For a brief period of time, I practiced yoga, and the entertainment value of seeing all 6’4” of my intractable body trying to stretch and flex and bend must have been insanely high. Those who “do yoga” refer to it as a “practice,” and I very much like this designation. The implication is that there’s always more to learn and more ways to grow in one’s experience of yoga. It’s not a competition. You can never really say “I have completed yoga!” or, “I totally won at yoga last night.” There aren’t really, to my knowledge, “test pieces” for yoga. You simply practice and practice and practice and it’s the practicing itself that changes you.
To a degree, I would find it easy to think of my running in this way, except that with running we do gather around very significant test pieces, like the 100+ mile Run Rabbit Run race. But it’s the practice of running… the daily and weekly rhythms of running and training and resting that imbue these events with such depth of meaning for me. I absolutely love the practice of running in preparation for a 100. The training schedule brings order out of chaos. The positive benefits physically and emotionally manifest themselves in a variety of ways. And this happens over months and months of time.
And all of this is absolutely essential because here’s the thing… You simply cannot fake a 100-mile foot race.
Fully immersing yourself in the practice of running in preparation for a 100 is the only way you stand a chance of finishing, and even then there’s a lot that can go very, very wrong. But the beauty of a 100-mile footrace is that the sheer distance and time it takes to complete are in and of themselves a form of grace. What I mean is that even though things can go very wrong, there’s also a lot of time and distance to get things back on track and turned around, as long as you can keep moving forward.
Racing this distance is such a beautiful mystery.
But I wasn’t really thinking directly about any of this as Anne and I rolled into Olympian Hall (mile 21-22ish). It was just before 2:00 pm. I was slightly ahead of schedule and feeling pretty good. In basically every ultra I’ve every run, I’ve always had a little low patch around mile 20 and the same held true that day, too. I’d pushed quite a bit coming down Fish Creek Falls and at the bottom, as I rolled into the parking lot to meet Anne, it was hot and I was just feeling a bit wonky. But by the time we got to Olympian, I had rebounded a bit. Mom and Doug were there along with Melanie and we got busy with the exchanging of packs, gathering of food and such.
At this aid stop, I experienced an absolute first (for me) for an ultra-marathon… I had a bathroom break actually INSIDE a building, with running water and plumbing and everything. Ooooohhhh! Aaaaaahhhh! I washed my hands and my face and everything!
It’s hard to state what an incredible luxury this is in the midst of a trail ultra, but let’s just call it “glorious.”
I loaded up on watermelon (a race day fave) and some other foods and rolled out. It was a long-ish stop, but I planned on it being long, so I wasn’t too stressed about it.
From Olympian Hall the course is kind of a lollipop… you head out, complete a big circle around Emerald Mountain and then come back down to Olympian Hall again. I’d explored this bit of trail in training and just loved it. It’s a gorgeous mix of primarily aspen forests with areas of scrub oaks and yuccas, and several spots where everything open up to reveal views for miles.
With the boost of seeing loved ones, a fresh pack, clean shoes and socks and a bunch of calories down my gullet, I started making my way up the “stick” of the lollipop section that also happens to be the second big climb of the race, gaining 2500’ or so in probably 3.5 miles. It’s not ridiculously steep, or technical, but it is definitely enough to make you feel it. I grooved into my powerhike with my trekking poles clicking away and I passed this section uneventfully keeping up on food and water along the way.
Since I’d done this bit in training, I knew that once I got to the top there was a long, lilting, flowing buttery smooth section of single-track, called the Ridge Trail, all the way down to Cow Creek Aid Station at mile 30-ish. So, moments after getting to the top, I secured my poles to my pack so I could cut loose and fly downhill for a while. I adore running downhill. Love it. I mean, I really, really love running downhill. I don’t know exactly what it is but I’m confident in it and I just love it.
So, I started to open up the throttle a bit, gained some speed and began to feel the flow and then WHAM!
I found myself tumbling ass over teakettle, as my momma used to say.
What I failed to mention about that buttery smooth single-track is that every so often, a scrub oak root nubbin will peek out into the trail just enough to catch the unsuspecting runner’s toe just enough to significantly harsh a mellow.
