Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Lean Horse 100: Life is hard, Running is easy

I clicked off my headlamp and looked at the swirling stars above. Then I leaned over the side of the trail and threw up. This had been going on for too many hours to count. And it didn't matter anyway. I was alive. Vomiting, but alive, and somehow I was managing to hang on.

Still heaving, I started moving again. It was cold enough that I could see my breath in the air, and I knew I couldn't stop for long. Movement was the thing that would keep me warm. All I had to think about was this step, and then the next one. I didn't even think about how far away the next aid station was, or the finish line. There was a simplicity to boiling everything down to practically...nothing. And in spite of all that had gone wrong, there were still so many things that were going right. I could honestly say that at this moment, I was happy. There was nowhere else I wanted to be and nothing else I wanted to be doing. Just this: right here, right now.


Going into Lean Horse 100, I knew it was my best bet, or perhaps only bet, for finishing a race that was a hundred miler in its own right. I'd covered the distance once before, during 24 hours at Across the Years. But at my subsequent attempt-- Javelina Jundred last fall-- I found myself face down in the desert just 66 miles into the race, and I'd taken my first ever DNF.

One thing that gave me some confidence was that training had been much more consistent for Lean Horse. Which is to say, I had managed to stay injury free. I began increasing my mileage in January, slowly and steadily, and by March I staying strong with solid 50-60 mile weeks and no need to drop down. I did some higher intensity weeks--including pacing Rob overnight for the last 38 miles of Kettle Moraine 100, and a 44 mile solo trek (for my dyslexia charity run, maybe someday I'll write about that) in the thin air of the rugged Colorado Trail. During peak training week, I hit 90 miles for the first time in my life-- celebrating at the top of Hope Pass (also my first time running at over 12,000 feet of elevation) with Rob and Team Steph.

I was uninjured and reasonably well trained. Nothing in my work schedule prevented me from doing this. It was now or never. The problem was...did I really even want to attempt a hundred miles?

I kept thinking about all the reasons why I had quit Javelina, and I knew that nothing had changed. The emotional baggage that had caused me to panic in the desert-- still there. The unrelenting nausea and vomiting that takes hold of me sometime between 8 and 12 hours into a race-- I'm nowhere near to figuring that out. Even more than these factors, I also knew that I'd have to be prepared to run this race alone, with no pacer. We didn't have anyone to go with us, and we would have needed at least one other person to drive Rob to the check point (Lean Horse is an out and back course) and then take care of Will for the rest of the night so that Rob could pace me. I had absolutely no assurance I would be able to finish, and in fact, almost every reason to believe that the same thing that had happened at Javelina would happen at Lean Horse. I didn't know if I would ever be able to recover from a second DNF.

I think I reacted to this stress by turning off everything, and just remaining in this almost Zen, emotionless state during the weeks leading up to the race. I still felt an uncharacteristic lack of emotion as I methodically chewed a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at 4:30 on race morning, as I stood shivering on the start line watching the sun rise.

Start line (Photo by Rob)
Then all of a sudden, we were off. Wasn't there somebody once who said 100 miles is not that far? I figured I would disagree with him by the time this thing was done.

The race was on a rails-to-trails gravel path, which is basically my kind of turf. Not technical, no rocks or roots. There were supposedly "hills," but none of them were more than 4% grade. It's just that they might last for 10 miles at a time. Still, how hard could it be? Aid stations were like clockwork-- 5 to 6 miles apart, and Rob and Will were at every one.

5 miles down, 95 miles to go (Photo by Rob)

I think during the early part of the race, I mostly tried to avoid getting caught up with the 30-milers (it was also a 30, 50, and 100-mile relay event). I ate a watermelon shot-block about every mile, and I walked a little bit every two. I caught up with a 30-mile runner named Katie around mile 10 and stayed with her until we hit her turn around point at Hill City-- mile 15. She was great. She was just like me, and I wished we lived in the same town and could be running friends. We talked about our kids, and what a struggle it could be, but I stopped myself before I mentioned anything about what we'd been through during the past year. I think this had been my downfall at Javelina, when I was in the thick of it and started talking with another runner about how much it was killing me to pull my kid through dyslexia. I didn't go there this time-- I knew from Javelina that a hundred mile trail race is not a good place to fall into a panic attack and be unable to get yourself out.

This is not my new BFF Katie, but from approximately the same place. (Photo by Rob)

When I arrived at Hill City, I was ahead of schedule, behind on nutrition, and it was hot. Rob filled the tube sock of ice for me to put around my neck while I ate some bites of a vegan grilled cheese from my drop bag. I walked out of the aid station, on the only section of pavement the course had, as we took a bit of a jog through town to get back to the Mickelson Trail. I tried to memorize the details of the streets, and I wondered what it would look like when I came back through here in the dark at mile 85.

Pavement in Hill City, USA (Photo by Rob)

The heat was becoming more of a factor, and I finally understood why people had said you needed to be careful of the "hills" in this race. Even a mild grade feels taxing on the legs when it lasts for 10 miles. It is different than running steeper, but shorter hills, where your body gets a clear signal that you need a walk break. My legs were definitely sore, in a way that was somewhat alarming, by mile 25. I was also not handling the shot blocks and homemade grilled cheese so well anymore (that was the entirety of my nutrition plan). Swallowing pills made me gag, so at aid stations I began emptying the contents of an Endurolyte and a ginger capsule into a cup of ginger ale and then swigging down the cocktail. Not bad. The sweetness was unappealing though, and I didn't feel like eating solid food. I drank some lukewarm vegetable broth at mile 25 and this seemed to bring me back to life. Heading out of the aid station with purposeful strides, I thought, this was how I was going to make it. Vegetable broth would see me to the end.
See? This is me, hydrating, at mile 23 (Photo by Rob)

Mile 25, restored by broth (Photo by Rob)

The next 5 miles went by in a flash, which I don't think anyone was expecting. It was all downhill, at a very gentle grade, and I ran sub-10 minute miles the entire way without walk breaks or effort. The aid station at the end of that was the only time Rob and Will missed me during the entire race. I drank some more vegetable broth and got back on the trail.

