Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Keep the earth below my feet, still

These were the care-free days of last autumn, back when — although it was grasping at straws — I could still let myself believe anything was possible. Beat said, "Hey, do you want to sign up for the Bryce 100?" I still had the 1,000-mile Iditarod on my schedule — anything else seemed like a brisk jaunt in comparison. "Sure. Why not?" 

It's melodramatic to say that everything changed when I was diagnosed with Graves Disease in February, but it was the smack of reality that toppled the last bricks on my wall of fortitude. Suddenly my body was a stranger to me. It wasn't something I controlled. It controlled me. All of the gasping and straining wasn't just debilitating; it was dangerous. Those handful of times that I was sitting at home or in my car and my heart rate spiked and I thought I might be having a heart attack — those were actually happening. Connecting my lived experiences with a generic list of symptoms made it easy to concede. I was sick. Unwell. No longer capable of the things I used to do, possibly from now on. Was this the end of the world? No, of course not. I just needed to adjust my attitude. Shift my expectations. The key to getting through any change in life. 

 In truth I hadn't thought about the Bryce 100 in those ensuing months, until Beat brought it up again in April. By then I had sorted through mountains of materials and had several blood tests, and better understood what my illness meant. I dabbled with training — there's a reason I showed up for the Quadrock 25-miler, and initiated long weekend run-hikes through the foothills. The training just confirmed that I was not in shape to run a 100-miler — I still had wild swings in my physical condition. On "good weeks" I could run reasonably fast and far without distress. On "bad weeks" I'd start gasping after a plodding mile. There was no real pattern to any of it. But the training did reveal how to best temper my heart rate on a bad day. How to manage my breathing and slow my pace as necessary.

 A week before the race, I had an appointment with my endocrinologist. Sheepishly, I told her about the Bryce 100, qualifying it for my abilities — "It's two days and 100 miles. Difficult terrain, but mostly hiking."

My most recent bloodwork had been very good, enough so that I'd been taking a lower dose of medication for a month. "With these numbers, you will probably be okay," she said. "But I wouldn't expect you to feel very good."

I wouldn't feel good because I am still a long way from recovery, under-trained, and dealing with these wild hormone fluctuations that my doctor confirmed are really happening — not just in my head. By saying I would be okay, she was simply telling me I probably wouldn't die, which, when you think about it, is a reasonably encouraging expectation.

 The final week before the Bryce 100 was a "bad week." Even though I was "tapering," I could scarcely handle my meager efforts. My breathing was rough. I felt strung out. Indeed, I had new blood work on Monday that would reveal I'd swung back into hyperthyroid territory after my excellent May results, but I wouldn't find out about this until the following Monday, after the race was over. My body is already relatively inefficient at processing oxygen, but being hyperthyroid makes it much worse. There are layers of physiological effects, but the result is the equivalent of lost fitness ... being out of shape ... having a couch-sitter's circulatory system in an extremely difficult ultramarathon.

 But I do love my moon shots ... and there was no real danger. Heat stroke was far more likely than a thyroid storm. So I packed up my gear and made a plan — I'd keep my heart rate below 150 at all times, if I could. I knew from recent training that this would net a slow pace, probably barely enough to finish before the 36-hour cut-off. But it was likely my only chance to keep control of my breathing and maintain forward motion. If I succumbed to shortness of breath, I'd start needing long breaks, and then I'd be toast.

I first ran the Bryce 100 in 2013 with Beat and two other friends. That year I came down with high-altitude nausea and struggled to finish in 34 hours. It seemed like a terrible performance back then, but now, in 2017, I'd be over the moon if I could run that "fast." The Bryce 100 was actually the last (non-winter) 100-plus-mile ultra that I was able to finish. My track record with dirt and mountains has been terrible. Four years of failure — and it's not likely to improve anytime soon if ever. At what point do I finally give up?

Failure on this day was incredibly likely. If I allowed myself to fret about that, the angst would eat me alive. Why not just have fun? Why not be happy about what my body can do?

 This was my attitude heading into the 6 a.m. start, standing in an empty parking lot with more than 200 others as the glaring June sun rose over the Sevier River Valley (Beat and I mistook it for the "Sewer River" on our GPS map, and continued to call it that.) Since I'd spent months believing I wouldn't start this race, and knew that it was still folly, it didn't matter if I couldn't finish. I was going to calmly and happily lope along the desert sand for as far as my body would allow, and be content with whatever that number might be. Adjust my attitude. Shift my expectations. The key to getting through life.

