Friday, May 31, 2019

Beat turns 50!

I met him at the end of July 2010 in Columbia Falls, Montana. I was the sleep-deprived volunteer checking in finishers of a brutal mountain race called the Swan Crest 100. He was the mud-splattered ultrarunner galloping toward the arch. That was the first thing I noticed about him — he was actually running. Even at a distance, I could see his smile — the widest, brightest grin you can imagine. I'd already watched enough bedraggled runners limp across the finish line with shellshocked expressions to conclude that ultrarunning had to be the most unfun sport of them all. Who was this smiley anomaly?

Our first date has to be one of the greatest ever, in my humble opinion. It was so convoluted yet worked out so perfectly that even the most skeptical nonbeliever might begin to wonder if fate intervened. I was stuck in Las Vegas, finishing up a work week at Interbike, when Beat assured me over the phone that he was, in fact, sitting at a hotel room in Logan, Utah, preparing to race the Bear 100 the following morning. We'd chatted about this online for weeks, but I simply didn't believe him, because he had just finished his first Tor des Geants, an insane 200-mile mountain race in Italy, and the turnover between returning from Europe and flying to Utah was three days. I put a crowdsourcing sort of post on Facebook and managed to land a most unlikely ride with a friend traveling early in the morning from Los Angeles to Salt Lake City, picking me up in Vegas at the necessary time of 5 a.m.

My friend was running late for his own appointment and had to drop me off at the pullout of an I-15 exit, where I hoisted my duffel full of casual business attire and Interbike freebies to walk two miles to my parents' house. They were in Germany at the time, so I broke into their house and cobbled together a running outfit — yoga pants and bedazzled sunglasses that once belonged to my baby sister, a jacket that was my Dad's, cotton gym socks and the cheap road-running shoes I brought to Vegas just in case the hotel had an elliptical trainer. Then I stole (er, borrowed) their truck and drove two hours north to Logan, arriving mere minutes before Beat strode into the mile-50 aid station. I was still wearing jeans and a T-shirt when I walked toward him. He greeted me with his wide smile and a terse question: "So, are you running?"

We hadn't yet talked about exactly how far I'd pace him. I'd only just started "practicing" my running, and my longest run at the time was eight miles. I figured I'd find him at the soonest possible aid station and form a plan. Instead, I rushed back to the truck, changed into my junk-show running outfit, and shouldered an Interbike freebie backpack filled with disposable water bottles and gas station snacks. Off Beat and I went together, into the night.

It was the most magical night. The moon was out, mountains jutted into a star-swept sky, and our feet carried us through astonishing swaths of space. We talked about anything and everything. We became sleep-deprived and shared our hopes and dreams. He stopped at a summit near his mile 75 and handed me a rock that he'd collected in Italy, then asked if I "wanted to go out." Awkwardly I replied, "Aren't we already out?" Awkward silence predictably followed, and I continued, "The Montana-California thing is complicated." "We'll figure it out," he replied.

The night wore on. Temperatures dropped to 21 degrees, and both legs went numb. Unfortunately I could still feel my feet. Every step felt like pummeling deep bruises with a two-by-four. I couldn't withstand the pain any longer, and started walking the descents backward. I was supposed to be Beat's "pacer" and begged him to run ahead. But he wouldn't leave me. He finished his own race at my slow pace, as I wrapped up 50 miles of my longest, by far, foot effort. And that's how I simultaneously became an ultrarunner and gained an awesome boyfriend.

Beat turns 50 today. In celebration, I wanted to share some of my favorite portraits from our years together:

Beat with his Austrian friend Norbert at the Headlands 100 in August 2010. He finished this race just one week after finishing the Swan Crest 100. How can you not develop a crush on a guy when photos like this are showing up online? Rawr. We struck a Gmail chat friendship following my comments on these early Facebook posts. Our Bear 100 "date" happened six weeks later.

Beat in Yosemite National Park during a backpacking trip in October 2010. This was probably only our second or third official "date," and Beat had relatively little camping experience at the time. We were slammed with heavy rain and then sleet the entire weekend. We camped in heavy fog just below Clouds Rest, huddled in a combination of my -40F winter sleeping bag and his 40F lightweight stage-racing bag to stay warm, cooked but did not consume ancient freeze-dried meals that had somehow actually gone bad, and sipped my special secret hot drink that involves melting a Snickers bar in boiling water. It was such a magical weekend.

Beat on top of Lolo Peak outside Missoula, Montana, in October 2010. This was one of our first big day outings, riding bikes from my apartment in town at 3,000 feet, wending up a long fire road, then stashing the bikes to hike the wilderness trail and final scramble to a 9,100-foot summit some 40+ miles from home. No big deal for this guy, who didn't even ride bikes at the time. I was so enamored.