The next 20 or so miles were roughly uphill, and while I don't remember suffering that much, I did slow considerably. I knew that if I was going to finish in under 24 hours, I'd need to make it to the 50 mile mark by at least 10 hours, to allow myself a good cushion. And by this point, I knew that wasn't going to happen. Eleven hours at the 50-mile turnaround seemed like a safer bet, and finishing the race at all was far more important than finishing it in sub-24.

Mile 43 (Photo by Rob)

There seemed to be a lot of carnage in the final 5-10 miles before the turn around point. I wasn't moving so great myself but was passing people left and right. Uphill, no shade, brutal sun. I took it slow, but by the time I got to the aid station at mile 49-ish, I felt legitimately bad. Rob tried to get me to eat all kinds of food, but I shook my head. I didn't even want broth anymore. I didn't want anything.

Runners were supposed to go out to the 50 mile mark, turn around, and then come back. I thought if I just walked that entire way, until I got back to the aid station again, surely my stomach would get under control. I'd be kissing 24 goodbye, but I'd be saving the race overall.

Walking did not help my stomach, so I ran once I hit the turn around and it was downhill back to the aid station. I couldn't fathom putting anything into my mouth as I got back there, now mile 51 for me. "Do I have time to walk it into the finish from here?" I asked. Rob seemed completely bewildered. By all respects, I appeared to be doing well. I was in the top 25 overall, I was the 3rd woman (of what... a dozen women in the entire race?), and a sub 24-hour finish was still well within my grasp.

I took some (vegan) chocolate chip cookies Rob had brought me from the van and drank a cup of coke. Rob raised his camera to take a picture of me, just as I vomited all over the side of the trail. There was a look of horror on his face that I could tell he was trying to mask with encouragement. I laughed and gave him two thumbs up. Throwing up was exactly what I had needed. I felt better than I had in at least 10 miles. I drank some water and nibbled on one of the cookies as I took off running. This wasn't the beginning of the end, I told myself. My stomach had just needed to be reset, and this had done the trick. Chocolate chip cookies would get me to the end. Everything was going to be fine.

This is not the beginning of the end, it's not. I refuse to let it be. (Photo by Rob)

Most of the first half of the race had been a gradual uphill. Which meant most of the second half was a gradual down. The weird thing is how effortless it felt to be running it. I was suddenly moving at a pretty good clip again, and it felt like nothing at all. This was an asset. Although my legs had hurt early on, they were totally fine now. And my stomach had just gotten reset. Rob had fixed me a baggie of 3 chocolate chip cookies before I left, and I told myself to eat all 3 of them before I got to the next aid station some 5 miles away.

I never ate the cookies.

In fact, I never ate anything else for the rest of the race.

I threw up a couple more times before I got to the next aid station. There would be this brief minute or two after each puke when I felt pretty good. So I'd drink water and whatever I had in my bottles (coke at this point, I think), and then I'd throw that up a couple miles later.

The mile 56 aid station went by, and I ate no more food. I kept thinking that I needed to walk--slowing down was surely the key to calming my stomach. But the gentle downhill grade made running feel easier than walking, and I didn't want to waste anymore time. So I ran.

Just before the mile 62 aid station, it was dark enough that I clicked on my headlamp. Good. Now it was time for some magic. No more sun boiling down on me. Surely now I would be able to eat.

But I couldn't. I pulled into the mile 62 aid station, my stomach a wreck. I'd also been visiting the port-a-potties at every aid station at least since the turn around point, but luckily, I'd never had to use the emergency ziplock baggie of TP in my pack. Even so, I didn't know what was wrong with me. I've puked in just about every ultra I've ever run, but this level of digestive distress was unprecedented even for me. I felt like I was running with the stomach flu.

Now that it was dark out, I was uncomfortably cold. I stripped off my sweaty singlet for a dry t-shirt and tried to come up with something, anything I thought I could eat. No luck. I went to the aid station table and surveyed my options. There was a sign above the table that said "WE HAVE PBR."

"Alright, can you hook me up?" I asked the volunteer.

Everyone cheered as he popped open a beer for me. It was disgusting, but somehow delicious. It was liquid that wasn't salty or sweet, and it had precious calories that might buy me a few miles. I thanked the volunteers and Rob and Will (who was dressed in his Harry Potter costume), and headed out of the aid station.

A mile later, I threw up PBR all over the side of trail.

It was probably around this time that I settled into a groove of run, walk, puke, run, walk, puke, and repeat and until I got to the next aid station. It wasn't that bad really. I began thinking back to when I had hyperemesis, and I had wished there was more than one word to describe "nausea." This wasn't the worst kind of nausea you could have. I'd mostly just feel this low grade queasiness, then puke, and then have a few minutes of relief before it started in again. It wasn't like the all consuming, overwhelming, blinding nausea I had felt during Javelina. This was something I could handle, and that was an asset.

I even started being able to time it so that I would puke shortly before reaching an aid station. This way, my brief window of consumption would occur while there was food available. I still couldn't eat, but by around mile 70, I told Rob, "Chocolate soy milk," and he ran to the van to get it while I went to the bathroom. He filled up my bottle, and I left the aid station thinking, chocolate soy milk will get me to the end. 30 miles to go.

There were glow sticks placed along the trail for about a mile preceding the next aid station, and it was very comforting to see them lighting the way and knowing that I wasn't completely alone in the woods. I think it was about 10:30pm when I got to the mile 75 aid station. Will was awake after a brief nap, and he was wearing his Harry Potter costume. "Follow the glow sticks, mom," he said helpfully, as Rob topped off my bottle with chocolate soy milk. I nodded and continued. It had been 25 miles since I'd eaten anything. I still had 25 miles to go. And for the most part, I was still running. How was this humanly possible? Would I be able to keep doing this until the finish?