 About three miles into the race I had some stomach upset and had to dart into the woods for ten minutes. By the time I crawled out, I was at the back of the race and presumed I'd stay there, which was fine. The air surrounding the Thunder Mountain Trail was utterly still, and suspended clouds of dust were all that remained of the 200 people who trampled through here already. I watched my heart rate monitor and slowed on every incline — 150 beats per minute was barely enough to even hike the uphills. Well. At least this was an incredible setting, surrounded by orange mounds of sand and crimson hoodoos rippling through Red Canyon. In photos these bands of sandstone look interesting, but to move among them is surreal, like dimension-warping into a cartoon or a ride at Disneyland. Earlier I told Beat about my childhood memories of "Big Thunder Mountain Railroad" and how I can never disassociate this scenery from the ride, even though I'm sure I visited Bryce Canyon as a child as well. Here I could re-live these memories in a visceral reality, with the swirling dust, the still-exhilarating descents, the parched air and the June heat.

 It was hot. Morning temperatures were already climbing into the 80s, with a forecast to reach 90 in the lower canyons by mid-day. Running at altitudes between 7,500 and 9,500 feet, these temperatures feel roughly like the surface of the sun. Beat and I had done some heat training in our sauna, but it was wholly insufficient for the reality. I drank all of my ice water by mile eight, and had to run two dry miles to the first aid station. I was parched by the time I got there — dehydrated already — and they had run out of ice, which resulted in loud complaining on my part (I'm not proud of this. I try to be pleasant at aid stations because I know people are volunteering their time and often can't control the variables. But they'd given away all of the ice, and I'd already accumulated a measure of desperation.)

 I filled up two liters of lukewarm water and continued to the next section, an oven of a canyon winding its way to the Paunsaugunt Plateau. I remembered from 2013 that this section was difficult — endless short and steep climbs and descents along loose sideslopes, deep sand, and rocky trail. Still, it was frustrating to watch my minutes per mile creep into the mid- to high-20s while my heart rate frequently spiked above 150 and even 160. I caught up to a man from Salt Lake City who told me he too was watching his heart rate, trying to keep it around 120. Sure, rub it in, healthy male. We wound through the canyon and sipped our hot water until it, too, was gone. Aid station two came at mile 19 and they also were out of ice. I tried to hold back but my temper got the best of me, and I stomped around ranting about "saving some of the ice for the back-of-packers, who really need it." Of course this did nothing to improve my situation.

Others withered in the heat, and I passed a fair number of people in the third section through the sandstone oven. I still managed to run out of water before the grueling climb out of the canyon — I had carrying capacity for two liters, refilled three times, so it seemed I'd managed to guzzle nearly six liters of water in less than 30 miles, without peeing once, and I still felt thirsty. We crossed a small stream where I soaked my buff and hat. I was tempted to fill my bladder with stream water, but I only carried chlorine tablets, and by the time those kicked in I hoped to be at the aid station. It was only about a mile and a half away? Maybe two. An hour? It was an eternity in this super-heated basement of Hell. 

I latched on to two others, a man and a woman, as we deliriously plodded up the canyon wall. My skin began to feel clammy and my head throbbed. I stopped watching or caring about my heart rate, but I could feel it pounding in my chest. A half-mile was pure desperation; I was genuinely worried I might be slipping into heat exhaustion. The others fared even worse and slipped back. The aid station was a meager oasis — just a tent under the mid-day sun, hardly any shade even beneath the trees, but they had water, and they had ice! I thought I might cry. I greedily guzzled the liquid as it flowed into my bladder, causing the volunteer to comment that it would never fill if I kept drinking. The aid station was overflowing with runners who had succumbed to the heat. More than a dozen would drop out of the race here. One man was lying on a cot, shivering profusely. "He needs to get to a hospital," I mumbled, because everyone already knew it. We were a long way from the highway, but I hoped help was coming. 
 Even with water, I was slow to recover from dehydration. The afternoon only grew hotter and the trail flowed along the high plateau, endlessly up and down, often away from shade, well above 8,000 feet. My head was still throbbing and I could feel blisters searing the skin on my heels. But I respected the clock and boosted myself in and out of aid stations as quickly as possible, only stopping long enough to collect more water, some fruit snacks for my front pocket, perhaps a quesadilla square or a handful of pretzels for "salt." I carried salt tablets as well, and took one every time I started to feel out of sorts, which worked surprisingly well.

 Just before the sun went down, I crossed paths with Beat on the out-and-back course. I was around mile 42, he was at mile 58, and somewhere in the top quarter of runners at the time. I was no longer last, but definitely in the bottom quarter. He looked great. I felt like road kill, and I was a lot of miles behind him, but at least the sun was going down. The oppressive sun would be gone for nearly nine hours, which wasn't nearly enough, but at least it was nine hours I could look forward to (no wonder I do so much better in Alaska ultras than these summer ones. The less sun, the better.)