Meanwhile, I continued to practice my running. One frigid evening, while jogging on a wide, flat fire road along Rattlesnake Creek, I rolled and sprained my ankle badly. Several weeks later, I could hike uphill without issue, but descents were still too painful. Beat wanted to go for a run, and we worked out a route where I could hike up with him while pushing my bike, then ride it on trails as he ran down. The uphill part was the steep face of Mount Sentinel, which gains 2,000 feet in two miles. I'd hiked it before, but forgotten just how steep it was. I faltered early, and Beat offered to carry my bike the rest of the way to the summit. That is when I *knew* it was love.

We committed to running the 2011 Susitna 100, a big leap outside comfort zones for both of us. My running experience was still in its infancy. Beat had never raced a winter ultra, and had limited cold-weather experience in general. This made a great excuse for him to continue visiting me in Montana for winter training weekends, where I'd usually come up with excuses to ride fat bikes.

Beat is an ideas guy. It's one of the most endearing aspects of his personality. He'll tinker in the basement for an hour or two, and emerge with incredible new inventions. Some of his early cold-weather innovations were quite hilarious, though.

We formed a duo team for the 25 Hours of Frog Hollow in Hurricane, Utah, in November 2010: "Swiss Miss." Still a mountain biking beginner and uneasy on the rocky desert singletrack, he completed seven laps — more than 100 miles — to match my ten, and we finished second in our category. The merging of our combined craziness was nearly complete.

Meanwhile, Beat continue to run a bunch of 100-mile foot races. I crewed for him at the HURT 100 in Honolulu, Hawaii, in January 2011. This "limp noodle" portrait captures that event well.

Then, in February, we raced the Sustina 100 together. What an intense experience. Temperatures dropped to 20 below with high winds on the Yentna River. I froze my hands while digging through my sled bag, rendering them unusable and requiring Beat to zip up my coat — a harrowing and humbling setback for me, who was supposed to be a relative expert in the cold. I was jittery and frightened for the rest of the hike up the Yentna, where the windchill was so extreme that it felt like walking into a fiery furnace. Selfishly I pushed ahead because I was terrified of stopping again. I could see Beat's headlamp moving behind me, and thought he was fine, but he wasn't — he had become sick and weakened.

He forgave me for this selfish move, and we continued side-by-side as I became sick and weakened over the next 30 miles. I had a huge meltdown — of course — near mile 70, sitting down in the snow and effectively refusing to move because "I had no idea running was going to hurt this much." (Really. Foot racing hurts so much more than ultra-cycling. This probably shouldn't have been a surprise to me, but it was.) Beat pressed ahead and left me alone. After my transgression on the Yentna and temper tantrum, I figured he was gone for good. Instead, about two miles later, I found him sitting on a bank of the Susitna River, a spot affectionately known as the "The Wall of Death." He had spread out his sleeping pad with a picnic of assorted candy and snacks, and invited me to pick a treat and sit down until I could put my head back together. *That's* when I knew it was love.

We finished the race together in 41 hours, after temperatures had again plummeted to 25 below. This is how I got Beat hooked on endurance racing in Alaska. It's all my fault.

The combined craziness was complete. I moved to California, and we continued our pursuit of intense experiences together. Here we are at my first trail-hundred attempt, the Tahoe 100 in July 2011, showing off our matching knee scrapes. I DNF'd — timed out amid excruciating foot pain at mile 80. Beat finished of course. He is one of the most prolific ultrarunners out there. I'd guess he doesn't even know how many races he's finished, but he has 163 results on Ultrasignup alone (a list that is missing most of his toughest events.)

In November 2011, we participated in a stage race in Nepal, where we both caught a death plague. I was deathly ill before the race even started, and the plague continued to completely empty my system for most of the week. Managing 250 tough kilometers in the mountains of Nepal on negative calories remains one of the hardest challenges of my life. Beat helped drag me through it, sometimes literally using my trekking pole as a tow bar, even though he was sick himself.

Beat with our now-departed cat, Cady. Another endearing aspect of his personality is how much he loves animals. Beat would be the type to live with a dozen cats if he believed he could provide a proper home for them. With our lifestyle and travel, we can't offer this to a pet right now. Instead, Beat adopted the hummingbirds that travel through our neighborhood each summer. It's gotten to the point where he goes through as much as 10 pounds of sugar a week, feeding hundreds of hummingbirds. He's currently developing an elaborate automated feeder to provide fresh daily nectar to all of these birds while we're out of town.

Beat with friend Anne Ver Hoef at the finish of his first Iditarod Trail Invitational in 2012. He traveled to McGrath under the most difficult conditions ever present in the 350-mile race, after finishing one of the coldest-ever Susitna 100s a year earlier. I wonder, sometimes, if he'd had an easier time in his early winter races, if he would have become so hooked. Beat thrives on adversity.

At the start of the 2012 White Mountains 100 in Fairbanks — which, yes, he completed on foot just a few weeks later.

Then, in 2013, he completed this first 1,000-mile trek to Nome. On the Southern Route, he battled intensely cold and windy conditions along the Yukon River and the Norton Sound. In this photo he's rounding Cape Nome with Marco Berni, an Italian runner with whom he traveled much of the second half of the race. This was the first I'd seen of him in a month, and he'd just been through a particularly trying final morning in the deep subzero cold. That smile ...