The glow sticks dwindled outside of the aid station, but I didn't give in to the odd pang of sadness that brought me. Instead, I thought of Rogue One, when the characters were up against the impossible, and Jyn Erso gave them a pep talk that went something like, "We're going to take this chance, and the next, and we'll keep on taking our chances either until we succeed, or until all our chances are spent." Star Wars wisdom. This is what I would do. Once chance at a time, one step at a time. I had no idea how I was going to finish this, but I would keep on moving until I had no more chances left to spend.

Sleep monsters came out to get me as I forged ahead to mile 80. I listened to music and popped massive amounts of caffeinated Run Gum, but even that wasn't keeping me awake. Whenever I slowed to a walk, the Sleep Monsters whispered to me that I should close my eyes, that I should lie down on the side of the trail. They made my vision blur in front of me. Even bitterly cold and shaking, my breath white puffs of air in front of me, I couldn't stay awake. My legs weren't really sore, but my body was shutting down. I tried to keep running as much as I could, simply because that kept me more alert than walking.

Aside from the nausea and exhaustion, the biggest problem I'd had for most of the race was the constant feeling that I had to pee. At first, it made sense. When I'd stopped eating, I shifted to broth, coke, and ginger ale. More recently to chocolate soy milk. It was a lot of liquid, but I could barely make it 2 miles down the trail without stepping off into the woods to pee. It was growing increasingly uncomfortable at this point because it was so cold. And I had no idea where all that pee was coming from. I'd been vomiting for more than 30 miles, and it had been hours since I'd drank anything more than a few sips at a time. How did I have any liquid left in me? Was my body sucking it out of my muscles and organs? Was I dehydrating from within?

During the stretch from mile 80 to 85, things became truly difficult. My legs were still fine, but running made me so dizzy that I could barely do it. Walking helped anchor my feet to the ground, but it wasn't keeping me warm or awake. I welcomed the lights as I headed into Hill City and made my way to the aid station. Still 15 miles from the finish. It was so close but so far away. For the first time since this had begun, tears welled up in my eyes.

I have no idea how I'm going to do this

As Rob tried to fix a blister that had formed between my first and second toe, another runner and her pacer arrived at the aid station. I left before them, but I could see their headlamps behind me before too long. All I wanted, in the whole world, was to lie down on the side of the trail. There was nothing left in my body to burn, and I was so cold, and so desperately exhausted. Would I freeze to death if I just lay down? I stopped for a second to throw up bile. My stomach was empty because I hadn't even drunk anything in miles, but I still felt like I had to pee. I could not take one more step. I had to lie down, I absolutely had to lie down.

Then Carla and Javier, her pacer, caught up with me. "How are you doing?" Carla asked. I couldn't talk. Tears streamed down my face. She put both of her arms around me in a hug. "Come on," she said. "Walk with us."

And so I walked with them. They were both from Puerto Rico, and this was Carla's first 100 mile race. This was the first time she had ever been in a place so cold that her breath froze each time she exhaled. It felt better to be with Carla and to listen to her talk. I think things might have been easier for me if I'd had a pacer, but I also knew that the only thing that had gotten me this far was having Rob drive the van around to every aid station. When chocolate soymilk was the thing I wanted, he just went to the van fridge and got it for me. When I was too cold to function, he ran to the van and got an extra pair of his own pants for me to wear. Unbeknownst to me, he had also been driving around rural South Dakota looking for an all night grocery store that sold V8, because I had on several occasions asked for this at aid stations (and they didn't have any). Carla told me that I could stay with her after we got to the mile 89.9 aid station and we could keep walking together. But I shook my head. If Rob was there with the van (and I sincerely hoped he was), I was going to get inside, lie down, and go to sleep.

Sure enough, Rob was there. I hugged Carla one more time before she left, and I told Rob that if I was going to finish this race, I would absolutely have to get myself together. I had not been able to eat anything in almost 11 hours. I only had 10 miles left to cover, but my body was at its absolute limit. It was 4:30 in the morning, an hour left until sunrise, 7 hours and 30 minutes left on the clock.

We got in the van and he turned the heat on high. Will was sleeping in the back, and Rob and I both crawled into the bed in the front. My clothes were drenched in sweat, and I was so cold that I shook. I dry heaved twice into a basin, set my alarm for 40 minutes, and fell asleep.

I woke up just after 5 in the morning. I still felt cold and sick. I was desperate to get warm. Rob helped me find some other clothes to put on. I kept saying to him, "How am I going to go another 10 miles with no food?" Maybe it sounded like I was hysterical, but I meant it in a practical sense. Like, what are the procedures I need to undertake in order to accomplish this task? Lying down had not calmed my stomach. I felt even worse than before, with both nausea and hunger rising to excruciating levels. I took a single Ritz cracker out of a package on the counter and put it in my mouth. It might as well have been chalk or cardboard. My mouth wouldn't work to chew, my throat wouldn't work to swallow. I licked the salt off another cracker and took a sip of water. Then I stepped out of the van into a periwinkle world. The last stars faded, and the sun was just beginning to glimmer in the east. 6 and a half hours left on the clock. 10 miles to go. This was going to be hard, but so far from the hardest thing I've ever done that a comparison wouldn't even be possible. Life is hard, running easy.

It never even occurred to me not to get out of the van and do this. (Photo by Rob)

Step by step, each step closer to the finish. I never ran again, but I kept a decent clip, at under 20 minute miles. People occasionally caught up and passed me, giving me an encouraging word as they did. I was beyond speaking, beyond even moving my head. A thumbs up was the best I could manage. At last I reached the final aid station, and there were just 4 miles left. "It's all downhill from here," Rob said. I licked the salt off another Ritz cracker and resolutely shuffled ahead. Taking all my chances, until all my chances were spent.

