Sunday, April 21, 2019

Once a runner

"Why am I still trying to be a runner?"

This incredulous question pops into my mind with some frequency, still, as I near the decade mark of my running journey. I don't have a definitive moment when I decided to become a runner, but the first spark of genuine interest developed shortly after I finished the Tour Divide in the summer of 2009. I  wondered "what's next?" and gazed up at the mountains towering over Juneau. Everything beyond the jagged ridges was a mystery — fingers of rock stretching across the Juneau Icefield and beyond. I dreamed about the expanses I could explore in my limited free time, if only I were fast enough to cover the ground.

Unlike most adults who run on a regular basis, I have no running background. I was such an awkward ambler as a child that I failed the Presidential Fitness Test in seventh grade. When you're a striving tween who is given your first "F" because you couldn't break a 12-minute-mile, you're bound to take that failure to heart. Through my teens and twenties, I aggressively despised running. Then I entered a relationship with a man who was a collegiate cross-country star. Burnout led him to drop out of college, and by the time I met him a couple of years later, he was emphatically a non-runner. Several years after that, he picked up snowshoe racing on a lark. This progressed to mountain running after we moved to Alaska, followed by a meteoric rise in the ultrarunning world. I watched his progression to the top of the sport with some bemusement, because to me he was not a great athlete. He was the dude who went hiking and bike touring with me, and I could usually keep up. Maybe, I reasoned, running was not so hard.

He broke up with me before I ever gave running a go, so I can't credit him with much more than making the endeavor look entirely too doable. The Tour Divide led to some burnout with cycling, so after I returned to Juneau, I recruited my friend Abby to show me the ropes of trail running. We'd go out for slow jogs on the Treadwell Ditch Trail and other root-choked but flattish trails around town. Then I signed up for my first real foot race (at least the first one I intended to take seriously), the Mount Roberts Tram Run. The course was four miles up a muddy trail, gaining 1,800 feet. Abby and I lined up, and I asked her if we were going to race together. "Maybe," she replied, then disappeared into the crowd as the race launched. I'd go on to finish, red-lined and on the verge of vomiting, somewhere in the mid-pack, only to learn that Abby had won the race outright. As it turns out, Abby was a former elite cross-country skier. She'd been on track to compete in the Olympics before the pressure got to her and she walked away. She never shared this with me, her rank-beginner yet regular running partner. You might understand how spending all this time with elite athletes when I was young and naive might have skewed my perspective.

My enthusiasm for both running and racing faltered over the next year as I moved from Juneau to Anchorage to Missoula, but the following summer I fell in with another crowd of bad influences. A mutual friend introduced me to a Montana runner named Danni. She and I spent a weekend hiking in Glacier National Park, where I learned she was co-directing an ultra called the Swan Crest 100, slated the following weekend. On a whim I volunteered to help out with Danni's race. At the finish line, I met an enthusiastic Swiss runner named Beat. The rest, as one might say, is history. It becomes a long story to tell, but less than five months later I was in a new relationship and officially an ultrarunner myself, having completed my first 50K, en route to my "ultimate" challenge of finishing the Susitna 100 on foot.

That was early 2011, the start of my own meteoric rise. Although I would never venture anywhere near the top of the sport like Geoff or Abby, I enjoyed a fair amount of personal success early and often, and followed Beat's track of racing a lot. I finished 14 ultras in 2012, including another Susitna 100, UTMB (a shortened 110K course, still hard), and the Bear 100. I knew I would never be anything close to great, but I was still fairly certain I could go anywhere I wanted in this sport. My hubris hit fever pitch in 2013 when I enthusiastically signed up for and attempted La Petite Trotte à Léon. This spectacular DNF was the beginning of a slap-down that I might argue has continued, on some level, ever since.

"Why am I still trying to be a runner?" The angry voice echoed as I pulled myself up off the rocks and brushed dust and blood from my shin. It's @$%* 2019 and I'm still slapping the @$*! ground with some regularity. My crashes only seem to become more frequent as time goes by. I feel like I'm locked in a steady state of impact injuries, compounded by the embarrassment of being a middle-aged woman with scabbed knees and bruised arms. If tripping and hurting myself were the only indignities I had to endure, I could probably accept them. But I continue to rack up emotional failures as well. The reason I was out here on a rainy Wednesday afternoon, pushing my legs up the Betasso Link as fast as they'd climb until I lost control, is because I simply want to finish the Bryce 100 in three weeks. If I can manage this, it will be the first non-winter "A" race I'll have completed since I last finished the same race in 2013. In six years, my only breakthrough successes came from Alaska. And there were a lot of failures to fill in the gaps.

I write this as a confessional toward the deep emotional investment I've made in just finishing the Bryce 100, while simultaneously considering the endeavor to be foolhardy and a waste of time. Bryce is a beautiful course, and sure to be a memorable adventure regardless of the outcome. But I'm approaching the race with too much resentment and too little love. I've had ten years to become a runner, and feel the indignation of still being the same awkward ambler that I was in seventh grade, striving for a bare minimum that I might not meet.

It's been a tough week of training. I've posted about how my breathing has been good and overall I'm feeling strong, and that's still true. This week I pushed the volume; I wanted to log 20 hours of moving time, as I did in each of the two main training weeks leading up to the White Mountains 100. I managed 20 hours and then some with two weight-lifting sessions, 61 foot miles with 11,000 feet of gain mainly on dirt and technical trails, and a 53-mile road ride that had 5,300 feet of gain but actually was all enjoyment and no punishment, and did lead me to again ask myself why am I spending all this time trying to be a runner??