A few months later, Beat turned 44 during the 2013 Bryce 100.

In July 2013 we traveled to Iceland for another stage race. I had a great race here — cold, windy, barren. Iceland is my kind of heaven. Here Beat stands at the top of a wind-blasted escarpment that we climbed one evening after dinner, just for fun.

In 2014, we walked the Iditarod Trail to McGrath together. This remains my favorite experience with him — the intimacy and exhilaration of sharing this trail for which we both have so much history and passion. I admit I don't have a strong desire to attempt a walk to Nome with Beat, though — his pace would kill me.

The proud Senatori collecting his finishers' jacket after the Tor des Geants in 2014 (wearing a 2013 finisher's jacket.) A finish in this 200-mile, 80,000-feet-of-climbing mountain race in the Italian Alps is nearly impossible for most (including myself.) Beat finished every running from 2010 to 2016 before an injury took him out in 2017. I used to joke that Beat valued his Senatori status in the TDG more than he valued his PhD in physics. Of course this isn't true — he seems a little relieved that he doesn't have to run this race every year, anymore.

Finishing the Race Across South Africa with our friend Liehann in 2015. Beat proved he can ride a mountain bike thousands of kilometers, as long as "riding" also involves a hefty amount of hike-a-bike. With its tricky map-and-compass navigation and long stretches of off-trail bundu-bashing, RASA was the perfect bike adventure for Beat.

Beat on top of Flattop Mountain in Anchorage in March 2015. A friend's personal tragedy resulted in his leaving the Iditarod Trail at mile 600, after an intensely challenging 10-day march through deep snow and temperatures near -50F in the Interior. We reconnected while I prepared to run the White Mountains 100, which he ended up running with me for much of the distance. These experiences renewed our perspective on the incredible gift of partnership in both adventure and in life.

Beat during the Petite Trotte à Léon in 2015. I've made it clear how I feel about this race, and at this point would rather pretend he didn't participate. This 300-kilometer route around Mont Blanc is so much more difficult than most can understand, closer to mountaineering than running, and set on an extremely limited timeline that forces one's hand in precarious conditions. Yet he's managed to finish seven in a row, from 2012 to 2018, often just a week before participating in the Tor des Geants. He's probably going back this year, because he thrives on adversity. Le sigh.

Skipping ahead to the 2019 Iditarod because this post is becoming long, and also because the portraits begin to become redundant. Beat is a creature of habit in his own adventurous way. Although I often think I should boost myself out of my comfort zone to explore new places and modes of travel, I do love this about him, too. He knows what he loves. He sticks with what he loves. He doesn't waste a bunch of time chasing shiny but fleeting objects in the distance. And in the nine years I've known him, his smile hasn't faded. Happy 50th birthday, Love. Here's to many more adventures. 
Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Injury, again

As soon as I woke up the morning after the Bryce 100, I knew. I think one always knows, but we'll tell ourselves it's nothing, just a little post-race stiffness. My knee wouldn't even bend ... but that's normal, right? I continued to hobble painfully while visiting my parents and grandmother in Salt Lake City for a few days. Spring storms slammed the Wasatch Mountains, and my dad was up in the canyons nearly every morning, snowshoeing through deep, fresh powder in late May. I was terribly envious; I would have dragged through any amount of post-100 fatigue to join him. But my leg wouldn't work. The adductor muscles seemed to be healing and loosening, but the stiff and swollen knee was just getting worse. Yes, I knew I was injured. At that point, it was just a question of how much.

The drive from Salt Lake City to Colorado a week ago made for the worst day. I woke up to a bunch of pain, radiating through my thigh and calves. I worked my stiff knee into the same deep squats that helped alleviate my pain during the Bryce 100, although only temporarily and with decreasing effectiveness during the race. By Wednesday, the squats did nothing ... I was in pain as soon as I stood again. Instead I spent long hours in the car, with my knee at either the worst possible angle or pressing on the gas pedal. Ugh. The weather across Wyoming was grim, 37 degrees and raining, with snow dusting some of the higher passes along I-80. I made a number of stops, sometimes at random exits with range roads criss-crossing the Interstate. I parked in a pullout, pulled my hobble sticks out of a pile of drop bags, and gimped along in the mud. Motion did help with the stiffness and pain. I thought I was moving relatively well. But I'd started Strava on my phone, and it displayed my real speed in big block letters. 1.7 mph. 2.1 mph. 1.8 mph.

In 50 minutes I managed to cover 1.4 miles, which included stretching breaks and longer pauses to gaze over the wide-open spaces of Wyoming that I love so much. Pathetic, but I did feel better. After another few hours of driving with shorter gas station stops, my knee was again throbbing with pain. So I stopped again for another hour-long walking break at Happy Jack trailhead, near Laramie. There was more fresh snow here than I anticipated, making for some tricky conditions that in hindsight I probably should not have risked. But the way my pain drained away, wrapped in wonder at the expansive views and gratitude for the gift of motion ... it was worth it.