Two miles from the finish, I started crying. This was the first time I actually considered that there was an end in sight, that I might even pull this off. All I had to do was stay vertical, keep moving. I hoped my legs wouldn't give out on me before the end.

Rob and Will were standing along the trail, just before the turn off to the high school track. "Is it still a half mile to go?" I whispered. "No," Rob replied. "You can see the finish from here." I covered my face and sobbed. Will took my other hand and led me to the track. All I had to do was make my way to the other side of it. Step by step, we did. 26 hours, 52 minutes, and 2 seconds after starting this thing, I finished.
Nothing I did in this race was anywhere near as hard as what he goes through EVERY SINGLE DAY as a dyslexic child in the US Education system.

All my gratitude goes to Rob and Will. I absolutely could not have done this without them being there for me all day, all night, and into the next morning. If they're willing to go through this again, I'm ready to sign up for next year.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Remembering a dyslexic classmate, 30 years later

I remember this kid from my fourth grade class. Jack was his name, I think, or at least, that's what I'll call him here. He seemed bigger than the rest of us, maybe he had been held back already. It was widely known that he was a trouble maker. Didn't try. Didn't care. The teachers regarded him with unmasked frustration and hostility, and their assessment of him was not lost on the rest of us. I mean, how stupid were you, if you had made it all the way to the fourth grade (perhaps having even repeated a grade or two along the way) and you still couldn't read?

I also remember that Jack was good at fixing things. Taking them apart and putting them back together again. Ballpoint pens in particular. Fourth grade was a seminal year for this, because the great privilege of being a fourth grader was that you sometimes got to write with a pen instead of a pencil. But with this privilege also came the frustration of pens that would every so often stop working, and you'd circle and circle on the page, waiting for the ink to come out, but it never did. Jack could fix your pen for you. He did this for me one time, as I had been seated next to him in art or music class. I'd regarded him somewhat suspiciously, and with a bit of fear. He was supposed to be a bad seed, the kind of kid you didn't talk to, a bully.

But as he sat next to me and dismantled my pen, he hummed a bit. And I realized, I couldn't think of one single instance when he had actually caused trouble or done something wrong. All I could think of was teachers yelling at him or punishing him for things that wouldn't have even caused so much as a raised eyebrow if some other student had done it. All I could think of was how, whenever he was called upon to read a passage out loud in class, he would stumble over the words, getting many of them wrong. And the rest of the class would snicker, at best, or laugh outright in his face.

He wasn't the bully. He was bullied.

He was dyslexic.

With a smile, Jack handed me back my pen, and it worked just fine. I wondered why everyone thought he was such a bad kid. I wondered how you could be in the fourth grade and still not be able to read.

That was almost thirty years ago. And the truth is, precious little has changed for dyslexic kids. My son would be Jack if I had listened to the piece-of-shit teachers who told me what a challenge he was, how he needs to try harder, how all we can do is wait and see. My son would be Jack if I had been gaslit by the piece-of-shit principal and school reading specialists and counselors who told me I was being unfair and unreasonable, who have cornered me and ripped me to shreds, who have done everything in their power to get me to shut the fuck up about dyslexia. My son would be Jack if I allowed myself to be intimidated by these overgrown middle school mean girls, by family members who deride me for being too "negative." My son would be Jack if I were anything other than stubborn as fuck. He would be Jack if I hadn't found Ms. V, if we hadn't had the means to pay thousands of dollars (with no end in sight) on dyslexia tutoring.

I thought about Jack the other day, and I wondered what ever happened to him. I'm not sure if I remember him being part of my class beyond grade school. I hoped to god he didn't blow his brains out or overdose, having spent his whole life believing he wasn't worth a damn. I hoped instead he invented something amazing, became a CEO or a stop motion film maker, or a software engineer.

I hope that my son makes it through, but unlike neurotypical children, who have every opportunity handed to them without question, Will has no such assurance. For dyslexic kids now, thirty years ago, sixty years ago, it's still the same: the very people whose job it is to help you succeed in life only sabotage you every step of the way.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Kettle Moraine 100 Pacer Report!

I didn't think he would really want me to go with him.

When he'd first mentioned running the Kettle Moraine 100, barely more than a week earlier, he'd said his parents were planning on coming up. I'd told him that if his parents didn't mind watching Will all night, I could pace him.  Runners would loop back through the start/finish area (where we'd be parked in the van) after around 62 miles, and they were allowed to pick up a pacer before heading out again for the last 38 mile out-and-back. I could leave with him at mile 62, or I could run down the road for about a mile and a half and pick him up at a trailhead he'd pass by at mile 70. Or when he passed that same trailhead again on his way back at mile 93.

"Interesting," had been his reply. I saw his eyes considering these possibilities, but ultimately he'd said that he didn't think he'd need a pacer. He'd decided to run the race on the assumption that he'd be running it alone, but since I'd offered and it would seem to work out, he didn't completely discount the possibility. "Let's say it's not Plan A," he said. If everything was going according to plan, he didn't think he'd need me.

How often does everything go according to plan when you're running a hundred miler?

We took off for the midwest, and when we arrived in Illinois, we ran together a few times on trails near my parents' home. I'd forgotten what midwestern trails were like. Rooty and muddy with constant little 100 foot climbs and descents. The soft ground felt delicious under my feet, so unlike the rocks and slippery sand I've gotten used to in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Maybe if I'd never left the midwest, I'd have been a halfway decent trail runner. Even so, as I ran with him, I realized there was no way I'd ever be able to pace him in a hundred miler. I would never be able to keep up. He so much of a stronger runner than me that even at the tail end of a hundred miles, he would still undoubtedly be moving faster than me on the trail. If I were to go with him in the race, it would only be in the case of a dire emergency, such as, he'd have to be walking it in for the last 38 miles.