Beat and I logged our weekly long run in Golden Gate State Park on Saturday. Twenty-five miles with 6,000 feet of climbing, much of that on technical and rocky terrain. It turned out to be a bit early in the season for these trails. Most of the shady and north-facing areas were packed with snow and ice, with varying degrees of slipping and post holing. After my fall on Wednesday, I developed a little bit of what I call "trail vertigo," for lack of an official term. I was feeling wobbly, uneven, and vaguely dizzy for much of the run. To be fair I'd felt this way even before I took that hit. I think it's just something that comes on when I'm more fatigued. In the past couple of years I've associated my proprioception issues with poor breathing and low blood oxygen, but I had no breathing difficulties this week. I felt strong on the climbs, but weak and lightheaded on the descents. A friend visiting from North Dakota joined us for the final eight miles, and it was a nice distraction — slogging through shin-deep snow while talking about sled-dragging and layering for 30 below. These challenges are all well within my comfort zone. Trail running, on the other hand ...

So I ponder what, exactly, I'm trying to achieve. Way back in 2013, when I was arguably near the peak of my running success, I decided I didn't really love bike racing. Unless it was some sweeping adventure, such as the Race Across South Africa, the Tour Divide or the Iditarod Trail, I just didn't have the fire to focus on competitive cycling. Instead I wanted to ride bikes for fun, and test my limits in a way that was consistently difficult and enlightening — running. It is difficult to reconcile this zeal with the reality that there's absolutely nothing about running that comes naturally to me, and experience has arguably worsened my abilities as confidence continues to erode, and things actually could just keep getting worse, until I finally quit.

A hundred miles is a long way, and there's a lot of time for any number of issues to crop up that I might not be able to fix. It's silly and foolhardy to place so much pressure on my performance in this one race with which I already don't have a great history. Still, a success at Bryce, even the bare minimum, would be enough to justify positive answers to that nagging question ... why am I still trying to be a runner?

I have one more week of focused training before the taper. Hopefully I can get through it without meeting the ground yet again. 
Sunday, April 14, 2019

Clinging to winter

April is a gift that keeps on giving. That is, with the exception of tax day, when most of my disposable cash is set to be removed from my bank account. (I know; I could budget for this better. I just prefer to have some sort of excessive adventure like living in Nome for a month, then pay the piper when the time comes.) Beyond the small bout of pain that is April 15, this brief but blissful season of effortless PRs and snowy spring adventures continues.

The weather this week was volatile, with high winds, then rain, then snow, then more strong wind. Conditions weren't conducive to (fun) cycling, so I stacked the week with quality foot training. I'm recommitting to weight training and trying to hit the gym twice a week, but on Monday I managed to squeeze in a quick jaunt to Sanitas before the errands and iron pumping and allergy shots that usually leave me couch-bound (or wishing I was) for the remainder of the day. 

Mount Sanitas has become one of those routes that I hit about once a month, so I always try to climb as fast as I can, as a sort of "fitness test." The last time I ran Sanitas was Feb. 20, a couple of days before we left for Alaska. That effort went so poorly, with rough breathing and my slowest time since the "sick days" of 2017, that I actually became a bit weepy on the peak. I blamed these tears on "slump hormones," because my slumps dredge up as many overwrought emotions as they do breathing difficulties. Since I have nothing tangible on which to blame a multitude of symptoms (rash, insomnia, anxiety ... the list extends far beyond slow running) — hormones it is. 

Anyway, my April 8 Sanitas climb was fantastic. I spent three years trying to ascend the little mountain in under 30 minutes, and finally did it this past December in 29:55. Then, like clockwork, four months later I tagged the summit with 28:48 on my watch! 

On Wednesday, everyone along the Front Range was anticipating the second "bomb cyclone" of 2019. I missed Colorado's first round of explosive cyclogenesis while I was in Alaska, but gleaned much entertainment from reading breathless media reports and underwhelmed Twitter commentary while I cowered indoors amid a violent whiteout/windstorm that's just a typical Wednesday in Nome. I was glad to be around for this storm. Still, after the Santias PR and a solid sprint during my routine Tuesday run, I was more interested in putting in another fast effort than slogging around in wet snow à la Alaska. So I timed my run three hours ahead of the forecasted snow, setting out when the weather was still a friendly 35 degrees with wind and rain.

I did manage a good push for my four-mile route along the west ridge of Green Mountain, missing my December (2017) PR by less than a minute. The rain switched over to snow just as I was nearing the peak. Less than 15 minutes later, there was a solid half inch covering the trail. Snow continued to accumulate rapidly as I worked my way down my loop, soaked to the skin but warm enough as blissfully hard running continued to pump out heat. Within an hour there were nearly two inches of heavy snow blanketing the ground, and my motions had become much more slog-like. But no matter. I was still pretty stoked on the blizzard.

Thursday dawned cold and gorgeous, with six to eight inches of new snow. I had hoped to take my fat bike for a spin, but wet snow falling onto warm ground made for such a sloppy mess that I couldn't stomach the notion of pedaling through mud-swirled Slurpee. Beat was working from home that day, so we set out for my usual Tuesday run in the afternoon. He promised to coach me to a PR, and in doing so set a hard pace on the climbs and easy-going pace on the descents. I nearly maxed out while shadowing him through the sloppy mud, but surprised myself by keeping pace.

