weather forced a significant reroute, and the course was shortened to 110 kilometers with 20,000 feet of climbing instead of the original 168 kilometers with 31,000 feet of climbing. Still a tough challenge, but without the high mountain passes and clean loop that created a true journey around Mont Blanc, I could never recapture my excitement or motivation for UTMB. I came very close to registering a DNS, but once I started, I worked hard to finish. The true beast of 2012 UTMB was the mud, which made for treacherous footing and slip-sliding struggles on the consistently steep terrain.  I finished in 22:57. Race report part one, part two.

6. Laurel Highlands 70 miles | trail running | Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania | June 9

70.5 miles of wooded singletrack
Beat and I raced the Laurel Highlands 70.5 because Beat's Iditarod mentor, Tim Hewitt, is one of the race directors. He invited us to visit his favorite trails in Pennsylvania, and the timing was also perfect for a "shakedown ultra." (Beat pointed out that if I didn't finish the Laurel Highlands, I didn't have much of a chance at UTMB.) I was finally getting my mojo back after a depleted spring, and had a great race at Laurel Highlands. Again, I experienced a mid-race bonk because I clearly haven't yet figured out how to manage nutrition during any run longer than fifty kilometers. So I spent miles 49 to 56 with low energy, stomach pain, and some vomiting. But a cup of ramen at mile 56 boosted me back to life, and I ran strong for the last 14.5 miles. I finished in 19:01. Race report.

7. 25 Hours of Frog Hollow | mountain biking | Hurricane, Utah | November 3 to 4

Photo by Crawling Spider Photography. I am planning to
buy a photo package soon, but haven't yet.
How entrenched am I in endurance racing that a 25-hour solo mountain bike race is this far down on my list of tough ultras? But as it has been for the past three years, Frog Hollow is a late-season, awesome race that Beat and I like to ride for fun. I didn't have any big struggles at Frog Hollow this year, but the experience did help me realize how timid I'm becoming on technical singletrack. The toughest aspect of the race for me was the crowds — being continuously passed by team racers started to wear on my nerves. I'd still go back, though. Frog Hollow brings together an awesome community, the course is gorgeous and surprisingly doesn't get old, and having it on the calendar would give me motivation to work harder on my technical riding. I finished in fourth place with thirteen laps, 169 miles. Race report.

8. 50Ks! | trail running | Bay area, California | All year

"Crazy endurance eyes" — I love a tough 50K
I ran eleven fifty-kilometer trail races this year. Since there are so many of them and I generally treat 50Ks as training runs, I'll just list them quickly here, in order of toughness.

1. Mount Tam 50K, November 11, 7:18 — I was overtired and decided to race two women for thirteen miles. I still finished behind them but I truly left it all out there on the trail.

2. Steep Ravine 50K (winter), January 28, 7:16 — here's the part where I have to admit that Steep Ravine course is nearly identical to Mount Tam, only run by a different organizer. What can I say? These are tough trails. The January race was hard because it came after a peak week of training for the Susitna 100.

3. Ohlone 50K, May 20, 6:59 — This was my "breakout race" that finally lifted me out of my spring slump. The course has 8,000 feet of climbing, and the trails are exposed to the harsh sun and hot, just hot. I finished 14th out of 67 women.

4. Diablo Marathon, June 2, 6:58 — Not technically a 50K, still with nearly 8,000 feet of climbing, and I took a wrong turn and logged an extra 2.5 miles at the end. Temperatures were in excess of 90 degrees. Looking back, 2012 was my breakout year for running in the heat. I'm actually not that bad at it.

5. Coyote Ridge 50K, December 8, 7:09 — The bad luck race. I ran off course for three miles, and took a hard fall five miles from the finish. Miles 29 to 34 were a painful limp on the steepest section of the course.

6. Horseshoe Lake 50K, October 13, 6:32 — I was overtired so soon after my UTMB/Bear 100/Grand Canyon stretch, and then I was stung by a wasp at mile four. This race took place on my backyard trails, but it turned out to be a bit of a slog.

7. Steep Ravine 50K (summer), August 5, 7:05 — I completely forgot I raced this course in the summer. Wow, that's three times in one year. It must have not been too bad because I don't remember specifics of any struggles. It was the beginning of my peak week of UTMB training.

8. Crystal Springs 50K (summer), August 11, 5:55 — Temperatures reached 95 degrees on Skyline Ridge that afternoon, and I was running my second 50K in a week to sandwich long days of running and mountain biking during the big heat wave of the summer. I was quite pleased with the 5:55 finish.

9. Brooks Falls 50K, January 22, 6:26 — A Susitna 100 training run in the wind and rain on the hills above Pacifica.

10. Woodside Ramble 50K, December 15, 6:08 — A fun run in the cold rain. A sore hip made for some tough miles in the middle, but for the most part I felt great.

11. Crystal Springs 50K (winter), January 7, 5:51 — My first race of the year, and also my 50K PR. It seems strange to put it all the way at the bottom of this list, but the reason I logged my best time is because I had a fairly flawless race. This is one of the reasons I think I could put in a decent time if I specifically focused on racing a trail 50K, but I have yet to commit to that. We'll see what 2013 brings. 


  1. What a great year Jill!! Thank you so much for sharing your experience with all of us. Good luck next year!! And when ever you are ready to relive your dark place, stagecoach 400, we will be there to help you out and cheer you on. Thank you again. Happy Holidays and Feliz Navidad from Southern California.

  2. You are truly unbelievable Jill. I don't know what else to say, looking at this list! Congratulations on an amazing 2012.

  3. YOU are the awesome one and wow that's an impressive dosier for 2012!

  4. How far you have come since the old Homer blog! 11 - 50ks?!? WHO are you??? I love it! I so remember the posts about how you just didn't like running, just biking and hiking for you!

    Seriously, as always - your year in review is quite inspiring! Thanks for sharing, and happy holidays to you and Beat!


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