 The night miles were enjoyable. There was a segment of dirt road where I zoned out and listened to music for a while, not caring who heard me when I sang "Thunder" by Imagine Dragons out loud, and putting "Home"by Field Report on repeat for a half hour:

Long-lived beauty; short-lived pain
Lust for wonder and hunger pangs.
Face your fear, not your shame,
In the end, it just wears you away. 

While jogging down the road, I rolled my left ankle badly and went down, scraping my right knee. The ankle throbbed but as I walked it off, the pain diminished. Still, the band beneath the joint had become swollen and my ankle remained unstable. A minor sprain, but a sprain nonetheless. I struggled with the next section of trail — badly eroded, overgrown brush, fallen trees and crumbling gullies. I made it to mile 51.5 just 40 minutes before the cut-off, but decided to take the time to change my shirt, tape my blisters, and eat a bowl of ramen.

 The night was so warm that I remained in my T-shirt and even rolled down my sun-sleeves at midnight. But as I babied my tender ankle down the ball-bearing rocks of the long descent into Straight Canyon, a switch flipped. Suddenly I began shivering, my hands went numb, my feet went numb. I hobbled into the aid station and grabbed every stitch of warm clothing out of my drop bag there — puffy jacket, mittens, beanie. I was dressed as though it was 10 degrees in Alaska, and still I continued to shiver. Temps could have been a little cool, possibly even the low-40s, but it seemed most likely that heat of the day had thrown my body temperature out of whack. I was very cold. My fingers could no longer grip my trekking poles, so I shoved them under my arm pit as I rubbed my mittens together.

 In an effort to generate warmth I tried to move faster, jogging as I climbed out of Straight Canyon. It didn't take long before my breathing became raspy, and the tell-tale chirping sound accompanied every exhalation. Shortness of breath had caught up to me. Whether I could have avoided it by more diligently watching my heart rate, I won't know. When I looked at my watch, my heart was only beating 140, but the wheezing became worse. I took hits from my inhaler, and while this remedy provides relief, it's short lived. Within five minutes I was wheezing again. My shoulders quaked with cold, and my chest heaved with growing desperation.

Just before the oppressive sun rose again, I had an asthma attack. What spurred it was just silly. I had been watching the cut-offs, and knew I needed to reach the mile 67 aid station by 6 a.m. Just over a mile from the aid station, I looked at my watch. I'd switched it over and thus restarted the timer at the 51-mile turnaround, which I left at 11:40 p.m. The watch said 5:51, which I assumed was the time, but it was actually the number of hours that had passed since 11:40. In reality it was about 5:30 a.m. I had plenty of time to make the cut-off, but I reacted to nine minutes as "I'm never going to make it!" I started running, as fast as I could. Amid that burst of anxiety, I just lost it. Gasping, panicking, finally sitting down and trying to breathe out the word "calm, calm, calm" so I could slow my breathing enough to take a hit from the inhaler. Then the crying started. Blubbering, mucous. It was a mess. It was my typical reaction to breathing difficulty, and the situation I promised myself I'd avoid by quitting before it happened. But some things just can't be avoided, no matter how much mind over matter we employ.

Since I'd missed the cut-off anyway, I took a long sit and got my breathing completely under control before I continued. By the time I strode into the aid station I believed it was 6:30, but it was actually only 6:10. The volunteer said I could have that ten-minute leeway and continue if I wanted to, and I was so surprised at the suggestion that I grabbed a handful of Swedish fish and kept going, not even stopping to refill my water. I anticipated beautiful dawn light over the pink cliffs, but on the first climb my breathing became rough again, and I lost interest in taking photos. Now I felt short of breath by the time my heart rate hit 130. It was scarcely enough power to propel my legs up anything.

The race wasn't over. Perhaps I could plod it out. But why? I already promised myself I was going to draw the line at the breathing difficulties I'd already experienced. But here I was, still going. Why? It's an interesting question to ponder amid the 70-mile fatigue and sleep deprivation, still huddled in a puffy jacket with the hood up as the oppressive sun that I fear casts direct light into my eyes. I took short stops to look out from the edge of the plateau, where the pink cliffs rose like fantasy castle spires out of the green river valley. I would just smile, because this felt good. This felt like the best life, the one I continue to seek in these increasingly futile endurance efforts — beautiful because it's difficult, difficult because it's worthwhile, because living is about moving forward, if it's about anything at all.

I was still listening to my iPod, and that would have to be the time that "Dig Down" by Muse came on, which was basically an anthem of aggressive motivation.

When hope and love has been lost and you fall to the ground 
You must find a way. 
When the darkness descends and you're told it's the end 
You must find a way.

I tried jogging again. It went about as you might expect. There was gasping, and inhaler puffs, and crying. This may have been the scenario I expected to experience, but it wasn't the one I was fighting for. I really didn't come here to dig down to angst and desperation. I came here for beauty and joy, until that was done. This meant I was done. It was fine. Despite the heat and blisters and rolled ankle, it had been a beautiful and enjoyable 70 miles. I didn't need to go any further.