"When my breathing's good, nothing feels all that hard; it's strange," I panted when the pace became remotely conversational during a mile-long descent. Minutes earlier, I was running my heart rate near 175, on the verge of puking, and that was not remotely easy. But it is eas-ier than anything I attempt when I'm feeling wheezy, including and especially that sad Feb. 20 slog up Sanitas.

As promised, Beat did coach me to a PR — nearly a minute faster than my previous best, which isn't trivial for a run I do on a near-weekly basis. The PRs were stacking up, and I was feeling mighty.

Since I'd done all of this hard running during the week, I convinced Beat we should go for a fun outing on Saturday — snowshoeing at Brainard Lake. We'd aim for Mount Audubon if conditions were conducive, but otherwise just happily tromp along in the snow for five or six hours. Both of us had more or less put "winter" behind us when we came home from Alaska. My gear needed to be excavated from the boxes where I'd stashed it for summer storage. But we came prepared for full winter conditions — the Continental Divide had also been slammed with new snow this week, and Saturday's high temperature at the trailhead was forecast to be 25 degrees.

We wiled away the morning hoping for clearing skies that never quite materialized. It was 1:30 p.m. and still snowing heavily when we finally set out from the winter trailhead. Beyond Brainard Lake the route became tricky, with erratic and windblown ski tracks that didn't seem to head toward Audubon. We decided to trace the summer route as well as we could, which forced us to break virgin trail in heavy snow as we wound through the woods. It was hard, thirsty work, and the weather was January fearsome with temperatures in the teens and winds gusting to 35 mph. Low clouds and blowing snow streamed along the ridge.

An Audubon summit was not going to happen on this day. Such an attempt would have been high on the epic scale, with hours of full exposure to the fierce wind and cold, and a slow and difficult pace that would have kept us hiking well after dark. Perhaps we would have motivated if we were here before our trip to Alaska ... but Beat had already had more than his share of high wind adventure during his night and day in the Solomon Blowhole, and I spent nearly a month on the wind-swept Bering Sea coast, so ... we're wintered out, I suppose. We were happy to climb to a nice viewpoint, take a look, and turn around.

The formidable Mount Audubon. Perhaps we'll motivate for another snowshoe adventure with more time to spare next week. Or perhaps we'll settle into the speedy ease of the season and find somewhere warm and dry to run.

Wind and blowing snow continued to batter us on the way down. Beat was having trouble with his snowshoes that required several stops to fix, and I had to bundle up in most of my extra layers. I was, perhaps, willing to admit that I'm ready for spring.

I continue to place excess emotional importance on my ability to finish the upcoming Bryce 100. As such, I was resolved to put in at least a four-hour run on Sunday, and actually convinced Beat to do the same (he'll perform well at the race no matter how much or little he trains between now and then, and he and I both know it.) In order to avoid mud and slush conditions, we settled on a double loop around Walker Ranch — clockwise to start, then doubling back and running counter-clockwise for the return.

I just assumed I'd continue to feel great as I had earlier in the week, but the difficulty of the snowshoe slog weighed heavily on my legs. I was off to a slower start, and then we hit the fearsome West Wind. Wind gusts were hitting 50 miles an hour (as recorded by our weather station at home.) We crossed an open area running due west, and I couldn't breathe. The wind seemed to rip the air away from my mouth before I could draw it into my lungs. Meanwhile, the headwind pushed back so forcefully that I could barely walk, let alone run, and continued to stagger forward with my nose pointed at the ground so the wind wouldn't blow the hat off my head (but it did anyway, multiple times.) I felt a little despondent, as I do whenever I have difficulty breathing. But Beat told me that the wind made him feel exactly the same, and he struggled with breathing just as much.

This first Walker loop was much more difficult than last week, and then we had to do another. My legs felt heavy but my breathing remained manageable, and I had a fair amount of energy thanks to a bottle full of Beat's hummingbird food. (After my difficulties taking in food during the White Mountains 100, I've committed to using liquid nutrition during the Bryce 100 — even though I strongly dislike most drink mixes that I've tried. Beat's solution, a flavorless mix called Maurten, is pretty much straight-up sugar water, but with a magical gel that infuses long-lasting energy without gut distress. It made me wince when I first started using it, but now I appreciate its non-offensive non-taste.)

We completed our run with 17.5 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing. These are rocky trails — not my strength — and I took the downhills slowly to keep my no-tripping streak in tact. The wind continued to kick my ass, and I finished the four hours feeling pretty wrecked. But it's a good thing — if I didn't push a few boundaries, I wouldn't have as much mental strength to apply to my upcoming race.

A successful week of training, all around.
Sunday, April 07, 2019

April ... not the cruelest month

Every March, Beat and I more or less put our lives on hold to frolic in Alaska. By April, we have a lot of catching up to do. Life maintenance adds so much busyness to these weeks, and they begin to overwhelm. Today marks two weeks since the White Mountains 100, and it already feels like it was months ago. Both in mind in body ... happily in body, because I'm already back in training for my next (and possibly last) race of the year on May 17, the Bryce 100.

My first run post-White Mountains 100 was the following Saturday. We had just returned to Boulder late Thursday evening, and had barely settled in when we were slammed by several inches of snow. I'm always grateful for the way Colorado eases the transition away from winter by sprinkling a few good snowstorms in with the 80-degree days, sometimes far into May. Our snowy late-March Saturday was lovely but made for slushy, muddy conditions along the dirt road. Despite being only about five days out from the hundred-mile race, my legs felt springy, and I didn't even notice the altitude. We took a five-mile route that I run often enough to use as a gage of fitness. Despite the tough surface conditions, the pace still came in above my "all-time average."