The night before the race I think I slept all of three hours, and he didn't sleep much more than that. It wasn't too long after the start of the race that thunderstorms began. This was real, midwestern rain, the kind that dumps buckets of water on you for hours at a time. We don't get this in the foothills. I kept my eye on the lightning, wondering how close it would have to be before they called the race.

My in-laws came to the park and we drove to the Scuppernog trailhead, where we saw Rob for the first time at mile 31, 5 hours into the race. The rain was slowing down. He looked strong and had me refill his bottles while he ate pickles. We got to see him there again about 6 miles later.

The rain finally stopped for good, but the afternoon consisted of running through shin deep mud in oppressive heat and humidity. We saw him for the final time at mile 47. He had slowed a tiny bit. The wheels were still on, but I could tell that he was standing at the precipice of insanity. It was so unbearably hot. And humid. He had loved running in the rain. But these conditions--these were not Rob's time to shine.

Crew chief Will hands Rob a tube sock of ice for his neck.

He had initially predicted that if all was going well, he would make it back to the start/finish area (mile 62, where we were parked) around 6 or 6:30pm. Based on how he'd looked at mile 47,  I didn't expect him until more like 7 or 8. I hoped he would just take it easy in the heat and wait for the cool of the evening to come.

At first I made no plans to get ready. After all, my pacing him was not Plan A. If he did come through at 6pm, then that would mean things were going well and he didn't need me. Only if he was delayed by several hours would it become more likely that he'd want me to step in.

But by about 5, I decided that the responsible thing to do was to be ready for anything. I loaded my pack with everything I could possibly need for a long night of running, and I ate a few bites of questionable vegan pizza that had been in the van fridge now for several days. Yuck, that was a bad idea. My in-laws watched Will while I lay down for about 20 or 30 minutes for a power nap. I knew there was no way I could run the whole night on only 3 hours of sleep.

I had only just gotten up when I heard my father-in-law say, "Here he comes!"

No way. It was nearly exactly 6pm.

He looked wrecked. He got fresh clothes out of his drop bag and came into the van to change, spewing mud everywhere. I could tell he was in a great deal of pain. It didn't seem like he was firing on all cylinders.

"Do you want me to come with you?" I asked, as we struggled with the gaiters on his mud soaked shoes.

"I don't know. What do you want to do?"

His indecision was uncharacteristic.

"I don't care. I can do whatever. I'm ready to go with you now, or I can meet you at mile 70, or at mile 93."

He winced in pain as he tried to lift his foot off the ground.

"Yeah," he said. "Okay. Come with me. If you want."

I sprang into action. I had not expected this. I had thought the most likely scenario would be that he declined, no matter what state he was in. The second most likely scenario would be him saying I could maybe meet up with him at mile 70, if I wanted. I knew he was disoriented and in pain, but things must be worse than I thought.

I ran out of the van to tell my in laws I was going with him and to make a final check that everything was in order to leave Will with them overnight. I hugged Will. I made sure I had my headlamp and spare batteries in my pack, along with plenty of water, electrolytes and food. Did I have enough caffeinated Run Gum to get me through the night? No time to get any more. Rob was ready to go.

As we passed through the aid station on our way out, a group of volunteers and spectators cheered. "Hundred mile runner, heading out!" the race director called as more cheers ensued. "You're the pacer?" he asked.

"I'm the pacer," I said, much like Bohdi repeated I'm the pilot in Rogue One.

The RD gave me two thumbs up. "Go get 'em," he called, or something similar to that. I felt like a celebrity amidst the cheers as we left the aid station and headed back out onto the single track.

The trail was smooth and seemed flat but maybe was slightly uphill. Rob walked. We moved quickly, but I could tell he was in a lot of pain by the way he put his hands on his hip flexors and limped every time there was a slight incline. His feet barely left the ground. The roots became doubly dangerous for him at a shuffle. I knew we were in for a long night.

I also knew that we would not mention the pain. I would not ask him how he was doing, I would not speak of his hip flexors or raw, blistered feet. We would be like Gary Robbins and Jared Campbell during the 2016 Barkley. We had a job to do, and we would get it done. There was no room to give pain any power.

Rob began running again, moving at a decent clip. The hip flexors begged to be acknowledged, but we ignored them.

I thought, if the entire trail is like this--mostly smooth and flat--it will be a breeze.

"This is the only part of the course where the trail is like this," Rob said to me, even though I hadn't asked.

"Oh." I wondered what the rest was like, then.

After the first tidbit, we got to a roller coaster section of constant short, steep up-and-downs. I could tell by his labored steps that Rob's hip flexor did not like this.

We buzzed through a couple of aid stations, pausing only to get Rob what he needed (pickles, banana, water) and then moving on.

"We're not even to the Ice Age trail yet," he mentioned at one point, which was the closest he ever came to a complaint.

"We'll be there soon," I said, even though I had no idea where it was.

Sure enough, we reached a point that runners called "Confusion Corner" and it was around there that we turned onto the Ice Age trail. Narrow, rocky, rooty, single track. Gone were the smooth roller coasters of the first section. This was legitimate gnarl. But it was Wisconsin gnarl, so if you fell, you weren't going to go tumbling off the mountain. And in spite of the ankle-busting roots that littered the trail, the soft-packed midwestern mud made the descents far easier for me than the slick, sandy trails I run at home.

Darkness was quickly approaching by this point, and we flicked on our headlamps. Things got significantly more difficult for me as we lost daylight. The trail was harder to see. I was glad that Rob was stopping to walk so much, because if he'd been on top of his game, there is no way I'd have been able to keep up with him. I had some moments of concern during this section. We were still fairly early into the night, but the run no longer felt easy for me. I mean, my legs were fine, it was just harder for me to move on the rugged terrain in the dark. I had this underlying paranoia that Rob was going so slowly just so I could keep up with him. I began to wonder who was pacing whom. I had to remember that it was me pacing Rob, and I was the one who had to be strong and alert, no matter what. I realized this might be the only time in my life I could do something like this. If he ever ran a rugged mountain hundred, he would be way too fast for me. And if he ever ran a more gentle hundred, like this one, chances were that he'd be having a better day and still moving too quickly for me to be of any help.