I did a full roll and a half I think before catching myself, and upon realizing no damage was done, I laughed it off. I was just sorry that no one was around to see the spectacle of my 6’4” intractable body tumbling along the trail.
I brushed off as best I could and quickly resumed my flow and floated down the trail. I wondered to myself if I was running too fast or too hard for this early in the race, but I figured this is what I trained for and I felt like my effort was reasonable. So I let it rip and it was awesome.
The result was that I came rolling into Cow Creek (mile 30-ish, 4:00 pm) way ahead of schedule and I felt great. Melanie, Anne, Mom and Doug were there to receive me and as we were swapping packs, Melanie asked what had happened because I was apparently very dirty and dusty from the fall. I’d been in the zone for a while and had kind of forgotten about it and so I recounted the tale of my tumble and everyone was highly amused.
Heading out of Cow Creek, you have a couple of miles of flat dirt road and it was pretty blah. I had done a good job all day of keeping the calories and carbs and hydration flowing (thanks Tailwind Nutrition!) so I was doing fine that way, it’s just that I was now 30+ miles into the race and the time and distance were beginning to wear on me.
I was hiking/ jogging at very nearly the exact same pace as another runner, and we kind of passed each other back and forth a couple of times.
Passing in an ultramarathon is excruciating and sometimes it’s wildly annoying, like at that moment. I was just kind of down and in my own headspace and I wasn’t talking and neither was he but he was always just a few feet away. Ugh. And since neither of us had the gas to do anything about it, we stayed close by one another. Eventually, we started up the very gradual 3rd climb of the day, back up the Beall Trail and I put just a tiny bit of space between us.
And then he started hacking and hocking and it was disgusting.
Now lest you think me insensitive and unkind, he was physically fine… but he must have had something stuck in his sinuses or throat because it sounded like he was hocking the biggest, nastiest loogies one could imagine.
I couldn’t handle it. I put in a bit of effort and got out of earshot of him.
And that began a few miles of increasing internal darkness… It’s inevitable in an ultra that one will have some dark patches. It wasn’t super horrible, but I was just tired and realizing I had hours upon hours to go and I was tired and lonely and just kind of sad.
Did I mention I was tired?
I came up on another couple of runners, a guy and a girl, and spent quite a bit of time right behind them, none of us talking. Just grinding it out up the long gradual climb. Run Rabbit Run will boil you like the proverbial frog with these climbs.
Finally, as the guy and I passed the girl I said in jest, “I wish you two would shut up!” just to break the ice and get out of my own head. And I immediately felt better.
I introduced myself to Matt Scrudato, and he and I stuck together for the next few miles and it was astounding to me how great it was just to pass the time in some conversation with a stranger. Matt’s from Georgia and was back at Run Rabbit Run for a second attempt after having DNF’d last year. This year he was absolutely committed to finishing. I could hear it in his tone.
And it was somewhere around here that we began to be caught up by the elite Hares. Jason Schlarb (eventual winner) and Jared Hazen blew by us like we were standing still. It was pretty incredible.
It was also somewhere around here that we were caught up by the loogie hocking guy and a couple of other runners. And I found that his former silence with me was not indicative of his actual persona. He talked. A lot. Like, a LOT, a lot.
But, soon we were all back at the top of the hill and while we all were basically hiking the same speed, our pace varied tremendously on the downhill, so our little group broke apart. I was a bit sad to leave Matt behind at the time, but it was great to run downhill again!
Also of note on this downhill section was having the chance to chat with ultra-running legend Nick Clark, as he passed me. He was dirty and dusty, too, and we traded stories of our tumbles.
As I neared Olympian Hall for the second time, dusk was settling in… Doug had walked a ways up the trail and greeted me joyfully as I rolled back in… we hustled over to the crew and it was time to prepare for the long, dark night ahead. Anne was ready to get me back across town to Fish Creek Falls Trailhead, where Luke was waiting to take me into the backcountry, into the darkness, into the cold.
Heading into the race, I knew from my experiences of ultras, and from daily “practice” of running and training that I would get back to Fish Creek Falls. What would transpire from there was a mystery. I was about to face extremes in climbing, descending, cold and distance that were well beyond anything I’ve known…