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. 


  1. That sounds miserable. That said, it looks like a beautiful run that I would consider if I hadn't already planned my retirement from longer-than-50k-runs.

  2. Oh my, that sounds awful. I'm sure I would have had more than one meltdown. It is pretty badass to run that far, just remember that. I'm sitting here a week after my hike with an ice pack thinking some of the same thoughts.

  3. So...a little more context I see. About half of the 100 miler field was DNF!! and there were 14 racers in your 20 min pace range! also there were 6 racers that finished after you! As I checked the "slogger tracker" (thanks Beat!) from time to time, you kept the gap between you and Beat at about 6 miles for about half the race. I think if you were to put your times into a gender/age/weight running calculator you'd see your giving the younger Jill a run for the money :) and a lot guys :) :) . Sorry to hear the "price" of the run but then again all us "not normal" people know this is coming but we always hope it won't.... I think this is part of being "crazy" definition. Lol. So I'm going to say congratulations on your WIN ...that's the only way I see it!

    Jeff C

    1. Ha! I love all the calculations before the decision to say congratulations! I was going to say congratulations as soon as I saw Jill finished on the "slogger track." But I'm not sure if I should. Not if there's still some lingering boiled gut anger! Jill, buttercup sucker, I tentatively congratulate you on your win. ;-) (And, Beat, if you're reading this, I'll just risk an all-out congratulations!)

    2. Funny! I was thinking more of just framing my perception as a "spectator" that "the glass is more than half full". Of course I see myself and my endeavors as more a "glass half empty" with my own Varuca Salt moments (I want a Ompa Lompa NOWWW!) :). But as time passes and I ponder, the realist in me sees that the glass is just bigger than it needs to be... .but the existentialist in me always wants to fill the bigger glass.... just a big ball of ying/yang I have inside :) and I'm OK with that.

      Jeff C

  4. The Holy Roller Coaster of long distance racing. It sounds like a microcosm of Life....the bipolar Happy/Sads, all that time alone with your thoughts, the unknowns, the endless questions and lack of answers beyond "time will tell, the literal and emotional ups and downs, successes and failures, the pain and suffering, the not giving in to the want of giving up, and so on. I hope that "time" will heal your legs and heal your seeming lack of perspective and joy at finishing a "monster" that 99% of us can't fathom attempting. Be smug in your upper 1% of the world bracket :)

  5. All I can say is WOW! That is one monster of a race you finished. The way you persevered in the face of the demons (you so eloquently described in your post) is inspiring! It reminded me of all the times I struggled through endurance events (though nothing as crazy as a 100 mile run). Hope your body heals quickly and you don't beat yourself up about having an emotional tantrum. Everyone (that I know) who does crazy events like this has those moments. It's what makes us human. Best wishes! Keep your chin up! You accomplished something very, very few people ever will. ❤️

  6. Wow! Great effort sticking it out Jill! While you might not be a “runner”, one can’t doubt your mental toughness at not giving up.
    All the trauma does make me wonder why you do it though. Do you get a sense of satisfaction afterward? If the answer to that question is anything but an emphatic YES, running might not be your thing. (Its definitely not mine) ;)
    Again, well done though.

  7. Congrats Jill! And Peaceful reflections in the aftermath.

  8. Huge Congratulations Jill, you are so mentally tough , I luv and reiterate what someone above said 'Be smug in your upper 1% of the world bracket :)' . Heal and fingers crossed no permanent annoyances from your injury.

  9. Outstanding quest there. What happened after? Thanks!

  10. I love this post, Jill, love how raw it is, how gritty. It truly captures all of the emotions of a long race, and how the mind breaks down with the body. I especially loved this line so, so much, since I am a huge introvert, and I must confess that I often do this, too: "an introvert trick to avoid having to talk directly to people who are busy talking to each other." And I loved that you cried in the port-a-potty, because I've done that, too, just sat there and had a good cry. It's very humbling to cry in a place where other people relieve themselves, isn't it? So proud of you for finishing, and for writing such an honest account. I'm kind of in awe of your determination and talents.


Feedback is always appreciated!