On Friday I snagged an opening with Beat's physical therapist, who referred me to an orthopedic doctor with CU Sports Medicine and Performance Center. After X-Rays and examination, the doctor diagnosed MCL sprain, possibly grade 2 with partial tearing, but likely not torn through. Thus, more imaging and surgery are not required, although it's a "wait and see" sort of thing that can't be ruled out for weeks. The most likely cause was the painful slip I took while running downhill through slimy mud at mile 9 of the Bryce 100. The forces that yanked my leg and pulled the muscles in my thigh may also have torn the ligament, which was almost certainly exacerbated by continuing for 94 more miles — although if the tear happened early, quitting the race might not have made a significant difference in the recovery outcome. Of course I can never know. Mistakes were made, either way. That's life. Suck it up, buttercup.

It is interesting to view an X-Ray of one's knees. My left knee looked abundantly healthy, but the doctor pointed out abnormalities with the cartilage in my right knee, indicating signs of arthritis. I told him about my diagnosis with grade 2-3 chondromalacia back in 2007, and he nodded. "That's it. That's what it is. It doesn't look like it's gotten worse." At the time, my sports doc told me this "angry knee" was something I would always have and always have to deal with, for the rest of my life. I believed his assessment, and that was one of the reasons I felt particularly motivated to fast-track through my "lifetime" ambitions of the Iditarod 350 in 2008 and Tour Divide in 2009, because I believed my endurance-racing timeline to be extremely limited. Surely by my 30s I'd be back to sedentary existence, which is an alarming but I think fairly normal assumption to make when you're 27, and everything about the future still feels so far away.

That I've been able to continue pursuing these incredible experiences, pain-free, for another decade-plus, is something for which I'm incredibly grateful. I credit the long-distance hiking and running with building the strength needed to support the joint. Physical therapy back in 2007 revealed all of the ways that "cycling only" had been bad for my muscle development and my entire body. Cartilage damage can always become worse, but I feel like this is good evidence that what I'm doing right now isn't necessarily causing damage, and is likely even better than the normal sedentary aging process.

Still, if there was only a way for me to stop being so clumsy and tearing myself apart in the process. Recovery for this injury is estimated to be six weeks. I'm going to continue working with Beat's physical therapist to recover my gait, as the knee is still inflamed and unstable, which makes walking difficult. Sitting or laying in bed generates stiffness and pain. The only relief I have found from any of this is — what else — cycling. On Friday the physical therapist recommended "flat, nontechnical" cycling, so I spent the weekend exploring urban trails and bike paths around Westminster. It was great fun — low impact, low effort, pain-free. I felt like I was flying, wending along the curvy concrete path at close to 20 mph (a speed I only maintained when no pedestrians were present, as I am quite frightened of pedestrians, which are so much more unpredictable than drivers in cars.) I prefer hills to this type of cycling, but it was a fun, and it was motion. I am grateful for any motion my body will allow, after the way I've treated it this month.

The doctor on Tuesday okay'd hill riding, so it's almost like not being injured, except for I still have pain and I can still barely walk. Before this injury, I was beginning to formulate ambitions for summer — mostly hiking, in the form of "fastpacking" weekends where I'd try to cover high daily mileage with an overnight pack, which would be great training for potential winter ambitions. I also planned to do more bikepacking, but even that will be iffy for a little while as I avoid technical terrain and distances that I can't easily extract myself from if the knee goes bad. So both of these will have to be shelved, for now. Perhaps another summer will get away from me, but I hope not. At least this summer still feels far away. We woke up to more new snow dusting the ground and 36 degrees this morning, May 29. As it stands, the mountains may not be clear enough for hiking before I heal up, anyway.

I don't feel particularly concerned about healing from this injury, as I've dealt with similar injuries before. I tore the LCL in this same knee during the Tor des Geants in 2014, and possibly (though never diagnosed), the MCL in my left knee during a 50K in 2013. Apparently I am susceptible to ligament strains, but the recoveries were straightforward enough. I do need to be careful, though. The joint is unstable, and another fall could easily worsen this tear or create another. When runner friends joke about keeping my runs to "under 20 miles" during recovery, I just shake my head. I still need to figure out how to walk again, and not like a busted robot. Running is this far-away motion I can scarcely imagine anymore.

