Saturday, October 06, 2012

I'm waking up

2012 Bear 100 race report, part three

Photo by Danni Coffman
When I was a pre-teen in suburban Salt Lake City, I lived for "sleepovers." Between school, church, and home life, I generally operated within a strict routine of expectations and rules, but sleepovers were a free pass to completely let loose. My friends and I would huddle in sleeping bags in my back yard playhouse, taunt each other with truth-or-dare challenges, and gorge on salty snacks and sugar. As soon as all lights in the house went dark, we'd climb the fence and run wild through the neighborhood streets, decorating other friends' yards with toilet paper and prowling the empty aisles of the local 24-hour grocery store. We'd vow to stay awake long enough to watch the sunrise, and would to resort to silly games just to keep ourselves awake. Some of my favorite childhood memories emerged during these unruly hours when the whole world was ours and it felt like absolutely anything could happen. I could never come up with an adult excuse for slumber party fun — until I discovered hundred-mile ultramarathons. Guiltless sugar binging, giggling, and exhaustion-triggered silliness ... these may have been a few of my ulterior motives when I coaxed my friend Danni to travel all the way from Montana just to run with me through the northern Utah mountains all night and well into the following day.

Danni is a great sport. I tried to warn her that forty-eight miles of the Bear 100 was going to take at least sixteen hours, that she might have to witness a temper tantrum or two, and because it was a point-to-point race, there was no easy way for her to cut out once she started running with me. She was basically committing to a slow, sleep-deprived fifty-miler. But Danni is my ideal pacer — she tells great stories, never complains, and doesn't make me get out of the chair at the aid stations. In fact, she'll sit down right next to me with a handful of quesadillas and remind me that she's tired too, and I'll have to do my own butt-kicking if I want to get out of there, because she has no incentive to leave. I love Danni. She's the best. 

As soon as Danni joined me at Tony Grove, the race almost instantly turned from tough to almost a breeze, at least for a while. Shortly after we left the aid station, I got wrapped up in what she later termed "lovey dovey feelings," and went on and on about my memories of 2010 and running with Beat. As we worked our way up a thousand-foot climb out of Tony Grove, I kept repeating, "I don't remember this climb. I could have sworn this entire section was downhill. In fact, I remember the rest of the race being downhill. When did they put these climbs in here?" When the descent finally did begin, we started flying. Danni and I passed about two dozen people in the next ten miles while we were moving effortlessly, giggling and chatting. "Beat made me run this whole section in 2010, too," I said. "I didn't even know how to run at all back then and I was all freaked out that we were going to have to run like this for the rest of the race."

As the night wore on, temperatures plummeted to freezing or even a couple of degrees lower. Frost coated the grass and ice started to form in my water valve. Danni's stories got progressively better, including high school hijinks that would blow any of my sleepover stories out of the water. The laughs helped buffer the deteriorating condition of my feet and quads, which had effectively started falling apart. At mile seventy, we plopped down next to the fire and enjoyed the hospitality of the best aid station of the race, Logan River. Someone kept handing me grilled cheese sandwiches as I muttered about being sucked in by "the evils of the chair." Danni just looked at me and said something to the effect of, "I know I'm your pacer, but it's like 3 a.m. and really cold and we've only done twenty of the fifty miles I signed up to do and I'm already really tired. You're on your own." See what I mean? Danni's the best. I'd rather run alone than try to keep up with someone who makes it look too easy. 

During the climb up Peterson Hollow, my lungs gave out. I'd been having some trouble with breathing since the first pass, but by mile seventy-one I sincerely believed that there was no longer enough oxygen in the air. I blamed altitude, but in hindsight, my breathing difficulties were more likely an combined effect of exhaustion and dehydration. Still, I was short of breath, gasping, and generally unable to speak in full sentences whenever we were climbing. Danni and I both felt good after our long rest at Logan River and she encouraged me to step it up a notch, which sounded like a great idea to me. But it only took about five minutes of determined running before the world started spinning and I felt the blackout effects of hypoxia. It took minutes of much slower walking to recover enough to even respond to Danni. I felt frustrated because my legs were regaining strength and I'd taped up my more troublesome blisters, so my feet were feeling better, too. But I couldn't breathe. What could I do about that?