On Sunday we climbed to Bear Peak. Beat barely missed a beat (ha) following his thousand-mile march across Alaska. I can remember the days when the ITI left him feeling tired for a few weeks, but now he's just raring to go again. I couldn't keep up with him on this outing.

The new snow made for lovely scenery. When we reached the peak, there were about eight other people up there, and I noticed Beat suddenly seemed anxious. Lingering only long enough for me to take one photo, he turned and started jogging back down the trail. I rushed to catch up and asked, "Too many people?" "Yeah," he replied. This is possibly the toughest part of the Iditarod Trail transition — after weeks of solitude, returning to these lands of human congestion (which describe nearly every place, relative to the Iditarod Trail.)


My friend Betsy was preparing her own Alaska adventure beginning Tuesday, but on Monday we managed to connect for a morning of fat biking at Brainard Lake. I'd believed the season for packed trails at moderate altitudes would be over by the time I returned from Alaska, so this opportunity was a pleasant surprise. And since it was April 1, I no longer needed all of those warm clothes that I had to schlep around in Alaska.

So, imagine the less-than-pleasant surprise of arriving at the trailhead to a temperature of 25 degrees with a blasting 30 mph wind. Whoa – it was just like Nome, except for at 10,000 feet, so it's even harder to breathe into the wind. The windchill was breathtaking even as I stood still in the parking lot. I dug through the car for any warm layers I could scavenge, then walked over to Betsy's vehicle.

"It's so much colder than I thought it was going to be!" I exclaimed. "I thought it was spring."

A nearby couple, who I'd observed bundling up in at least six layers as they prepared to go snowshoeing, replied, "April Fools."


Betsy and I weren't ideally prepared, but we agreed to attempt at least one lap. We climbed the wind-exposed and snow-covered road, battling dynamic snow drifts — as quickly as the drifts formed, they were whisked away, creating a strange effect that I'd liken to crashing through breaking waves. A ground blizzard raged around us, and it wasn't even snowing — somewhere overhead there was sunshine and blue skies. But down here, all was frozen in chaos.

I became chilled despite the tough climb, but as soon as we veered into the forest on Waldrop, we discovered a dreamland of muted wind and solid trails. As Betsy described it, "Whitetrack Bliss." The rolling descent was so fun that we again braved the awful ground blizzard of the road — which despite difficulties was the faster way to climb — for a go on the Snowshoe Trail. Betsy ran out of time and headed home, but I was having so much fun that I returned for a third climb and descent, again on Snowshoe. Such riding is rare in Colorado — narrow mountain trails, winding tightly through the forest, dipping in and out of steep drainages, and 100 percent free of rocks. Real flow trail. I was in heaven.

By Wednesday I decided I was ready for some real running, and headed up Green Mountain from the main trailhead. I hit the steep "stairs" on Saddle Rock, where the familiar march felt relatively effortless. "Oh course, because April," I thought ... which I realize is about as meaningful an explanation as "because reasons." I've written here before about these strange sort of "biorhythm" cycles I experience, and acknowledge that they make no medical sense and are probably a result of placebo effect. But wow ... every four months, my breathing really improves, and it doesn't seemed to have anything to do with training effect (because I should be fatigued from Alaska) or altitude (because I spent five weeks at sea level, long enough to lose my acclimation.)

It's been interesting to track these supposed cycles via heart rate and performance statistics. My outings during the good weeks often bring higher "relative effort" scores from Strava, even though I feel less taxed during the run, and less fatigued afterward. I'm given the higher score because I spend more time in higher heart rate zones, rather than gasping my way through zone 2. It appears to be the simple effect of being able to supply more oxygen to my blood — for whatever reason — which boosts a higher performance from my body. I continue to dig around for potential causes and solutions for such a cycle, because the bad weeks still suck plenty (although my last period of breathing difficulty, during late February and early March, was relatively short-lived.)

For now, I'm simply enjoying to ease of "because April." Despite soft snow conditions on the upper half of Green, I managed to march up to the peak and touch the plaque with 59:01 on my watch — my first-ever sub-hour for that 2,500-foot climb. Then I lingered on the peak taking photos and texting Beat, so Strava game me 1:04 for the segment. Stupid Strava.

I'm putting good fitness to good use, while acknowledging that I have some lingering muscle and Achilles issues after the hundred-miler. So instead of just ramping up my running mileage, I remain committed to the equal-time cross training that I believe has kept me (overuse) injury free and motivated all of these years (which is another way of saying I like to ride bikes, but not necessarily race them, and while I enjoy racing on foot, I prefer to skip the tedium of focused run training that might actually help me become a better runner.)

Anyway, the road bike is always such a revelation after a winter of fat bike snow slogging. The featherweight bike just pedals itself, and I enjoy a lovely 4,000-foot jaunt up Lefthand Canyon. Of course, once I neared Ward at 9,000 feet, the gusting west wind returned in force, and it became hard for a while, then cold. The ambient temperature couldn't have been much warmer than 45 degrees, and windchill was again fierce. Luckily, after Monday, I would not again be fooled by mountain weather. There was plenty of winter gear in my pack for the long descent along Peak-to-Peak and Highway 7, which is pretty much an hour-long amusement park ride at the highest fun setting. 

So this is where I'm at right now — feeling good, enjoying spring, relishing this first bout of warm weather and drying trails before the next round of snow hits next week. If I felt I had any control over my fitness I'd say I'm well positioned for the Bryce 100 next month, but yeah ... I can't be easily convinced that the way I feel today means anything for a few weeks from now. There's plenty of time (and an encroaching down-cycle) for my breathing to fall apart again.