At least bikes are a thing ... motion devices for the hopelessly clumsy. I love bicycles. I'm excited for a personal excuse to spend more time with them. Cyclist friends continue to shake their heads at this "non-runner's" flailing efforts in a sport for which I so clearly have so little aptitude. I suppose it's complicated, and most succinct way I can explain my motivations is that, for me, ultrarunning is a spiritual journey more than anything else. What I'm seeking is expanded perspective, windows from places that only exist far outside my comfort zones — and the more personally challenging the endeavor, the more time I spend outside my comfort zone. The difficulties come early and often in running, whereas in cycling, I can more easily settle — and because I'm human an innately long for comfort, I often do. And because I am human, in the thick of difficulties, it's all too natural to "quit running forever" ... but the moment I become comfortable again, my mind is clawing its way back. Surely as soon as my knee remotely works again, I'll be clomping down a dirt road in shoes still stiff with months-old Utah mud, as happy as I could possibly be. 
Friday, May 24, 2019

Let me learn from where I have been

Such an incredible freedom — the ability to travel on my own two feet, across rugged hills and valleys, nearly nonstop, for 103 miles. "Freedom." The word emerged as I searched for motivation while gulping a paper cup of coffee in a Panguitch hotel room at 3:23 a.m. It was already clear that I didn't care enough about avenging DNFs, or pretty scenery that I didn't need to run a hundred miles to see, or collecting a belt buckle, because why is that even still a thing? No, the motivation that stood the best chance of overcoming inertia was awestruck gratitude for a beautiful world and a body that could propel me through it, even after everything I've put myself through. 

At the mouth of Proctor Canyon, the air was sharp with icy humidity at 33 degrees. It looked like the 2019 Bryce 100 would be a cold one. I was grateful for this too, as I manage my body so much better in cold than heat. I'd need all of the little boosts I could get just to travel 103 miles on my own two feet, as not much about running seems to come naturally to me. A hundred participants and maybe a dozen intrepid spectators gathered at the arch for the 5 a.m. start of the Bryce 100. I gave Beat a kiss and told him I'd see him at the finish. I'd already done the course math, and knew if I saw him before then, it meant I was moving much slower than I hoped. My stretch goal for the race was 30 hours, with the 36-hour cutoff being the main focus. 36 hours may seem like a lot to run a hundred miles when it's fairly easy to run six hilly miles in an hour, and a 3 mph hike feels like an effortlessly achievable forever pace. A hundred is a whole different thing that I believe only people who have finished these events can understand.

Dawn slowly emerged as we made our way up Proctor Canyon and onto the Grandview Trail, coated in a dusting of fresh snow.

The frosted scenery left me full of stoke, but still groggy as I will always be before 8 a.m. It took too much energy to do anything but move forward, so I stuck close to a chatty group — an introvert trick to avoid having to talk directly to people who are busy talking to each other. I took at least 40 photos of the snowy landscape in morning light, and thus got a lot of this dude in his short shorts.

We worked our way onto the rim of the Paunsaugunt Plateau, topping out above 8,500 feet, where old winter snow was still holding on. For this reason the race organizers had rerouted the course, turning us away from the higher elevations and more remote areas that were still inaccessible by vehicle. I was disappointed about the change, but this view of the snowfields affirmed just how much more difficult this race would have been on the original course. The revised course consisted of two 50-mile loops on the popular trail systems of Grandview, Thunder Mountain and Red Canyon, linked by a series of forest roads near the edge of the national park.

The Paunsaugunt front country is still spectacular, and I couldn't stop gawking at the red cliffs draped in snow. The icy singletrack spilled onto a jeep road coated in slick mud. It was a veritable slip-and-slide, but I was so full of stoke that I ran at a stout pace, paying no mind to the leg tendons and muscles being yanked violently in wrong directions as I skidded in spots and stuck to the peanut butter mud in others. I felt entirely free, a loping mammal in the frosty forest, doing something that I could easily do forever — which is always easy to believe, when miles are still in the single digits.

The gradual but slick descent shifted to a steep and sticky climb, and I ran more of it than I should have. I was finally waking up to the early morning light, and sipping on Maurten energy drink, which is 320 calories of scientifically proven rocket fuel in a bottle. My plan for the race was to subsist on mostly this, with easy-to-digest aid station food such as boiled potatoes and turkey sandwiches when my stomach grumbled. The goal of this bland diet was to avoid the nausea that plagued me during the White Mountains 100.

This fueling strategy worked well. My energy levels stayed high, but my digestive system still remained disconcertingly, well ... active. For sticking to a mostly liquid diet, I still had to make more than a half dozen protracted bio breaks over the course of the race. I was confused as to where this was even coming from, but grateful for the portable composting toilets at the aid stations. I also was grateful for occasional outhouses near campgrounds. I did have to dig two catholes, which make for their own funny story. The first came in the morning as I was running along a steep side slope above a wide-open valley. There weren't many places to get off the track and out of sight. Rounding a curve, I spotted a cluster of large trees about a hundred meters off route, and took advantage. Then, 15 hours later on the second loop, the urge hit me again along the same stretch of road, and I jumped off track as soon as I felt I could. As I wound through trees now shrouded in darkness, I thought, "This looks familiar. Wouldn't it be funny ..." And that's when I spotted the pile of dirt that was my own cathole from 51.5 miles earlier.