As we neared Peterson Pass, a strong sense of familiarity cut through my flickering consciousness. The full moonlight sparkled on frosty sagebrush bushes, and in a far distances I could see the lights of Highway 89. "This ... is it!" I gasped at Danni. "This ... is the ... place where ... Beat ... gave me ... the rock!" I was certain of it. In 2010, Beat gave me a marble-veined stone that he picked up in Italy as he asked me whether I was interested in dating. I returned to the Bear 100 with this golfball-sized rock and carried it in my backpack through the entire race just so I could pull it out at this exact point, take a photograph, and bring the moment full circle. Danni had even joked that I might get a kiss if I was lucky (I didn't get a kiss from Beat in 2010 either, because, he confessed later, he felt sweaty and wretched.) But now, at this point in the night, with my lungs screaming for air and my exhausted mind frustrated by the diminished capabilities of my body, I just kept marching without stopping. I guess it's just as well. The moment was still beautiful, all the same.

At Beaver Lodge, I pulled off my shoes to assess the condition of my feet, and became distressed with the multitude of blisters. I know blisters are just blisters, but there were still twenty-four miles to go and I stressed about how much pain they were going to cause me in that distance. I again took much too long of a break as I carefully taped my feet, taking my time so I didn't just make things worse. As the second dawn emerged, Danni and I began the long slump of a climb to Beaver Creek Summit, with me still gasping for air and now griping about my hurty feet. The fun hours of the sleepover had ended. We were entering the grumpy consequences of a sleepless morning.

Danni, of course, kept a great attitude. She randomly broke out into song and invented lyrics about Advil, causing me to smile despite my sour mood. She joked that she had no doubt I was going to finish this thing because "my people" (the Mormons) were so good at suffering and hardship. The sun climbed higher and the day grew warmer. There still wasn't enough oxygen in the air; the only difference was now it was hot again.

I thought we'd never reach the final aid station, Ranger Dip, at mile 92. When we finally got there, I noticed a large white sheet of paper with instructions to mark down any racers who dropped from the race at that aid station. While I'd seen many names on previous sheets, this one had none. "I should drop out here," I remarked to Danni. "I'd be the first one!" I was joking, sort of. But the truth is, I almost would have rather taken a DNF in the Bear 100 than run the last eight miles. I knew what lied ahead, and I was sure those miles promised only hardship and pain. Of course, you can't drop out at mile 92 of a hundred-miler, pretty much no matter what. That's the rub of committing to these things and then dragging your friend into the madness.

We launched up a climb called "Lift-Off," by far the steepest ascent of the course on a near-vertical jeep track. As we trudged up to "Gates of Paradise" — the final pass — I expressed my trepidation. "I could climb like this all day," I lamented. "But that descent on the other side is soul-crushing."

Once we reached 9,500 feet, we had less than seven miles to descend to 5,900 feet with just enough little climbs thrown in to keep the thing steep and painful. I knew my feet and quads were going to burn no matter what, so I vowed that I would run, for as long as I could, just to shorten the time it would take. The problem is I don't even run that kind of terrain when I'm fresh and strong. It was a rocky, steep jeep road, and loose enough that any misplaced step would send me into a full butt slide. When I ran the Bear with Beat in 2010, I suffered so much through that last descent that I actually walked parts of it backward. I told Danni I would need to tap "the magic of iPod" and scanned my Shuffle for the angriest music possible. When I channeled all of that anger toward my throbbing feet and legs, I found I was able to run.

