Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Howl 2016: You might love the ultra, but the ultra doesn’t love you back

I had a lot riding on Howl At The Moon this year. It would be my fourth time running the race, and quite honestly, I was already thinking it might be the last.  It keeps getting harder and harder to get into Howl. You have to be sitting at your computer the instant registration goes live (usually sometime around Earth Day) and then click like mad to get the page to load and enter your information before all 300 slots are gone within a matter of minutes. 

I managed to do this for both Rob and me this year, I’m not sure that I’ll be so lucky in the future.  All I knew was that if I wanted to go back “home” to sea level and run a race on my kind of terrain (non-technical loop course) while Will was being cared for by his grandparents (the race takes place in Rob’s hometown), this was my chance.

Howl is an 8-hour timed ultra, meaning you run the same 3.29 mile loop (of mainly grass, dirt, and gravel) as many times as you can within 8 hours.  Or rather, within 7 and a half hours.  When there is a half an hour left on the clock, you are diverted to the ½ mile out and backs for the remainder of the race.  When the 8 hours are up, the person with the most mileage wins.  This person is never me.  But.  I have done progressively better each time I’ve participated in Howl . Last year my super secret goal was to complete 14 loops (46.06 miles), but I’d fallen short of that and ended up with 13 loops plus 4 out and backs—44.77 miles.

This year, this year, I was determined.  This was going to be my year. This was the year I would run 14 loops.

The mere thought of that was terrifying.  I knew what it had taken out of me to run 13 loops the previous years, and 14 was so at the absolute edge of my capability. Nothing could go wrong if I was going to make that happen. Nothing.  All I could think about was this Jenn Shelton quote from the documentary Outside Voices, when she’s talking about ultras (maybe it is 100 milers specifically), and she says something like, “You have to care about it more than anything in the world, but you also have to not give a shit.”

This is so true.  There are a million, billion things that could go wrong while you’re running an ultra.  Some of them you can control, some of them you cannot.  You absolutely have to be able to let it go, cut it off, jump ship, if the situation changes and what was once marginally possible becomes truly and legitimately impossible.  Otherwise, the ultra will destroy you.

This ultra really did seem like it was planning on destroying me when all week the weather forecast was calling for severe thunderstorms and heavy rain on race day.  I knew I had to mentally prepare myself to let go of 14 loops if the conditions were bad, and I had to be okay with that.  But when I woke up on race morning, the forecast had changed to: “light scattered rain.”  I stood there at the start line, trying to summon the wherewithal to switch my brain back to “GAME ON” mode.

You'll have to wait for Rob to write a blog post about his race, or maybe do a podcast about it.  This was going to be his year, too.

Pre-race. Photo by Rob.

During the first couple of loops, I relaxed at the way the terrain felt smooth and effortless under my feet.  My legs decided for me—I was going for 14 loops today.  I started ticking off the miles at around 9:45 pace, and although this was a bit faster than I needed to be going, I told myself this was wise and calculated rather than stupid.  The current situation was that the weather was cloudy and cool. These were the best conditions I could hope for all day.  Within a few hours, the heat and humidity would be suffocating, and I had no idea just how “light and scattered” this rain would be, and whether or not it would turn the trail into mud soup.  It was now or never.  If I wanted even a slim chance of 14 loops, I needed to give it to glory from my very first step.

The only problem I had during the early miles was when my scorer did not to mark me down for Loop 3, and I briefly panicked that I had just run 3.29 miles that wouldn’t count towards my total.  Howl is still old school—it is not chip timed. They have volunteers who are assigned to a certain number of runners.  These scorers put an X by their runners’ names every time one of them comes through.  When I started out on Loop 3, the volunteer sitting next to my scorer nodded and pointed to me (I thought) and said, “He’s got you, you’re good to go,” as my scorer was marking an X on the page (I assumed, next to my name).  I said “Thanks” and carried on, but when I got back, I found that my scorer had not seen me and had not marked me down as starting out Loop 3. 

The one rule of Howl is “Never argue with your scorer.”  Without arguing, I showed my scorer my GPS, and tried not to black out from sheer panic.  Luckily, he saw the mileage shown on my GPS and assumed he must have made a mistake.  (This is actually not the first time I’ve had a scorer make a mistake at Howl).  Everything was fine after that, but I made for damn sure that I shouted, waved, and heard him say my name and loop number every time I passed through.

The loops kept going by so quickly.  It was like I was eating them up.  It felt like nothing at all.  I was staying on top of hydration and nutrition with Trail Butter and Nuun from my drop bag, and then I would grab boiled, salted potatoes and water at the halfway point aid station.  By 3 or 4 hours into the race, the clouds had lifted and the sun was sweltering. I dealt with the heat by refusing to acknowledge it.  I had a system.  I would hand off my empty water bottle to a volunteer at hilltop aid station, and while he filled it, I would eat as much watermelon as I could.  As soon as he handed my bottle back, I would take off running again, now less than a mile to the start/finish area, where I would stuff my hat and sports bra with ice from the cooler we had brought.

I still felt reasonably good so long as I ignored the heat and the way I was disgusting and soaking wet from so much sweat.  It was not raining.  Rain would have been nice.  By around 20 miles, I grabbed my phone and Flip Belt so I could listen to music.  I had to do whatever was necessary to get this done.  I listened to Lady Gaga Poker Face and ran an 8:47 mile.  Good, that would help counter the occasional 11 minute miles I was putting in while walking the hill and stopping at the watermelon aid station.  I could do this.