We finally got to another aid station about 14 miles out. It was lively and the volunteers were enthusiastic.

"Can I fill your pack for you?" A volunteer reached to help.

"I'm the pacer," I said, Bohdi-like.

"We help pacers too!" She smiled as she took my reservoir to fill it with water. I went to the food table and engulfed some chips and guacamole. I hadn't been taking care of myself very well on this run-- not even pausing to refill my soft-flasks with water and Nuun. I'd been focusing on Rob at each aid station, but I knew it wasn't sustainable if I let myself get into deficit.

Meanwhile, Rob sat down for the first time since we'd set out. His face was gray. He looked completely wrecked. I didn't acknowledge it. I got him some chips, banana, and pickles. He picked up his better headlamp and some caffeinated Run Gum before we left. Just 4 more miles to the turn around point. Just 4 more miles and we'd be halfway through the last leg. Just 4 more miles... and we'd still have 18 more miles to go after that. It seemed daunting even to me, and I hadn't been running since 6am.

I think few people on this earth can understand what it took for Rob to stand up from the chair and walk out of the aid station.

"I'm cold," he said as we began hiking up a steep hill.

This was bad, very bad. It was hot out.

We extracted his jacket from his pack and he put it on as we continued to walk. Climb up the hill, step over roots.

The race, in addition to being a hundred miler, was also a hundred mile relay, a 100K, a 50K and a 38 mile fun run. There were a lot of people out on the course. And a lot of them were significantly fresher than someone who had already been running all day. I started to get annoyed with the traffic at this point. But I was the pacer, and I had to stay strong. I didn't say anything.

This was the moment of the the race-- probably about 76 miles in for Rob-- that I could tell there was a real, significant possibility that the wheels were going to fall off. He felt terrible. He was exhausted. Thunder and lightning threatened again in the distance.

He wasn't even remotely close to the point at which I thought me might need to drop-- there was nothing severe going on with him, and he was still moving forward. But I was pretty sure that we'd be walking it in from here on out.

"Are you chewing the Run Gum yet?" I asked.

"No," he said, and fished for it in his pack. I took some of mine at the same time.

A few minutes later, we were running again.

We hit the turn around point and made our way back, reversing the direction we had just come. It had taken us 5 and a half hours to go 18 miles. It would take us at least that same amount to head back, and probably significantly more. It must have been around midnight when we hit the turnaround point. Initially I had thought that if everything was going according to plan and there were no significant difficulties, Rob might finish the race around 2am.  This was no longer Plan A.  The good news was that we had plenty of time left on the clock-- 12 hours until the race officially closed. We could walk every step of the way, even stop for a nap, and still make that. But we had only 6 hours left for a sub-24 hour finish. I wouldn't let myself think about it that much, because if I did, I would be able to see it quickly slipping out of our grasp. I hoped that Rob wasn't doing the math, because knowing what the odds were at this point might be the straw that broke him.

We walked. We got out of the way for the throngs of other runners we met. We didn't complain, we didn't talk. Relentless forward progress.

I was starting to feel pretty bad, so I managed to get down a ginger pill and salt tab. I was just hoping to make it back to that aid station where I'd gotten guacamole on the way out. My water was low again, and I was feeling seriously depleted.

Rob didn't sit down this time when we got there. He took some pickles and banana, while I threw down 2 cups of coke as quickly as I could and we headed out again. We weren't moving fast, but we didn't waste any time.

I could tell he was trying to force himself to rally. We'd been walking for a long time, but whenever we hit something that wasn't a rocky uphill, he would run, even if it was just for a few steps. On one of the gentler downhills, he ran the whole thing.

"You did so great on that!" I said, hoping it wasn't annoying. I reminded myself of Fezzik, from The Princess Bride, when he congratulated Westley for wriggling his finger after he'd been mostly dead.

Rob was able to run more and more. In fact, on the rugged descents, I was no longer keeping up. He would go on ahead, but I would catch him as soon as we hit an uphill again. He was coming back to life. I began to wonder if he would drop me-- certainly a very real possibility if he got a genuine second wind. I looked at my watch-- 3am. If I could just manage to keep him in my sight until we got to Confusion Corner again and I got onto the right trail to make it to the finish line, I think I'd be fine on my own. Anyway, less than 2 hours until it would be light enough that I could turn off my headlamp.

We got to the Bluff aid station and I didn't believe it. According to my watch, we still had over almost 10 miles to go, but the map showed Bluff 7.6 miles from the finish. I asked a volunteer, and she told me, yes, this is Bluff. We only had 7.6 more miles.

This changed everything.

We had been barely hanging on to the edges of 24 hour pace-- going by my assumption that my GPS was correct. But it must have been off a bit, what with all the trees. Now all of a sudden, 24 hours seemed a lot more likely. I checked the time. I can't remember exactly what my watch said, but I think we had around 2 and a half hours to go 7.6 miles.

Hang on, just hang on.

Rob was on the edge, and so was I. Nausea was taking hold, and I hadn't eaten in a while. I got a salt pill out of my pocket and tried to swallow it, but it came right back up on the trail, along with some of the aid station coke I'd just drunk. This was no good. I needed something to get rid of the nausea, but there was no way I would be able to swallow a ginger pill. I opened my last ginger capsule and poured the raw powder onto my tongue, then flushed it down with water. The burning in my mouth gave me something to think about besides the nausea for a while.

45 minutes later, we made it to the aid station that was just 5 miles out. It was almost light enough to turn off our headlamps. I guzzled more coke as we ran right on through the aid station. The volunteers cheered maniacally.  "Sub 24!!" The shouted.  We had an hour and 40 minutes to do it.