Photo by Danni Coffman
It worked, albeit slowly, for nearly four miles. The road was even flattening out, and the descent was becoming less steep as we approached Bear Lake. But suddenly and unexpectedly, like a taser shock to my legs, everything came to a crashing halt. I put my foot down into one last jolt of electric pain, and my body finally rebelled. My willpower crumbled. So much anger coursed through my blood that I was seeing white, and had Danni not been there, I likely would have collapsed on the dirt in a tantrum fit for a toddler. As it was, I could scarcely contain my rage. I muttered something about having to pee and darted into the bushes, holding my head in my hands and trying to quell the inner screaming. Since I was back there, I figured I should pee anyway. In hindsight, it must have been a most hilarious scene — a 33-year-old woman squatting behind a tree with her pants down, rocking back and forth, clutching her forehead, and biting her own arm to prevent a real, screaming, crying temper tantrum.

I emerged from the bushes and informed Danni I wouldn't be running any more. "It's just that I hate this road so much," I moaned. She was very sweet about it; I think she could tell I was dangling on the precarious edge of emotional meltdown. We walked, very slowly, the final three miles, even as we crossed through town and Fish Haven residents started cheering, "you're almost there!" With the finish line in sight, we passed clapping spectators. "That must be the best feeling," one said of my inevitable finish of the hundred-mile race. "My feet hurt!" was all I could say in response. Yes, the screaming toddler hadn't left my system yet. But I have to admit that it did feel good to see the word "Finish" in big red letters.

I finished the Bear 100 in 33 hours and 27 minutes, logging my first finish in a "summer" hundred-miler, and my third hundred miler on foot. I owe the lion's share of the credit to Danni for the laughs and the unflaggingly upbeat company, and also to Beat for the inspiration and mentoring. And of course a little credit goes to Great-Great-Grandpa Ira, not for the so-called "suffering genes," but for the example that, really, everyone has what it takes to persevere through hardships as long as they keep moving forward.
Wednesday, October 03, 2012

My body tells me no

2012 Bear 100 race report, part two

There are few times I enjoy less than the morning hours before a long race. Especially summertime running ultras, which all seem to think it's great to start at least an hour before the inky black hour that comes before dawn. Setting my alarm for 4:30 is sleeping in, and when I finally do roll out of bed, I experience muddled panic as I try to remember what order I need to apply chamois cream (which I use as body lube), Hydropel, underwear, tights, shirt, arm warmers, socks, shoes, and gaters. At 4:38 a.m., it's less intuitive than you'd think.

I managed to stuff down a dry pumpkin cookie and a bottle of purple smoothie, which of course made my already churning stomach lurch and groan. The predawn air in Logan wasn't cold at all; in fact it was mildly warm, which foretold of oppressive heat that was sure to follow in the sunlit hours. I was hot and nauseated and couldn't shake the dread that I was about to set out for a 36-hour hard effort on my feet, and this was likely the best I was going to feel for the next three days.

The race started and 230 runners took to the deserted streets of a quiet Utah neighborhood that could have easily passed for the neighborhood where I grew up. I jogged along with the crowd and gazed up at the darkened windows, imagining what I would have thought when I was a child — the kind of insomniac child who often gazed out my window into the empty night — and suddenly saw 230 headlamp-bobbing runners go by. The image made me smile.

The smile didn't last long once we hit the singletrack and I realized I was probably too far up in the pack. The first climb out of the gate gained 3,500 feet in five miles, and the narrow trail funneled all 230 runners into a miles-long Conga line. Usually I fall farther back in the line than I'd like to be and have to plod along at a too-slow-but-probably-wise pace. But this morning I was moving faster than I preferred, actually a lot faster. Sweat poured down my temple and the still-cool air of Dry Canyon seared my throat, but I couldn't slow down lest I get run over by all the runners still behind me. Still, this felt like way too much exertion for this early in the race. I thought I might puke. I kinda hoped I would, because at least that would give me an excuse to step off the trail until the last runner passed.