Beyond Bluefly aid station, there was a ten-mile, rolling descent that was gleefully fun for me: smooth dirt road at a gradual grade, with a few climbs to break up the repetitive motion. Most off-road runners find this kind of terrain boring. I don't even care. I love when I can mostly turn off my immediate focus and look up, taking in distant views and daydreaming about anything and everything. As I galloped along at otherwise effortless 11-minute-miles, I did notice that muscles on my inner right thigh felt sore. This was a strange sensation, as I'd experienced no issues with my adductors in training. I wondered if I'd pulled a muscle while slipping in the mud earlier that morning.

After 25 flowing miles, it was time for the work to begin at the trailhead of the Thunder Mountain singletrack. Still alternately sticky and slick, the trail dipped continuously in and out of steep drainages. My right leg was noticeably less stable. I tried to correct this by shortening my running stride, then make up for lost time by lengthening my uphill walking stride.

The weather had taken an interesting turn. Almost on cue with the forecast, gusting winds carried a billowing wall of clouds from the north. The bluebird skies of morning became dark and ominous by noon. The weather forecast had predicted rain between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., but temperatures were low enough carry snow flurries — another fortuitous occurrence. Snow, even wet snow, is so much better than cold rain.

Thunder Mountain features endlessly distracting views, along with muddy, steep trails that demand constant vigilance. I decided I could use a footing guide through this tricky stuff and shadowed a dude who frequently stopped to take photos. I couldn't fault him for this, as I was doing the same. At one point he turned to me and, mimicking those who would surely ask us this question, said, "Why did you miss the cutoff? Because I was taking pictures of the rocks!" This statement launched several minutes of fretting about failure math on my part. I was slow through this section, but I'd still run the first 50K in eight hours, right on my best-case-scenario pace. Overall I felt strong and my breathing was fantastic — even better than it had been when I ran an eight-hour 50K in February. But the wobble leg was concerning.

The snowstorm hit in force as I made my way around the Red Canyon loop, which is effectively a goat trail skimming along loose-dirt slopes beside sheer cliffs. Endlessly up and down, the trail was slicked with wet snow that melted as it hit the ground. Trying to hold my footing on the narrow line in a frenetic swirl of snow, I caught a little bit of vertigo. Five miles took me two hours to cover, and two of those miles were a paved bike path that I was able to run at a reasonable clip. As I descended the pavement, I first noticed a sharp pain in my right knee. I wondered if this was connected to the soreness in my inner thigh or if it was its own thing. Admittedly, this was a frustrating amount of pain to be experiencing at mile 38 of a 100-mile race. Doubts were creeping in.

Still, I can and often do thrive on ridiculousness, and resolved to think of the hobble leg as just another piece of the puzzle, along with subsisting on expensive hummingbird food and the lively winter weather in Southern Utah in mid-May. Graupel pelted my coat as I made my way up and down the punchy Grandview Trail, which I was already starting to think of as a mean SOB, mostly for the steep descents. The sun was out again by the time I reached Hillsdale aid, 44 miles in but still 8 from the start/finish. Yes, that's all I need, I thought — to be slowing down in a race that was going to run long. The crew at this aid station was in party mode, playing loud music and cheerfully catering to my meek requests for my drop bag and some broth. They asked if there was anything I needed for the second go-around.

"Are you still going to be here in 16 hours?" I asked.

Of course, they responded enthusiastically. "And we better see you again!" Folks willing to volunteer at long-running aid stations in hundred-milers are the best of the best.

I reached the start/finish with 14:28 on the clock, which I thought was a decent pace. The volunteers here were also extremely helpful, always appreciated by a crew-less runner who is beginning to experience ultra brain fog. One of the volunteers was a hearing-impaired man who had started the race but decided to drop, and was now helping at the aid station. We had an interesting but strenuous conversation as I made an effort to look at him directly and speak clearly so he could read my lips while I stripped off clothing. Decorum, like clear thinking, is also lost to the late-stage ultra. I didn't want to waste much time here, but it was important that I change into pants, a warmer shirt, thicker socks, a softshell, warm cap, and mittens. I could already feel my body temperature slipping off the rails, probably because of low electrolytes from too much hummingbird food and too little real food. Either way, I was already cold, and the forecast that night was for 25 degrees in Panguitch. I expected significantly lower temperatures in the higher altitudes and isolated canyons on the course.

The first five miles on this second loop were all uphill, and I felt fantastic. Knee and thigh pain barely registered when I was climbing, and the hard march warmed up my numb fingers and toes. The day's last minutes of sun cast intensely rich light on the walls of Proctor Canyon. To the east, a nearly full moon rose through the pink and azure gradient in the sky — the color effect being the signature of a cold night to come. For me, the onset of night is often the most fun part of an ultra. I already have 15 hard hours on my feet, and my thoughts are softened by fatigue. Endorphins flow through my system, and a bit of a buzz vibrates in my veins. Darkness is coming, and with it all the thrill and mystery of a shrouded world. I caught "Night Running" by Cage the Elephant on my iPod and put it on repeat so I could sing along.