Still, Beat and I really crushed our three-hour extended Walker Ranch run today. I was feeling so strong that I blasted down the trail toward South Boulder Creek, fast enough that when my foot caught a rock, my split-second reaction was to brace for a world of hurt. That is, until my other foot came down and I launched into a flailing sprint in the direction momentum was taking me — off trail and straight down the mountain — but I embraced that momentum and continued throwing my feet forward into bushes and prickly pear cactus until I regained control and slowed to a stop, incredibly still on my feet.

What a rush — to take a bad fall and yet not fall! No trail rash! No bruises! I feel practically invincible at this point. 
Monday, April 01, 2019

WM100: Forced consciousness expansion


“No sympathy for the devil; keep that in mind. Buy the ticket, take the ride ... and if it occasionally gets a little heavier than what you had in mind, well ... maybe chalk it up to forced consciousness expansion: Tune in, freak out, get beaten.”

~Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"

After a sixth incredible journey around the White Mountains last year, I struggled to find my "Why" for a seventh. When I signed up for the race in November, it was out of abiding love for the region, and also a sense of scarcity — because of changes in organization and climate, it's always a question of whether the race will survive another year. But as March 24 approached, I was filled with uncertainty. These days, racing and I have a complicated relationship. Mentally, I am still all in for the intense experiences and soul-satisfying challenges that endurance races provide in such abundance. Physically, however, I feel like I'm losing ground. My body hasn't kept pace with my desire, and I'm growing weary of beating it into a semblance of submission. So I think maybe I should quit racing, for my physical health. But I don't want to quit, for my mental health. It's complicated.


I weighed biking the course instead of running it, but knew I'd feel disappointed if I showed up at Wickersham Dome with creaky ol' Fatty Fatback to start and finish this loop in the daylight. Why the disappointment? I wasn't sure. But the knee-jerk emotion did prompt some soul-searching about what I did want out of this experience. Beyond the beauty, the camaraderie, the nostalgia, and even the potential for expansive awe, was the voice of my ego with an irritating ultimatum.

Remember those days, before all the thyroid stuff, the asthma, the pneumonia, etc.? You were still a mediocre athlete, but at least progress was linear and successes outnumbered failures. You need to get back there. You need to beat 2015 Jill. 

You need to break 30 hours. 


It's a little pathetic, but as soon as a goal to best my past self became clear, I no longer felt hesitant. All I needed to do was hold a moving average of four miles an hour with the typical stops, and I'd have it. Of course this is a race on snow, in winter, in a remote part of Alaska. The uncertainties far outnumber anything I can control. The few factors I could control played ping-pong in my head all week. Race nutrition — candy or more substantial trail mixes? Go lighter with 2,500 calories and rely on random checkpoint leftovers, or carry 6,000 calories for the peace of mind? Bring the waders or leave them behind? Bring the hard shell or leave it behind? Bring the snowshoes or leave them behind?

The weather was the biggest puzzle of all. This year, Fairbanks skipped March and jumped straight into April. For more than a week, every day was sunny and high 40s. Temperatures barely dropped below freezing overnight. This all but promised punchy snow conditions and an abundance of overflow, but reconnaissance reports assured us the trails were holding up well. Still, it was sure to be warm during the day, and if skies stayed clear at night, temperatures would likely drop into the single digits. The second-day forecast called for rain. Ultimately I packed way more gear than I did in 2015, when I was still blissfully ignorant and subsequently froze at night.

The days leading up to the race were fun. Wendy and Danni had both returned for the foot race, Beat and Jorge were back as spectators, and we were all staying with Corrine and Eric, who were biking the loop this year. We modeled our matching pants and made pizzas, and generally acted like we were throwing an adult slumber party rather than gearing up to hoof a hundred miles of snow.

The adrenaline from my final week in Nome faded, and a deep exhaustion set in. As sleepless as my nights had been, sleep still eluded me. I started to see the world through insomnia's murky lens. What was real? What was a dream? Come race morning, I was so sleepy that the lines between observations and imagination, realities and memories, were already beginning to blur. Streaks of color pulsed in my peripheral vision while we rode to the start of the race. It seemed so dark, because there was so little snow. The dull light of dawn revealed pockmarked piles of rotten slush. "I don't think I've ever visited Fairbanks in the summer," I said, even though I have visited Fairbanks in the summer, and it wasn't summer.

Other than this unsettling brain fog, I felt reasonably well before the race. However, just 15 minutes before the start, I felt that unsettled lurch in my gut and made a rush for the porta-potty. Pre-race tummy is not something I typically suffer from, but that morning I'd eaten yogurt that tasted a little strange. After taking care of that setback, I dashed to the starting line, arriving too late for photos. I was able to start with the pack, but took my usual place at the back as my stomach continued to turn somersaults. I made it another mile and a half before tromping into woods. Gut issues less than two miles into a hundred are never a good sign. But after this and one more stop near mile three, I felt mostly emptied out and cautiously optimistic that this wasn't going to follow me the entire way.