Dawn finally began to creep over the horizon, casting pink light across the Cache Valley. As soon as I started pulling out my camera to shoot photos, the runner behind me decided to strike up a conversation. I admit I was feeling antisocial and replied with terse one-syllable answers for a while, but as he persisted I eventually warmed up to the conversation. Turns out my line mate wasn't even a competitor in the Bear 100, but a pacer for a 64-year-old man from Missouri who was behind him. In some races, runners over 60 years old are allowed pacers for the entire 100 miles, and it sounded like this pacer had signed up to go the whole way. The pacer was from Colorado, some town above 7,000 feet, and talked about numerous well-known races like he was an old pro at them all. He kept referring to the man behind him as "my runner," and talked about him like he wasn't even there to respond for himself, although he never did. Occasionally the pacer yelled back at his runner to eat a gel. Every time he did this, I thought about eating some of my own food, but I still felt pretty sick.

We dropped into a long drainage and continued with a persistent running stride up the next climb to Logan Peak. The exertion level was still too high for me, but the Bear 100 is a race and I guess that's just what you do in a race — stay with the people you happened to start with as long as you can. Pacer continued to chat amicably with me but I found myself completely unable to respond — I was breathing too hard. Finally I blurted out, "Damn ... it. I ... thought I'd ... be ... able to breathe ... up here. I guess ... I lost ... it." I was referring the ten days I spent in Italy, when I slept at 3,800 feet and climbed as high as 11,000 feet during day hikes. I'd hoped the acclimation would stick, but then I came back to California for another ten days, and that was probably long enough to turn back to a sea-level wimp all over again. Pacer from Colorado had no idea what I was talking about.

As more reasonable morning hours approached, I began to feel better. Although oxygen-starved, the air at 9,000 feet was still cool and the autumn colors had to be near their peak. Whole groves of aspen trees had turned electric yellow, and the brown hillsides were dotted with maples the color of fire engines. Although still running, I slowed my stride to a shuffle so I could gaze at the Technicolor show. The leaf-peeping shuffle resulted in numerous near face-plants, including a spectacular 45-degree-angle, windmill-arm, flailing stumble, so closely saved that the guy behind me called out, "Nice catch!"

After 1,500 feet of descent, the trail veered onto narrow singletrack, and I realized with trepidation that this was probably the first 4,000-foot downhill I'd seen on the elevation profile. I have coordination issues and struggle mightily with any descents that fit into the steep, long, or technical categories. This one was all three. Beautiful multicolor maple leaves lined the trail and carpeted the ground, but I could only shuffle along and stress about all the rocks they were hiding. Soon the trail veered out of a shallow drainage and began to cut across the mountain on a steep sideslope. The slope dropped at a near-vertical angle to my right, which I call my "dabbing foot." I feel considerably less comfortable with right-side exposure because I tend to fall directly into it. I convinced myself that if I accidentally stepped off the trail, those wimpy maple branches wouldn't hold me and I'd tumble hundreds of feet to my death. It sounds silly to write about it now, but I'd whipped myself into a near panic about the whole thing. My perceived sense of balance on foot is really that bad.

Of course, many people who had been behind me passed like I was standing still. It was a long, swooping descent through the trees — the kind of singletrack most trail runners live for. I stepped precariously off the trail every time a runner went by, and got grumpier about it until the Colorado pacer and his runner came flying past. Runner yelled out, "Love running in the mountains!" like a giddy 4-year-old kid. Colorado pacer had just told me this guy was from the "flat" part of Missouri and did most of his training on treadmills. Why was he such a good downhill runner when I was so bad at it? It wasn't fair! Well, it was probably fair, but it certainly wasn't confidence-inspiring. It's situations like these that remind me why I'm still not a runner. Really, I'm not. I'm practicing running, I'm working on my weaknesses, and I continue to truly enjoy traveling long distances on foot. But I'm not a runner, not yet at least. "What the hell are you doing at the Bear 100?" I said out loud with hope that the self-depreciating question would cause me to laugh at myself and I'd feel better. It only made me feel like an idiot.