"Rob, do you think you can do 20 minute miles?" I asked. The last few miles had been close to 15 minute pace, which was quicker than we'd gone in quite some time. Rob's GPS had died a while ago, and I didn't know if he knew how close we were. I didn't know if knowing that would make it better or worse.

We had reached the point of the ultra where he occasionally groaned incoherently. "Roller coaster section coming up," he said.

"That won't be as hard as what you've already done," I assured. He seemed to dread the hills, even the downhills hurt now. But I didn't think the roller coaster would be as bad. Those hills were larger, but they were smooth. And it was the gnarl that was slowing him down because he was struggling so much to pick up his feet.

He seemed to be steeling himself for the roller coaster, preparing himself for the worst.

And then he smelled the barn.

The sky was indigo and lavender. We clicked off the headlamps, and he took off at a run. He never slowed down. He ran the uphills. We were banking time instead of losing it.

Three people passed us in the last two miles, but I think it was only one runner with his two pacers. Rob went with them, and I gave it everything I had to just barely keep up. My GPS clocked us at 8:20 pace uphill-- this was a massive recovery for someone who'd pulled a couple of 30 minute mile just a few hours ago.

At last, the finish was in sight. Rob reached out for my hand and said he wanted to cross the line together.

We did it.

He did it.

Sub 24.

Congratulations, Rob.

Thanks to my in-laws for watching Will and making all of this possible. Thanks for reading. 

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What it's like being a dyslexia mom

Everyday, you send your child into harm and trauma.

You send him to people who are violating the federal laws set up to protect him.

No one believes you.

Your friends and family look at you blankly and assure you that the people harming him are HEROES. You are just being Melissa, overreacting like you always do. You are unreasonable, unfair, crazy.

You don't sleep at night because you are so fucking terrified about what will happen to him after you die.

You are all alone, screaming into the void.

You can't do it anymore, but the cost of your failure is his life.

Days since last panic attack: 0.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Eres una madre muy valiente

Leda is one of the smartest people I know.

She went to a one-room school in rural Nicaragua. About the time she would have she graduated from high school, she had her only child--a son. She was a cleaning lady at the field station where Rob and I lived for a year when I was doing my dissertation research. Leda washed sheets and scrubbed toilets. Her life couldn't have been easy.

Leda didn't speak any English, but we never had trouble communicating. She was perceptive and could read my body language, and somehow she always knew what I meant even if I didn't use the right Spanish word. She was distant kin to Simeon, the volcano guide who sometimes helped me in the forest.

She never asked me for anything, except some batteries for her flashlight so that she could safely walk home from work one evening. It starts getting dark in Nicaragua by about 6pm, year round. And it is not like there are street lights, or streets. The "road" through the village is more rugged than some of the trails I run here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. You'd want a working flashlight if you were walking on them past dark. In sandals.

Years later she asked me for 20 dollars when I saw her in Managua and she needed the money to buy life-saving medication. She was very ill. Rob and I bought her dinner that night too, but she didn't feel much like eating.  She understood me better than I understood her-- I'm still not quite sure what was wrong, and I didn't pry.

She recovered. The last time I saw her, she was healthy and well.

Leda is one of the reasons why my life was never the same after Nicaragua. I remember coming "home" to a strange world of cars and grocery stores and microwaves. I remember watching the laundry spin round and round in the washing machine at our house in Urbana, while tears streamed down my face. What would Leda think of this? She washed bedsheets by hand, on a washboard, in a sink made of concrete.

Leda figured out how to use a computer and type. She figured out how to get a Gmail address and a Facebook account. She figured out how to use Google Hangouts and Facebook messenger. We have kept in contact for more than 10 years.

Shortly after the election this past year, she texted me, asking in Spanish if my family and I were safe. I replied that we were. Leda and I had never talked about politics or religion before. I could tell she wasn't sure where my beliefs fell on the political spectrum, and I also couldn't tell hers. So I asked her what people were saying in Nicaragua about the results of the election. Her reply was something like, we are afraid many will suffer. I said, it is the same here. Then, because I was pretty sure we were on the same page, I told her, "I voted for Hillary." She replied with a thumbs up and smiley face emoji. I wondered if both of us had just been placed on watch lists. I figured it was worth it. She continued, saying that she did not have much, but if my family was ever in need, she would share with us all that she had.

I guess she never forgot that 20 dollars I gave her for medicine.

Leda also read my Facebook posts that described William's struggles with dyslexia. She looked up "dyslexia" (dislexia in Spanish) and learned about what it was. This is more than any of Will's teachers at school have done. She wrote to me and said she was so sorry for our difficulties and that she wished only the best for Rob and me and Will. I told her thank you. She wrote, "Eres una madre muy valiente."

I sat there with the phone in my hand, reading over her words again and again to make sure I understood what they meant. I was ugly-crying before I even knew it.

William had just gotten home from school and was playing with some cars next to me. "Mommy, what's the matter?" he asked. I tried to explain that Leda had written something very kind to me and it had made me cry.

"What did she say?" he asked. I showed him the phone, and I read the words in Spanish. "What does that mean?"

I told him, and then he smiled the sweetest little smile and crawled into my lap. He pressed his face against my face and whispered so that I could feel his warm breath in my ear. "She's right," he said.


A lot of people have called me a lot of things since this whole dyslexia fight began. It hasn't always been kind. Those who are supportive tend to say things like Leda-- they tell me that I'm brave or strong for choosing to fight. I appreciate this, I really do, but I don't feel that it's true. 

I am the least brave or strong person I know. And I did not choose this fight. I am backed into a corner and my child's life is on the other side. I will eviscerate anyone who stands in my way, even if it kills me.  And it will kill me. This isn't what I want. This isn't what I spent my whole life working for.  But I have no other choice. 

A few weeks ago, I contacted a local dyslexia parent support group and told them that I was considering going to speak at a school board meeting about the lack of appropriate intervention in schools and the life-long negative impact this has on dyslexic children. A few other mothers said they would go too. One of the mothers mentioned our intention to the assistant superintendent, and the reaction was very swift. Several school district officials offered to meet with us and discuss our concerns immediately. Better to keep these comments in a private room, I suppose, than in the publicly available minutes of the school board meeting.