I picked up my pace, grateful to find a solid trail underfoot. I gnawed on a couple of candies, but still recoiled at the notion of putting food into my now-empty stomach. Clouds drifted away and the morning sun turned on the heat. I stripped off all but my base layer, then opened each zipper along the legs of my pants to expose my pasty white thighs to the summer sun. I thought about the contents of my pack and regretted not treating this like a summer race — I wished I had liquid calories to consume rather than relying on bars and candy. I wished I brought real sunscreen to slather on my limbs, rather than pore-clogging Dermatone. I wished I had a light cap to contain my sweaty hair, rather than winter hats that were too warm to wear. I wished I had downgraded the 35-liter pack and I wished it wasn't so heavy — although this was a long race, and a lot was bound to change.

As I jogged I was able to catch some of the other runners. Bonnie Busch, the only runner who chose to drag a sled. Kate Arnold, sporting a pink short-sleeved T-shirt and a down skirt. Craig Stahl, a Utahn who enviably had shorts. Wendy, who had no time to train since starting her new job at Amazon in Seattle, and was running on pure, fierce determination. Then I caught up to Danni, who was keeping that perfect four-mile-an-hour average that I hoped to shadow.

We made decent time to the first checkpoint, but my bad stomach was beginning to catch up to me. I tried to refuel with chips and fruit snacks at the trail-side table, but felt bonky and nauseated. There was also a vague but disconcerting sensation of floating, which was probably as much about sleep deprivation as it was about low glycogen. None of this would be all that concerning if it wasn't so early in the race. I was having second-day problems at mile 17. But it never always gets worse, right? (Wrong. Things are never so bad that they can't get worse.)


Despite the nausea, I managed to maintain a steady state through the next 20 miles, even perking up as the hours passed. The trail had grown more punchy in the afternoon heat, and any stride more forceful than an ultra-shuffle punched ankle-deep holes into the crust. My legs felt good, though — nothing like the legs of last year's White Mountains 100, which were so ripped apart from the ITI 350 that every footfall set off a mild electric shock through my quads. Still, I couldn't help but envy myself in the 2018 race, when I had no expectations, there were more preoccupying challenges (drifted snow! Cold wind! Temperatures down to 25 below!) and I simply wasn't so sleepy and bonky. It was fun to run with Danni, though. My wobbly ankles were holding up great thanks to a last-minute shift to mid-height Hoka Speedgoats. We were making great time to checkpoint two. Life was good.

Checkpoint two is Cache Mountain cabin, a gorgeous setting that's an arduous 38 miles into this roadless wilderness. On any other day this spot feels perplexingly far away, but thanks to race mindset, we were just getting started. Danni and I set to our chores — remove shoes and socks, air out feet, slather on lube, apply fresh socks, and eat a small meal. At this point I'd probably taken in all of 800 calories in nearly 40 miles. I was feeling horribly bonked, but also ravenous, which was a good sign. Still, I didn't want to overdo it and shut my stomach down for good, so I stuck to the usual baked potato with moose chili in a small bowl, and collected a few extra cookies for the road.

I left the checkpoint with Jacob Buller, a man from Fairbanks who had already wracked up a litany of minor injuries, and was walking with a pronounced limp. As we both tried to shake out the checkpoint stiffness, he announced he forgot his "walking stick," then returned with a literal stick. I thought about offering up my trekking poles, but admit I would be lost without them myself. He still walked at a faster clip than I could manage. I was only able to pass him when I recommitted to four miles an hour and worked my creaky legs back into a jog.

The climb to the Cache Mountain Divide was pure fun. After the baked potato, I had more energy than I'd had since the start of the race. Unbelievably, the trail was still in excellent shape, and the hot sun was finally slipping behind the western horizon. By that point I'd effectively removed my pants, unzipping them from the waist down so they draped over my legs like a tattered long skirt. Jacob and I had talked about reaching the Divide before dark, and I was determined to meet this goal.

As I neared treeline, whispers of winter returned. Dark clouds obscured the sunset, and a cold headwind raced down from the pass. I'd call it a moderate breeze, probably 15 miles an hour — enough to zip up my pants, add a jacket, and put on a buff. After a month in Nome, this wind was not much to write home about. But there was a funny reaction from two race medics, who were stationed at a warming tent about four miles away near a tricky section known as the Ice Lakes. They raced up the pass on snowmachines to check on those of us above treeline, urging care in the cold wind and reminding us to stop by their warm tent. I thought it all a little amusing, as this kind of attentive concern seems out of place in a big bad wilderness race. But then I began to wonder if the medics knew something I didn't. "Is there a high-wind warning? What's the forecast?" I asked but received no answer. After their third pass, I felt unsettled. Why were they so concerned? What was coming?


When I finally reached the pass, there were still glimmers of twilight through the dark clouds. It was just after 9 p.m. I was halfway through the race, 50 miles, in just over 13 hours. My mood soared — not only was I on pace to beat 30 hours, I might even make 28! Although I hold no delusions about even-splitting a hundred, I am usually pretty good at holding a steady pace throughout with just a little more rest. I met up with a friend from Juneau, John Nagel, who was attempting the race on skis this year. It became my short-term goal to keep up with John as we blasted down the pass, him skittering along in a precarious snowplow, and me taking big loping steps on legs that still felt ten times better than they had at any point in this race last year. I was disappointed that it was so cloudy, meaning there was no chance to see Northern Lights. So this race wouldn't match the awestruck experience of last year, but if I could continue moving well, that was excitement enough for me.

I arrived at Windy Gap, mile 62, about 15 minutes after John. He announced he was going to take a nap, but I was still resolved to keep my checkpoint time to 20 minutes. I ate a bowl of meatball soup while I switched out my socks, noting that feet still looked perfect. Then I took off down the Fossil Creek Valley, feeling fantastic. The sky had faintly cleared and the air felt almost frosty, enough to see my breath. The trail was better than it had been for miles. My feet weren't even leaving indentations here. I could run, and run well. I was stoked.


