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.


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


  1. I don't care about 2015 Jill, I think you are amazing. The hallucination thing is freaky. Glad you survived and did Ok.

  2. Great write up. The hallucinations are always an interesting experience. Auditory and visual, it’s fascinating how the brain fills out the image of things. It is so stunning I took a video last year of a pine tree I thought was a dragon— knowing I was hallucinating obviously. You might just have to keep doing these events so you can get good sleep. As a fellow insomniac my best sleep is post race.

  3. Amazing, simply amazing...I'll be thinking about you on Tour Divide this year, Jill.

  4. Hallucinating Alaska. THAT must have been terrifying! I honestly can't imagine how you dealt with that. Anyway, glad you finished with no injuries, and even a bonus as your breathing didn't bring you down. Hey...a positive! Run with it! (pun intended!) Great writeup as usual!

  5. This is was great sharing a little time on the trail at Cache and at the cabins and afterwards...nice finish...and there were fresh wolf tracks a couple miles past Windy... who knows? They didn't bother you... :-)

  6. I absolutely love the last photo.

  7. Thank you for the comments, everyone. Since that trippy overnight march I've been scouring my memory to figure out whether the wolves could have possibly been real ... as John mentioned, there are often fresh signs of wolves in that area. I honestly can't make a clear distinction beyond the conclusion that it's simply more likely that my mind formed these figures to fill in the gaps amid the sensory confusion. Goes to show how unreliable memory can be ... and how much our experiences are formed in our own minds.

    Anyway, I've finally gotten a fair amount of sleep since that tough week, and now I'm 100 percent back in love with the White Mountains 100 and slogging my way through Alaska. Bring on spring. :-)

  8. You have a gift, the ability to use words to help people identify and feel like they have been along on your journey. I love the race recap but your first paragraph is what hooked me. Your description of the battle between the desire of the mind and the resistance of the body could have been describing me also. I have a body that has a mind of its own, health issues that have been challenging. There are so many events, dreams and things I want to do but after a few years of trying so desperately to train and prepare have taken its toll. More than the physical uncertainty of how my body will respond from day to day, the emotional toll has been far greater. I envy other athletes who can push their bodies, have time goals they can achieve and have the confidence and consistency that hard work will pay off. One day is great, the next not so much. There is so much anxiety in the preparation and execution of an event when I want so badly for things to go well, and it may or may not. Then trying to stay encouraged after a disaster is tough. Pushing myself to the limit is sometimes just showing up. So why do I continue running, biking, hiking, triathlons, winter ultras? Why do you Jill? I just don’t want to give in. Maybe competitions are over for me too but I will never stop doing what I love to do. Though 75% of my workouts/events don’t go the way I want them too, I still feel most free, my true self, when I am exploring, adventuring and moving my body. And as frustrating as it is to look fine but not work fine (inside) my body takes pretty good care of me.
    My ramblings are to let you know you are not alone. I am appreciate of your transparency and honesty. I needed to know I wasn’t alone too.

    1. I appreciate your comment, Lesley. I empathize with your struggle very much. I wish I had a comprehensive answer to the question "Why?" Somehow I chose this path in life, and it's become as much a part of me as anything else about myself. Still, I continue to believe that if I truly hit a dead end, I will know, and find a way to turn away. I'll find something else to love. I suppose I just haven't seen that dead end yet. I've even come to see this rollercoaster as its own journey, its own experience, its own puzzle to solve.

      But as you pointed out, keeping faith is difficult amid all the uncertainty. I *really* want my next race (the Bryce 100) to go well. I've threatened myself with quitting running if I'm forced to DNF for breathing reasons again. But I don't want to quit running by any stretch, and I feel like placing this ultimatum on physical factors that I haven't found a way to control is self-defeating. Yet I continue to cling to the "mental-strength-you-can-do-anything" hope, because I want so badly to regain this illusion of control.

      I hope you find a way through this frustrating maze. I wish I had answers. I hope you'll continue to comment and share how you're doing. One of the things I miss most in the decline of blogs, are these connections.

  9. "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."

    Wow, not sure I could have put this any better. You do have a gift with words! Your words describe what I've been experiencing but couldn't articulate, so thanks for your transparency and honesty, as Lesley said (in her great comment as well).

    That being said, congrats on a great WM100 race and I'm glad April is off to a great start for you!


Feedback is always appreciated!