But I could no longer ignore the deafening pain in my quads.  Dammit.  Were these muscle cramps?  I’ve never suffered from muscle cramping in the heat like some runners do.  I often have quad pain during long races, but never anything quite like this.  I refused to let go of 14 loops.  I took an ibuprofen back at our tent and loaded up on more caffeine. I was going to get this done.

The miles kept flying by.  I finished a marathon and then a 50K.  There was still enough time on the clock.  Things were going well.  I was practically the only person still running, rather than walking, on the course. But by mile 35, I wondered if maybe things were not going so well.  I decided to ignore this and keep moving forward.

Then at mile 37, the wheels dramatically and suddenly fell off.  One minute I was running, tired but resolute, and the next minute, I was at a complete stop on the trail, sobbing out loud.  Nausea clogged my ears and throat.  All the heat I’d been refusing to acknowledge for the entire day suddenly hit me, tenfold.

Eventually, I put one foot in front of the other.  I sobbed through a 15 minute mile.  Just like that, any chance of 14 loops was now gone.  I thought, you might love the ultra, but the ultra does not love you back.

When I made it to the halfway aid station, there were cups of what looked like fruit smoothies sitting on the table.  I asked the volunteers what these were and they told me strawberry margaritas. I took one and drank it.  It was cold. I moved a tiny bit faster for the next mile.  I made it into the start/finish area after Loop 12 with an hour and 10 minutes still left on the clock.  I kept going.  Slow this time.  I would finish Loop 13, but nothing more.  It would be the first Howl where I did worse than the year before.  I couldn’t think about that, not because I was being stoic, but because I simply couldn’t think.  I just kept moving.  Walking felt as awful as running, so I ran.  I made it to the halfway aid station and had coke and water. By the time I turned onto the trail that led back to the start finish area, I was moving at a pretty good pace again. 

I didn’t stop at our tent but headed straight to the out and back area.  There was still around 25 minutes on the clock.  If I ran 2 more miles, I would tie my distance from last year, and that would at least be something. 

The out and backs are my most dreaded part of Howl.  The terrain is super rutted and it’s crowded with people and everybody is completely shot by that point. I’m always worried I’ll get trampled.  But this year, I was the one doing the trampling.  I didn’t notice any ruts or roots.  I flew, dropping to sub 10 minute pace for the first time in 7 miles. There was pain and exhaustion and nausea, but I was stronger than it.  I was pure grit and guts.  I felt nothing.  I just ran.  I knew could have taken my time, but I didn’t want to.  I wanted to finish this running.

And so I did.  With 7 minutes left on the clock, I hit 44.77 miles and called it a day. 

My hands were turning inside out and all I could see in front of my face was wavy lines.  Everything that I had been holding back or pushing aside for the last 8 hours came crashing down on me.  My mother in law was standing there and asked if I wanted to go back to the tent.  Yes, yes I did.  We made it there and I face-planted in the grass and closed my eyes so that I could forget for a minute about not being able to see right and try to stave off the post-race nausea.

This coconut water will replenish those electrolytes and keep me from throwing up! (It didn't).

Our friend Eric came to the van to talk as the awards ceremony was winding down.  I was lying on the bed clutching a bowl I thought I might puke into, and I told him I didn’t know if it was worth it.  What was the point?  Rob and I, we’ve structured our entire lives around running ultras. We moved to Colorado, we bought this van.  I gave up or didn’t even try to hold together a real career.  Running comes first, in all things.  And for what? Would it mean something if I was good at it? Would it all be worth it if I were out there winning these races instead of falling apart and finishing last or in the middle of the pack?  Shouldn’t I find a new hobby or something?  This was insane.  Ultra life chews you up, ultra life spits you out.  You might love the ultra, but the ultra doesn’t love you back.

I threw up twice and will eventually lose one blackened toenail.  I still don’t know if it was worth it.  I’m not upset with myself for falling short of 14 loops.  I’m more amazed that I held it together as well as I did, that I managed to ride the fucking wave and come back to life after a massive bonk during loop 12.  I have no idea how I am going to do Javelia Jundred in 2 months.  And I don’t know whether I’ll be sitting at my computer one morning next April, waiting for Howl At The Moon registration to go live, so I can try one more year to make it 14 loops.

Thanks for reading.


Howl At The Moon, I'm not sure I have anything left to give or take.

2 comments:

angelmurf said...

You are stronger and braver and more amazing than you give yourself credit for.

Anonymous said...

GRIT! A BIT of 'piss and vinegar ', and lots of determination have been a part of you and carried you thru various steps of your life!!! I am SOOO PROUD of you , hope you know that! AND you DO NOT have to RUN 100 MILES to prove it to me OR anyone else!!! As YOUR mama I know there is no point of me trying to change your mind about your ultras!!! HOWEVER. I worry about you and what this is doing to,your body!!! AND just to pass this on ,that was handed down to me and probably generations before, YOU JUST WAIT!!! Covers lots of things!!! All I want is for your happiness and good health!!! I will always be the WIND beneath your wings! And will run along beside!! So whatever you do, be happy and ENJOY!! Take care! And stop to smell the roses ( stay out of the poison ivy) !!! PAT yourself on the back, and be proud of all your accomplishments!!!!! We ARE so proud of you"". Hugs and luv! Mama