About five miles beyond Windy Gap, the first flakes hit my face. "Here's the predicted precip," I thought. It was early — closer to 2 a.m. when the precipitation was supposed to start at 7, and it was falling as wet, quarter-sized flakes of snow rather than rain. For two miles I debated putting on my rain jacket, and by the time I stopped, there was already nearly an inch of wet fluff dusting the trail. The accumulating snow began to feel like sticky mud under my feet, clumping against my shoes and sucking energy from my legs. Soon there were two inches on the ground, and each step had become arduous. I was mostly walking, but felt like I was still running. The energy chews I'd pilfered at the checkpoint weren't doing enough. I popped a caffeine pill and thought about popping another, but resolved to wait at least two hours to avoid revving up my heart rate.

I've forgotten to mention that I lost my GPS early in the race. I dropped my handheld device shortly after I passed Wendy, near mile nine. Ultimately she picked it up and returned it to me, but I went the rest of the race with only an abstract concept of mileage and time, a strange state for me. Luckily I know the White Mountains 100 course by heart, or I probably would have driven myself crazy believing I was lost most of the time. But I certainly missed GPS, my best anchor to reality. Amid the falling snow and darkness, with low visibility and only a vague sense of time and place, the entire world became an abstraction. I began to feel deeply disoriented.

Despite the caffeine pill, I grew enormously sleepy. Missing one night of sleep is normally not a big deal for me, but it had been well over a week since I'd gotten more than a few hours here and there. Fossil Creek Valley, at mile 68-ish of the White Mountains 100, is where the frenetic drive of insomnia finally collapsed. Snow swirled in the headlamp beam and pelted my eyes, causing me to blink rapidly. This incessant blinking possibly tricked my brain into believing it was in REM sleep; whatever the cause, hallucinations started to hit in force. Dark figures flickered in and out of the shadows. Squirrels and rabbits darted across the trail. Vintage motorcycles idled beside the trees.

And then there were the wolves. In my waking nightmares, there are always wolves. Gray, sleek bodies stalked the shadows, turning to face me with a glowing gaze that ignited my most primal terror. The last time I hallucinated wolves this vividly, I was attempting a multiday foot race in France. At the time, I soothed myself with logic. Wolves are exceeding rare in France. But here, in the Fossil Creek Valley of Alaska's White Mountains, live an abundance of flesh-and-blood wolves. What was real? What was a dream?

Despite gnawing fear, I could not muster enough adrenaline to stay alert. I swerved and stumbled all over the trail, nearly plunging off the edge countless times. Finally I decided I had no choice but to sleep, but of course I had no way to sleep — wet snow covered the ground, and I had no pad or sleeping bag. I came up with the brilliant idea to sit on my pack, legs stretched out, shoulders slumped and chin pressed against my sternum like a rag doll. I possibly dozed for a few seconds, only to startle awake to pronounced shivering. I mean, it was snowing and 33 degrees, and my clothing was fairly soaked. The wet snow had worked its way into my shoes, and my toes had gone numb. I reached into my pack to put on a primaloft puffy that Beat let me borrow (why hadn't I thought to put that on before I tried to nap?) I was still hopelessly sleepy, but the cold was a powerful driver.

Darkness persisted. "The sun was up by this point last year," I thought mournfully. My only view, the frenetic swirl of white on black, was too abstract to be a place on Earth. "The sun is never coming back." The trail pitched upward, climbing onto a plateau where the snow was deep and wind-swept. By now there were at least six inches of heavy powder, enough to brush over the tops of my high-top sneakers. My feet were swimming in cold snowmelt. I kept looking over my shoulder for any sign of Danni's headlamp. I badly needed another human to anchor me to reality. Indeed, Danni was never far behind — she followed my weaving footprints through the snow for hours — but we didn't connect. A nice memory came to mind, of the 2012 Susitna 100, when I was also waiting for Danni to catch me. That year, the cold snow squeaked against my trekking poles in a way that sounded just like Danni's voice, and I was sure she was right there. This year, I didn't even have fake Danni talk to soothe me — just the hateful crackling of snowflakes, the yawning darkness, and the stalking shadows of wolves.

Darkness persisted. I was slumped on my backpack again, shivering. When did I decide to sit down again? I pulled out the sheet of caffeine tablets to find four missing. When did I eat all of these? Why did they do nothing for me? How could it still be dark after weeks of wandering through the deep snow? What was real? What was a dream? I'd turned off my iPod hours ago because of the wolves. But I was genuinely losing my mind and needed some anchor to reality. Anything. I flipped through songs until I found one I could sing angrily and out loud — good old Manchester Orchestra.

THE SNOW IS PILING UP!
OUR TEMPORARY GRID!
IT WAS JUST LIKE THIS, 
THIS TIME LAST YEAR!
THERE'S NOTHING IN THE WIND!
JUST WHITE UP TO THE TREES!
AND IT'S BEEN THAT WAY
FOR ETERNITY!