We took them up on their offer, knowing we could always approach the board afterwards, particularly if our meeting with them did not go well. Several parents attended. I did not smile at any of school district officials. I couldn't. These are the people who are directly responsible for throwing my son's life away. These are the people who are throwing away the lives of as many as 6,000 children in the school district. Dyslexia is real, and it affects 1 in 5.

The assistant superintendent was at least somewhat receptive, which is a vast improvement compared to anyone else I have dealt with in the district. He seemed motivated by the possibility that our school district could do better than Boulder, which initiated a pilot program offering Barton instruction to 100 dyslexic kids in school. Our district currently does nothing but deny that dyslexia exists. He seemed intrigued that by providing appropriate instruction, we could lower the appallingly high drop out rate and epidemic of adolescent suicides in the district (depression, anxiety, dropping out of school, and suicide are all higher in unremediated dyslexics). He said he would get back to us within ten days. The clock is ticking. The lives of thousands of children hang in the balance.

After the meeting, the other dyslexia parents stood around, rehashing and decompressing, and marveling at how similar all of our horrifying experiences have been. There may be no other human universal. Dyslexia is the great equalizer.

The other parents all had children older than Will, and their concern was mainly about their kids entering middle school in the next year or two. Even though Will is a bit younger, it occurred to me-- none of the changes we proposed would in any way benefit him. We asked for mandatory kindergarten screening and at least one dyslexia specialist in each elementary school. I specifically demanded Orton-Gillingham instruction for every child identified who could benefit from it. 

Even in the extremely unlikely scenario that any of these proposed changes would be put into place during the next school year, Will would be in third grade. And we've already paid thousands of dollars in private dyslexia tutoring to save his life. The effort would be put towards identifying the younger kids and providing them with intervention. Will would be past it. Shit out of luck.

I realized at that moment, I wasn't doing this for him after all. It is too late for him. I'm doing this for the other kids, for the other dyslexia moms, so that they never have to go through what I have. 

It took a minute or two, for all of this to sink in.

There's this ethos among special-needs moms, or maybe all moms, or maybe all women in general, not be be seen as complaining. I've lost friends and made enemies for speaking up about what the schools in our country do to dyslexic kids. Nobody wants to go through this, to be seen as such a negative person. We'd all rather believe that schools are good, and teachers are heroes. It's easier that way. It prompts us to silence, but silence is acceptance, complicity even. And it makes every single dyslexia mom have to reinvent the wheel. We've known for decades what instructional approach dyslexic children require in order to learn, but schools simply refuse to use this. The stories dyslexic people tell about their experiences in the 1950's, 1960's, are no different that what is happening today. We've lost generations of brilliant people who were never taught how to read, and it is time for that to stop.

I'm not strong, I'm not brave, and I absolutely can't do this alone. Who is with me?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Dear William (90 months)

Dear William,

On February 12th, you turned 7 and a half years old.

Life keeps getting harder and harder every day. But I will continue to fight for you as long as there is breath left in my body.

You are so much stronger and braver and kinder than I could ever be. I keep reminding myself that, whenever I get scared.

Dyslexia is a gift. Everything is going to be fine.

Love always,

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Dear William (89 months)

Dear William,
Today you are 89 months old.

Ms. Valerie asked you to draw a picture of what dyslexia means to you, and this is what you drew:

"This is my drawing," you said proudly. I've always told you that dyslexia is a gift. I cried. Ms. Valerie hugged me.

Star Wars Rogue One came out in mid-December and we all went to see it. I loved it. You didn't like the ending. You said you liked Episode VII better. There had been a blizzard while we were in the movie theater watching it, and we came out to like a foot of snow. I'm glad your dad was driving on the way home. It was terrifying.

On Christmas Eve, we took AJ to RMNP for some sledding and ski mountaineering. At first it was very cold, but after the sun came out, you practiced on your skis.

AJ is one of your faves. You told him he's a Ravenclaw. But his wife is a Gryffindor.

On Christmas morning, you woke up at 5am.

You were very thrilled with all your presents, but especially with your Harry Potter costume (robe, wand, glasses, and Gryffindor necktie).

It snowed some more on Christmas, and you were thrilled.

"I'm going outside now, to run around in the snow with my broomstick."

You also got a chess set and you love playing chess.

We did not go to Across The Years this year because both mommy and daddy were injured. We took a couple of small ski trips instead. You guys skied, I worked on a novel.

Our first trip was to Eldora, on a very cold, blizzardy day.

When you got too cold, you came inside the very crowded ski lodge and played chess with me.

We also went to Winter Park. The weather was much better. I think they call this "bluebird skies," but I don't really understand much about ski lingo.

You and your dad left for an epic ski run about 2 hours before sundown, and it ended up taking you a lot longer than you and daddy thought it would. One of the hills was marked as "easy," but it actually was quite hard and scary. It was getting dark and the lifts had all closed and you guys had not returned. I was so worried. I kept seeing snow mobiles going up the mountain and returning with people who were injured or otherwise couldn't make it down. It was freezing cold and I wandered around, looking for you.

At last, I saw you both. You were okay. You were just scared and moving slowly. You removed your skis and ran down the rest of the way to me. I'm still not really sure what happened during those 2 hours because you wouldn't say anything other than to tell me you were cold and angry.  But the next day you said you wanted to go skiing again.

This was from earlier in the day at Winter Park.

We did eventually return to Eldora, where it was again a blizzard, but you and your dad were brave enough to ski for a while.

It's back to school now, after winter break. I miss you terribly. I don't understand the other parents, who say they are happy to get their kids out of the house send them back to school. My happiest times are when I am with you. You are the bravest, kindest, strongest person I know.

Love always,