Quick reminder of where we find ourselves in the race… it’s somewhere after 4:00 in the morning nearing mile 70, on the Spring Creek Trail. Sara is pacing…
100(+) miles is just a freaking really, really long way. And there’s no way to even begin to think about it all at once as a racer. If you do, you’re doomed. You’ll crumple under the weight of all that vast, giant, gaping space between those miles. You must break things up. You have to come up with ways to trick yourself, motivate yourself and move yourself through little goals and milestones.
There are 15 bridges in the 5 miles of trail between the Dry Lake and Spring Creek Ponds aid stations. I ran this section in training, knowing that these were going to be dark, slow going times for me in the race. Just understanding where they’re positioned and the distance they represented and the time I would be moving through, it was inevitable that this was going to be a tough section.
So, I came up with a weird little plan to “jog” across all of the bridges, in both directions. Here in the safety and comfort of a home office, feeling well rested with a full belly, it really doesn’t seem like much of a goal. But, in the deep darkness of a cold mountain night when you’ve got 70 miles of mountain movement on your body, it’s kind of a big deal. It’s weird how 30 little moments of picking up the pace and moving with a bit more intention brings some clarity and focus. Also, the bridges are numbered, so there’s a very gratifying countdown aspect of moving through this section.
I had shared this plan with Sara, who was now pacing me, and she was all about it and got me going.
Also, Sara is a high school teacher, so she has this really incredible way to be firm and disciplined while also being gentle and affirming. It’s really a powerful combination, and exactly the kind of thing an ultra-runner needs. She was firm about keeping me eating. She was disciplined about pushing my pace a little. But, she was also gentle and affirming, understanding the shape I was in. But, overall, I was feeling a bit better. The warm food I’d had and extra clothes I’d donned, coupled with a long descent were helping me tremendously.
We made our way down, down, down the trail to the Spring Creek Ponds aid station at supposedly mile 70. I say “supposedly” because everyone knows this course is long, so I’m guessing it was probably more like 73-75. But, really, that’s kind of irrelevant because regardless of the distance, there’s still got a long, long way to go.
Rolling into aid, my most pressing need was to attend once again to the massive blister consuming my entire left heel. While I tried to doctor myself, Sara rounded up a grilled cheese and some broth for me. I think she felt bad because she had eaten ALL OF THE GRILLED CHEESE at Dry Lake, leaving me grilled cheese-less. But, this real food, that was warm and salty and sustaining, felt so good.
Ultras are weird in the way that they make you so greatly appreciate the tiniest luxuries and simplest graces. I ate maybe 1/3 of a grilled cheese sandwich (if that?) and drank 4 ounces of broth (maybe?) but it was such an exceedingly great “meal.”
It was a good stop with generous, helpful volunteers and we headed back out as quickly as we could.
And now we’d come to it, at last… the section of the course that had consumed my thoughts since nearly the moment I’d registered… From Spring Creek Ponds to Summit Lake Aid station there were 13+ miles of continuous ascent. Sometimes steeper, sometimes more gradual but relentlessly up, up, up and up for more than a half marathon.
There was no way around it… had to be done, so we set to doing it.
Since this section is an out and back, and since it’s mostly singletrack trail, we were face to face with many runners and pacers still making their way down to Spring Creek Ponds… and it was getting late enough that it began to run through my mind that many of these people were not going to make it. They weren’t going to finish, and that’s a difficult thing to see. But the effort, the gumption of all of them is so heroic. It’s also inspirational. So, we kept moving.
Sara kept me jogging across the bridges, even though the climbing was tough. When there was the odd, short section of somewhat downhill, she tried to get me jogging those, mostly successfully, I think? It’s all pretty blurry.
I was also back on track and eating at very regular intervals again, systematically getting those carbs and calories down, and as a result I was feeling better and better. It occurs to me that ultras are beautiful in their generosity and graciousness of time. If you can be patient, keep moving and keep getting down what you can, there’s enough time for things to turn around.
And something else began to happen about halfway back up to Dry Lake… light began to spread, ever so slowly across the sky. I cannot begin to express to you how amazing it is to begin to experience the light after a long, cold, dark, difficult night. It quietly and simply imbues, imparts and fills you with a spreading hope.
But, despite these positives, the last mile and a half up to Dry Lake is steep and tough. I asked Sara if she saw that the rock formation in front of us looked like a face. I thought I might be hallucinating in the early half-light of morning. But, she actually agreed. It really DID look like a face. Good, good… keep moving, keep grinding.
Finally, with light continuing to fill the sky, we made the last push to Dry Lake 2, mile 74-ish. Melanie was waiting with Joey, who would now pace me the rest of the way to the finish. Sara had gotten me the rest of the way through the night. I was so very tired.
I shuffled into the aid station and into a big Bearss hug (get it!?) from Joey, who’d been waiting in the cold. As we embraced he spoke into my ear, “I’m so proud of you…” and I nearly lost it with emotion. Hugs from Sara and more deep, deep emotion… So grateful and so filled with love and appreciation.
We were still behind schedule. I still had another 7+ miles of climbing up to Summit Lake, and 32 or so miles left before the finish. But I had another great and dear friend to join me. And we had made it through the night. Dawn had come. It was time to push on to the finish.