Night running, all night running (We running)
Star studded, not far from it (We roll) ...

Bluefly aid during the first morning
The first descent, the spot where I'd slipped all over the mud during the morning, had frozen into crystallized ruts by the time I started down it a second time. My knee instantly responded with sharp pain, and I shorted my stride so I could land on my heels, letting my upper leg and glutes take more of the impact. I wanted more 11-minute miles, but they just weren't coming. The climb to Bluefly also seemed at least 50 percent steeper, but I still strongly preferred climbing to my pathetic downhill running attempts. My heavy breaths froze to thick vapor, draping a curtain over my field of vision. At the aid station, spilled liquid on the water table had formed a solid sheet of ice, and I couldn't lift a can of ginger ale because it was frozen in place. The air had been cold here in the morning, but now it was really cold. Another runner was huddled next to a small propane heater in an open tent. "When it's cold like this, you just have to keep moving," I said to him. "It's not worth it, I promise."

The long, gradual descent that had been so fun in the morning now just taunted me. I couldn't run well, but walking downhill didn't feel much better. Then I was passed by another racer who was walking, while I was still jogging, and it was painfully clear just how pathetic my running had become. The moon made its wide arc overhead, casting eerie shadows across silver meadows. With the moon, miles passed. Vapor breath hung in a thick haze, obscuring everything. My hydration hose froze even after I stuffed it in my coat. My hummingbird food was turning to slush. At the aid stations, all I asked for was hot broth. It was sometimes served cold, which is understandable. It's hard to stay ahead of the deep freezer.

My race began to fall apart during my second go on Thunder Mountain, which is also understandable. Gradual descents were still manageable, but steep descents brought instant sharp pain, and I couldn't move slowly enough to stop it altogether. The leg was too wobbly to attempt a real run, so hobble was all I could do, with 28 miles to go. I was moving so slowly that I could no longer stay warm, wearing all of the clothing I had with me — layers enough to keep me toasty at -10F, if I had the energy to back them up. But my depleted core wasn't making much heat. There weren't many runners left around me. I wondered if I had reached the back of the pack, or maybe they all dropped out. It was damn cold for a non-winter race. It was cold for any race.

From the top of Thunder Mountain to Red Canyon aid was a long, long descent, and I did it so slowly that the dawn emerged and the sun fully rose before I reached the bottom of the canyon. There I encountered Beat, making his way uphill — meaning he was four hours in front of me, already. He gave me two Tylenol, a boon because I'd only brought Aleve, and had already maxed out my 24-hour dosage. I was distraught because I felt like I'd been making my way downhill for at least five hours, my whole body ached with cold, and my knee was sharply painful. Still, I'd convinced myself I wasn't really injured. This was the radiated pain of a pulled thigh muscle, I told myself. Just a body mechanical, no big deal. Not that I really knew — but I told myself a story that wouldn't allow me to quit.

"It's no problem! You have nine hours to do seventeen miles," Beat said. "Well, maybe more like twenty miles." His voice trailed off a little. "You probably shouldn't dilly dally too much."

The next section, the Red Canyon loop, was both the most spectacular and also most technical segment of the course. I knew it was coming, but I still managed my mental game incredibly poorly. The off-camber, loose goat trail pulled at my bad leg, and I cried out in pain and frustration multiple times. To add insult to injury, this is the section where I was passed by the leading runners in the 60K race. The Bryce Canyon Ultra offered several distances that started on Saturday morning and followed out-and-back sections of the exact course where straggling hundred-mile runners were making their way back. There were nearly a thousand runners in all of the races combined. Of course the first runners were really fast, loping effortlessly along this crumbling trail that was eating me alive. Everything was so narrow that there was nowhere to let them by. Dozens of times I had to step off the trail and onto the loose slope, half terrified and half hoping that I'd just skid and tumble all the way down, which would at least put me out of my misery.

This Red Canyon loop was emotionally very messy for me. Between the fear, pain and frustration, it was everything I could do to hold myself together. I'm not sure I've ever made it through one of these longer ultras without a meltdown, and this race was no exception. This meltdown, however, was extremely embarrassing, and had none of the positive emotional effects that I usually gain from such a release. It happened as I made my way down the paved bike path toward the aid station, under the bright bluebird skies and warming temperatures of Saturday morning. Here I encountered many dozens of the mid-pack 60K runners, all bright and happy, reciting platitudes such as "nice work" and "you're doing awesome" while I lumbered toward them in a sad shuffle run that was definitely not faster than a slow walk.

This is when it occurred to me, my epiphany: Running is absolutely, without a doubt, the most utterly humiliating thing I do to myself. I move slowly. I fall on my face. I fall on my face again. I sign up for these stupid races so I can lumber along at two miles an hour and call it running. The humiliation burned through my emotional barricades and the dam broke, sending a stream of tears down my face. I pulled on my sunglasses and looked away, but the parade of well-meaning encouragement still came. At the aid station, I burst into the outhouse, sat down on the toilet seat, and buried my face in my hands. Loud, snotty, sobbing drained the last of my dignity as my ego shattered into a thousand sharp pieces. The ignominy. The disgrace. 