Back down at 5,000 feet, it was hot and dusty. I finally made an extended stop at an aid station to eat some food, which was long overdue given I was now twenty miles and who knows how many hours into this thing. Freshly cut fruit and homemade zucchini bread did lift my spirits, and I started up the next long climb to Richards and Ricks double summits. There was even a thousand-foot descent and climb between the two — but there are so many thousand-foot-plus drops and climbs in the Bear 100 that you lose track of them early in the race. All you need to know about the Bear 100 is it's a hundred miles and you're either descending or climbing, often steeply. Despite the hot sun and already dead-seeming legs, I still loved climbing.

Danni surprised me at the mile 30 aid station, as I thought she'd probably work and hopefully sleep during the day before meeting me at mile 52. She drove out early to crew for me, but at that point I didn't need anything. I was simply excited about reaching that point, and also a little incredulous. Every time I hit the 50K mark of a longer race, I can't help but think about how "You've already done your 50K and you still have to go for a really long time!" Usually in foot races, I get to stop at 50K. So I always feel a hint of injustice when I can't.

After I crested the aptly named Mudd Flat summit, my already marginal energy level plummeted. I began to feel woozy and even less coordinated, but by the time my common sense screamed at me to "eat a damn fruit snack," the bonk had hit my stomach. Ickiness, nausea, and calorie-deficit-induced feelings of hopelessness and despair all washed over me as the sun sank lower on the horizon. I had, yet again, run for 11 hours on the kind of diet that might barely cut it for surviving a six-hour 50K. I haven't done a long run yet where some kind of a bonk didn't hit around mile fifty, so I'm not exactly sure what I expect at this point.

Danni met me about a half mile from the aid station. "Am I going too slow?" I called out as she approached.

"No, you're doing great," she replied.

"I'm going so slow," I lamented. "My legs can barely move."

I admitted my bonk and she promised to help me rebuild at Temple Fork, which was still only 45 miles into the course and the very bottom of yet another 3,500-foot climb. "You have tons of time," she tried to assure me.

"Do I?" I asked. "I don't know."

A big part of me was thinking that this less than half way and I was doomed, but I clung to Beat's words of wisdom that I shouldn't ever think about finishing the race, only about continuing to the next aid station. And I did really want to make it to Tony Grove.

"Do they have chicken soup and ginger ale down there?" I asked Danni.

"I think they do," she said.

I felt better already.

Monday, October 01, 2012

Following the heartlines

2012 Bear 100 race report, part one

Darkness enveloped the mountain like a brass mute, subduing a vibrant symphony of colors into a blue and gray requiem. I was in desperate need of a boost, struggling to climb out of a deep (and yes, predictable) mile-fifty bonk while simultaneously climbing a five-mile, 3,000-foot ascent through a narrow canyon. They call this place Blind Hollow. My headlamp beam cast flat light on the trail, adding poor visibility to significantly reduced muscle power. My body was no match for this staircase of camouflaged rocks, and I frequently stubbed my toes, stumbled and swore. It wasn't a good sign that I was hurting and tripping this much while climbing. Descents are my weakness. Climbs I can do, usually — but as my climbing ability diminishes, so goes my chances of finishing the Bear 100.

Music is something I lean on a lot in endurance challenges. I don't even care if people think it's a crutch. My trekking poles are a crutch, and I love those, too. I had the Monsters and Men album "My Head is an Animal" on repeat through long low points during the Stagecoach 400 bike race last April, and it seemed to help, so I flipped through my iPod until I found it. But after three songs of mellow indie folk, I only felt more melancholy. I needed motivating pop music, and remembered that Florence and the Machine boosted me through healthy segments of UTMB training. So I switched to that.