Except for I did still need to plod out five more miles to reach Blubber Creek aid station, the place where I saw multiple runners with heat exhaustion the previous day. A half mile from the aid station, a runner came flying by me at a stunning clip. "Holy cow, that guy found the Jesus fire," I thought, thinking he was a fellow back-of-packer trying to make the cut-off. Actually he was the leading 50-mile racer — the 50-mile race started that morning from what was the 100-milers' halfway point. When I hobbled in, it was clear I wasn't the second-position 50-miler, and the aid station captain cut me off without sympathy. It was okay. If he had agreed to let me overshoot to cutoff and continue I would have been in a tough spot, with only 8.5 hours to cover a section of trail that took me nine hours to travel on the way in, before the asthma, tired legs, and second-day heat took effect. It was failure math that I could never justify away, no matter how much I tried to "dig down."

This was still the most remote aid station, with no way to shuttle me out for several hours. Despite the cranking heat my body temperature continued to feel cold, then pleasantly moderate. I even napped in a cot for a while, until a switch flipped again and my skin felt like it was on fire. There was still no shade. My own water bladder was empty, and the volunteers at the aid station were beginning to panic because they had nearly run out of water. Fifty-mile racers were pouring in, and they were down to ten gallons. I sucked on cubes of ice out of the cooler, and at one point said something off-handed about melting the ice to make water, similar to the way we melted snow when I volunteered for a White Mountains 100 aid station in Alaska in March. One volunteer actually started doing this, stirring a vat of ice on the propane stove. I fretted about the safety of the back-of-pack 50-milers and paced miserably — thirsty, hungry, and increasingly desperate myself. I wished I'd just continued. It probably would have killed me, poor breathing in the oven canyon, but it would have been better than this misery.

Of course I was just sleep-deprived and overreacting. Finally the supply truck arrived with more water and welcome extraction. I'd failed yet again, and again showed my propensity for making it about three quarters of a race before succumbing to it. But that's okay. I truly didn't feel bad about it. I am what I am. No miles will come so easily to me any more. But that only makes them all the more worthwhile.


  1. That sounds miserable. I'm thinking you should just visit me. If you want we can meet in Bozeman and you can be my date to this wedding -- it's on a ranch. Or we can just hang out. Or do an easy hike or bike ride. No need to put yourself into bad situations.

    1. Hanging out with you would be wonderful. I'll see what I can do.

  2. Jill, you only truly fail if you don't learn something from your experiences. Sounds like your learning, so you're not really failing. In any case, those are some gorgeous photos, so thanks for those. We've got to get down there and explore some time.

    P.S. After writing about your struggle, including gasping and crying, you then reached an aid station called Blubber Creek. I'm sorry, but that almost made me laugh.

    1. I mean, what I've learned is that I am consistently terrible at this type of racing. But the fact that it's so difficult for me is the reason why I do it. If I was in this for pure hedonistic pleasure I would visit the rim of Bryce Canyon and then sit in an air-conditioned hotel room eating ice cream.

      Blubber Creek was fitting. I really over-react to my breathing issues, even though on an intellectual level I understand that they're not an emergency. Thus the crying. But overall I really did have an enjoyable experience, because it was both challenging and beautiful.

  3. I'm in awe, everything considered. You are still firmly atop the "pedestal" in my eyes. Sometimes thyroid med treatments take a year to level out and adjust to...even then you will be tweaking the dose for a while, fine tuning, letting your system adjust. You've only just begun this journey, and have exceeded even your own expectations. Patience, Grasshopper... you will slowly feel better with time. I can't wait to read next year's post about this hundred miler.
    Box Canyon

    1. It is its own journey. I do appreciate that — as I said, I'm grateful for what I *can* do. I continue to overstep my limits, but every time I do that, I gain new understanding.

      The ultimate for me would be gaining both the fitness and (relative) skill to finish the Tor des Geants. A finish in that race would be the cap in my career. I could stop running after that. ;)

  4. A little late to the party, but this post made me laugh so hard! Not in a mean way, in a way where I can really identify with your emotions and feelings during this time. The picture that you paint is very vivid, and very realistic, in my opinion. I am so surprised that you did this and got very far, considering the thyroid issues! That is something to be proud of. Maybe think about what it is you enjoy so much about being in this state and try to replicate that somewhere else. I am of the opinion that things that happen to us have something to teach us, some way to modify our behavior or thoughts. I kind of know how my challenges (i.e. restlessness, knee injury) relate to my own state of mind, but I can't surmise what these thyroid issues or your inevitable draw to these long endurance activities are trying to tell you. Something worth thinking about.


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