I've long held that my motivation for endurance sports is self-exploration. When stakes are high and inhibitions are down, it's endlessly interesting to see what emerges. I was the emotional equivalent of a small child in pain, and everyone was out to get me. Even that SOB Grandview Trail, especially sinister in its beauty, was sentient and intent on causing harm. I might have been able to cope better if I could have turned up my iPod and retreated into my pain cave, but the steady stream of runners required constant vigilance. They passed me as though I was standing still. Several nice and well-meaning men stopped to ask if I was okay, or ask what I needed. I always managed to reply politely, "I'm fine, thanks" ... but inside my tantrum-throwing child was raging. "I'm a back-of-pack hundred miler. I'm supposed to look like shit!" Luckily, this thought was never expressed out loud. I do appreciate how friendly and nice all of the runners were to me, even if I couldn't appreciate it at the time.

I came to the Hillsdale aid station with the same nice volunteers who remembered me, which was a big boost. There I met a couple of 60K runners that I was able to chat with on a pleasant adult level, and followed one up the next steep climb. Through it all I was still able to climb fairly well, and kept his pace as we continued chatting. The SOB Grandview trail veered steeply downhill, and I ran with him, actually ran. It hurt like hell, I won't lie, but I could do it. I wasn't even sure this hurt less than hobbling downhill.

"For the rest of the race, I'm in the 60K," I told myself. "I'm not letting another person pass."

If you can't beat them, join them.

This resolve lasted for all of two miles. They were a brilliant two miles. I was finally free again, deciding for myself what I could and could not do. The emancipation was sublime. But it came at a price. At the bottom of another drainage, an intense wave of nausea washed over me. I stumbled off the trail to vomit. This didn't happen, probably because it had been hours since I'd ingested solid food, and had become dehydrated in the rising second-day heat. But the damage had been done. I was a depleted shell, my leg now hurt when I was climbing, and the SOB Grandview Trail was a rollercoaster of relentless abuse. The sun bore down, and I was still wearing my night clothing, because I had nothing to change into at Hillsdale. Where it had been so frigid overnight, it was now pushing 100 degrees (actual temperature: 55 degrees.) My shoes were falling apart — the soles were peeling off the bottoms — and I was done.

There were still three miles to go — the first mile being a 700-foot monster of a climb that drove in the proverbial nail. I can't even count how many times I had to stop and double over to both stretch my stiff knee and wait for the dizzying nausea to subside. The final insult was that I'd already completed 100 miles, because the course was long, which is fine and typical of a trail race. But these last three miles ate up another 104 minutes, and every single one of those minutes mocked me. The shame. The chagrin.

I didn't even try to run the easy dirt road descent to the finish. Anger boiled in my gut, but the end was in sight, and I did begin to question this negativity that I carried for such a great distance. After all, it is a great privilege to have the health and opportunity to travel a hundred miles on my own two feet. That it seems nearly impossible to do without making a whole lot of mistakes or otherwise faltering is just another reflection of the world at large. I wanted a flawless journey, but I was never going to get that. I probably never will. That's life. Suck it up, buttercup.

I still had all of the emotional discipline of a small child, and the angry tears continued to battle my last strand of decorum as I hobbled past all the folks cheering at the finish line after 34 hours and 25 minutes. Beat stood under the arch with his camera, grinning widely after finishing his race five hours earlier. He waited that entire time in this dusty field for me, watching my tracker so he could be there. I couldn't even force a smile. I felt pathetic and didn't want anyone to look at me. Not exactly the emotion I'd hoped for when I set out to *finally* finish one of these races again. It had been six long years since I'd accomplished something that didn't fall directly in my specialties of Alaska snow racing or long-distance cycling. I wanted to be proud, but I wasn't. That, too, is life. Suck it up, buttercup.

And there are many ways in which the Bryce 100 was a great experience. All of those beautiful and thrilling moments that swept over my entire body during a fantastic first day. My breathing was solid. I didn't have to use my inhaler even once. The difference in my fitness between this year and my attempt at this race in 2017 was palpable. I'm almost an athlete again — albeit a clumsy one, susceptible to body mechanicals. I'm still and will always be a beach cruiser bicycle in a mountain bike sport. One week later, I still have significant knee pain and inflammation, and now have to face the possibility of a longer term injury. But I made my decisions. And that's the thing. I chose this. I chose to fight and finish, to reclaim my freedom through my limitations. The pain and humiliation was its own interesting experience. I gazed into the abyss, and it gazed back at me — a mirror into our deeper reality. And yes, there be monsters. But also beautiful truth.

During the run I sincerely vowed to "quit running forever" many times. It was the only way to soothe my tantrum-throwing child, to be a little kinder to the ego that has to taken so many hits in this humiliating endeavor. Will I be back? Probably.