This section of the Bear 100 course was still new to me, the unknown first half. Although I'd never been here before, I felt a connection to this place, a familiar warmth coursing through my veins. When aid station volunteers asked me where I was from, I'd made of habit of noting that while I lived in California, "My dad's family came from here. I have a great-great-and-so-forth grandfather who was a Mormon pioneer and was one of the first settlers in the Cache Valley." My grandmother has always been proud of the family's pioneer heritage and tried to instill in her grandkids a healthy respect for our roots. Our ancestor was so poor that he and his family didn't have shoes to wear in the winter or enough food to eat in the summer. They crossed middle America with almost nothing and went on to build a town that had grown into the large community that was only a few miles from here.

Fifty miles, actually, by Bear 100 trail. I looked at my watch and groaned. I was still so, so far from the finish line. And yet there was so much to look forward to — meeting my friend Danni at the next aid station, having her join me for an overnight slumber-party-on-foot, visiting the spot where I met Beat for our first date, seeing the moonlit mountainsides where he and I first connected. I needed to tap some of my great-great-and-so-forth grandfather's pioneering determination. If a guy with no shoes and no money can cross a thousand miles of empty Plains, I can certainly rally for fifty more miles of a well-supported recreational race.

Florence and the Machine did add some rhythm to my plodding steps. I stuffed fruit snacks in my mouth and started glancing away from the trail since my headlight had no definition anyway. A ethereal silver glow outlined the edges of aspen leaves. I squinted at what I assumed was an optical illusion and realized that the light was reflecting from the full moon, rising over the tips of the trees. A harvest moon. The night was chilly, close to freezing already at 8,000 feet, and I could taste the sweet decay of autumn amid clouds of my own breath. The oxygen-starved air seemed to be filled with tiny ice shards, searing my lungs.

After a seeming lifetime of hunched climbing and sickening-but-necessary fruit snacks, I crested an open meadow illuminated by the moon. Sagebrush sparkled and the distant mountains were rendered with stark silver-and-black definition. It was like a photo negative, an inverted reflection of the eye-popping color that filled these mountains in the daytime — but equally sublime. Even though I was tired and sick, I felt a rush of joy. And because I was tired and sick, the contrasting emotion cut deeper than it ever could in times of comfort and complacency. The trail finally slanted downward, and I felt a strong urge to run.

Running felt amazing. The fruit snacks were working! The chance of face-planting over the flatly lit rocks was still high, but for now I didn't care about that. My legs had a fleeting burst of energy and I was going to milk it for as long as it lasted. I coasted down the singletrack and through a campground as Florence and the Machine provided an apt soundtrack:

Oh the river, oh the river, it's running free 
And I will join in the joy it brings to me 
But I know it'll have to drown me 
Before it can breathe easy 

I am endlessly searching for things I can't even conceptualize until I find them. That in essence is the catalyst of my endurance hobby and wanderlust — journeys with unknown destinations. Yes, finishing the Bear 100 was important to me, but I knew what I was looking for wouldn't be found at the finish line. It was somewhere out here, amid these silver-tinted mountains in northern Utah, where old bloodlines ran deep but the air was sweet and new.

And then I came to a familiar place — strikingly familiar, even when rendered like a photo negative. Granite cliffs encircled the glittering basin of Tony Grove Lake, lined by silver aspen trees. I remembered this place like I had been here just yesterday — the place Beat and I pursued in our own separate but difficult journeys two years ago, coincidentally arriving at Tony Grove just five minutes apart. The place where he looked at me with those eyes that pierced through all remnants of reason and sanity, and asked that simple but profound question: "So, are you running?"

It was ... strange. I knew I wanted to revisit this place, but didn't exactly know why. And then, in an equally abrupt transition, I understood ... although I couldn't explain it with words. It simply hit me like a burst of energy, like a flicker of silver moonlight, and I felt satisfied. It occurred to me that this wasn't the end of the journey or even the middle, but yet another beginning. And Florence and the Machine, in that eerie way that my music sometimes does, provided a voice:

Just keeping following the heartlines on your hand
Just keeping following the heartlines on your hand
Keep it up, I know you can 
Just keep following the heartlines on your hand.

"Cause I am," I repeated out loud, and ran toward my friend Danni at the Tony Grove aid station.