Amid hoarse yelling, temporary purposeful marching that fading back to stumbling, and panicking because I thought I dropped my entire supply of candy (I found the baggie in a different pocket, but was genuinely more upset about this than I was about losing my GPS) — I found my way to checkpoint four, Borealis cabin, mile 80. Darkness had loosened its grip, giving way to a snowy gray dawn. I was surprised when I entered the cabin and learned it was only 7 a.m. In 2015, I didn't leave Borealis until 8:30 a.m. Unbelievably I was still on pace for a 30-hour finish — that is, if I could wrap up the final leg in a similar amount of time. But I knew without a doubt there was no way this was going to happen. Call me a coward for giving up so soon, but at this point I was going to be grateful if I made it to the finish without ending up face-down in the snow. Trail conditions were no longer runnable even if I had energy, which I did not.

My cabin chores somehow ate up 45 minutes. I peeled the wet socks off my feet and saw a disheartening layer of white macerated skin, along with a couple of blisters. I stretched out my legs and ate ramen noodles as slowly as they'd go down. I think the only words I spoke during that time were "tired. So tired." I put painful feet and dry socks back into soaked shoes. I stood up and walked into the hateful crackling snow.

I'd love to say I perked up and became more alert with the daylight, but most of the next ten miles were a "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas"-level consciousness side trip. Don't stop here! This is bat country! I weaved and stumbled all over the trail. I laughed at jokes that nobody made. I talked to my legs. "Find the energy. Find the energy." What was real? What was a dream?

After the long climb out of Borealis, there was a stretch where the snow was really deep — as much as eight inches, I'd guess, and I was still the one breaking my own trail. My legs weren't finding the energy; all they found was a highly resistant strength vacuum. But I wasn't angry about it anymore. I was fairly resigned.

Channeling Hunter S. Thompson: “Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.”

I reached the final checkpoint, outside the trail shelter, at mile 90. There was a table of snacks covered with a tarp, but everything was still too soggy to be palatable. My friends Matias and Christy were there, having recently skied in from the trailhead. They congratulated me on finding "real winter" during the White Mountains 100 after all.

"This isn't winter, this is some wet Juneau bullshit," I grumbled, then felt the urge to laugh at my pathetic self. "I better get slogging if I'm going to make the cutoff," I continued. I still had more than twelve hours to travel 10 miles. I genuinely wasn't sure I could do it.

Beyond the trail shelter there had been snowmachine traffic. This wet snow packed well, and the trail became considerably easier for walking. However, this reduced demand on my energy reserves only served to help me feel more alert, and thus angry again. I was still steeped in bone-chilling dampness that wouldn't let me rest for long. My macerated feet were throbbing. My back was bleeding from chaffing. And it was still %#!@ snowing!

"All those wonderful trips around the White Mountains, and you had to go and ruin it," I grumbled to myself.

Of course my previous six trips weren't all sunshine and kittens. Past hardships rose to the surface when I reached the base of a steep ascent, marked with a paper sign that read, simply, "Wickersham Wall." How many times can the Wickersham Wall break me? This ascent is a vital part of race lore, but it's actually not that bad — about 800 feet of climbing and one mile long. Even I know better by now, but still let my fragile spirit shatter all over the trail.

"I can't do it, I just can't do it," I sobbed to the sign. A snot-soaked meltdown wasn't necessary, but I needed it all the same. Emotional outbursts are an important component of my ultra arsenal. Some runners bring foam rollers to relieve tight IT bands or a regimen of ibuprofen and Tylenol. I let myself have a good cry now and again. It's so refreshing.

The outburst felt good but didn't make the Wickersham Wall any easier. The snowmachine track had become a layer of churned-up snowballs over an icy surface, and was so slippery that I almost resorted to crawling on my hands and knees. Just as I crested the climb, another snowmachine pulled up from behind. Riding the machine was Wendy, who had decided to stop at Windy Gap and had no regrets. I briefly but seriously considered asking the driver to let me climb onto the back with Wendy. You read about those runners who quit at mile 94 of a hundred and wonder "what the hell were they thinking?" That is, until you realize just how far six miles can really be. I was angry and had nothing to prove anymore. I wasn't going to break 30 hours. What would another WM100 finish even earn me? Of course, unless you're injured, you really can't quit six miles from the finish. It was too cowardly even for the insolent child throwing a tantrum in my head. And Beat would never let me hear the end of it.

I sighed as the snowmachine pulled away. But it packed down the snow almost perfectly, and I was able to run again. My legs still felt pretty good, and this just stoked the anger. What went wrong? Was the trail ever as bad as I'd imagined? Or was I just a sleepy dawdler who gave up when the going got tough? And why were there still motorcycles parked next to the trail? What actually happened out there? What was just a dream?

Anger followed me for a few relatively swift miles (relative to the one mile per hour I had been moving), and then I saw Beat jogging up the trail about a mile from the finish. My anger dissolved, along with any remaining fumes of energy, and I floated on a flickering daydream down the final hill. The finish line arrived at 3:22 p.m., which is 31 hours and 22 minutes. I was —as I have been in all of my White Mountains 100s save for my fastest and best race in 2014 — the third woman in my category.

The 2019 White Mountains 100 was a strange one for me. I made mistakes in regard to nutrition, and possibly suffered the most from my pre-race sleep deficit, but it didn't go all that badly, in the scheme of things. My breathing was solid the whole time, and if anything it was a good confidence builder for future ultra attempts. As soon as the race was over, my most prominent emotion was shame for all of the anger and negativity, and for mentally giving up when conditions became challenging. But after a couple of days, I was already fondly clinging to the best moments — Jogging in the summer-like warmth. Savoring a baked potato when I was so hungry at Cache Mountain. Running down the Divide with John. Bliss.

What's the takeaway? I genuinely don't know.

Photo by Jorge Latre

“Yesterday's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why.” ― Hunter S. Thompson