What does not destroy me, makes me stronger.
Or so says Nietzsche. This could be one of the quotes for those going through cancer treatment, the treatment needs to be strong enough to kill the cancer but leave just enough life for the patient to survive. Sometimes it was the mantra running through my head when times turned tough. The other quote that kept playing through my head is by U2:
There is no limit
There is no failure here sweetheart
Just when you quit
And this year quitting was not an option. A lot of support helped me survive this race, from those who donated to LIVESTRONG in support or in memory of someone, from phone calls and emails, to those friends who actually drove up and experienced a crazy bunch of people running through the wilderness.
I learned a few lessons in this race. One of the most important is that seconds matter even when running 100 miles. Around mile 97, close to 3:20 AM and deep in the woods, I’m comfortably cruising downhill in 7th place. Twenty-five minutes later, I’m running as fast as I can, trying to outrun a runner not far behind me, just so I can stay in 8th. My pacer, Julie Fingar, a well known ultra runner who agreed to pace me the last 25 miles, is right on my heels and telling me to run, run, run! We are flying until I take a right turn off the trail to cross a wooden bridge and trip in the dark, skid face down on the bridge only to see 8th place pass me about 200 yards from the finish. After 100.4 miles, it comes down to a sprint, at 3:45 AM, in the middle of nowhere.
We finished in 22 hours and 45 minutes, in front of a tireless crew (Michael & Sara Thompson, Robin Marcus, Susan Hee and Nicole). It felt so good to have this one done. The course is 100 miles but it is also in some very high mountains and most of the day and night is spent between 8000’ and 9000’. Click here for my elevation chart.
Luckily, there are some trees along the way and nice views of the lakes and valleys so it looks much better than the chart. Pretty soon you discover it takes a little more energy to run up and down the hills when they are a little bigger and the air slightly thinner. I burned nearly 12,000 calories throughout the run which means a couple extra M&M’s this week. It takes me about 3 hours to run 26 miles on normal road course. It took 4 hours and 30 minutes to run the first 26 miles in this race. And at Snow Peak summit (9200’), there is not a lot of margin for error. A very steep drop parallels a narrow single track trail for nearly 2 miles. Running this section in the dark is an experience not easily forgotten. Then you head down the mountain and into the woods, dropping 2000’ feet in about 4.5 miles. After 90+ miles, your legs are so tight that every step produces a sharp pain. But walking will only prolong the agony so it’s “Let’s run and get this over with.” Today I’m paying the price. My legs look like two swollen hot dogs dangling from my body. Did I say the race was awesome? Unbelievable.
The definition of C.R.E.W. is Cranky Runner (or Rider depending on the event), Endless Waiting. For Nicole and the 4 friends who came out and supported me, they endured a lot of waiting. The course is pretty remote and there are only two places accessible by car: the start/finish and Mt. Rose. These guys met me at 9:30 AM, at 1:30 PM after hiking 4 miles uphill, then again at 9:30 PM and greeted Julie and me at the finish at 3:45 AM. Yes, that’s 3:45 AM after driving/hiking up and down the mountains and around the lake all day. They constructed their own finish line banner, signed by friends from work. They even tried to sleep in the back of the cars during the night section and used car alarms as noise makers. They did whatever it took.
We were back in Truckee around 5 AM and sharing stories over morning coffee 4 hours later. We were all back at work the next morning. Unbelievable.
The highlights? This race is tough. There are some tougher ones out there but this is the hardest one I’ve ever done. Last year, 40% of the runners didn’t even finish. I had planned to run a specific pace and not get caught up with chasing the leader(s). After the first hour, I was in 3rd. My heartrate was leveling at around 150 BPM and I was feeling comfortable, talking on and off with the leaders, Jasper and Sean. There are a few sections along the course that really take it out of you and probably the biggest one is Red House Loop. It comes at mile 11 then again at mile 61. It is a 6.5 mile loop that drops about 2000’ into a valley and then you have to come right back up. Your legs are pounded going down and your lungs burn on the climb back up. I think it is the most common place for runners to drop. And doing it at mile 61, alone and tired, forces you to think, “What does not destroy me…” or you start heading the other direction as start thinking, “I think I’d rather go home now.” From there, you climb to the top of Incline Village and over to Mt. Rose. This is a 9 mile stretch with incredible views of Lake Tahoe and Nevada. After 26 miles, you arrive at Mt. Rose to the sweet sight of your crew, fuel up and turn around and go back. This time you skip the Red House Loop but you have to climb up and over Snow Peak Summit. It’s a 50.2 mile roundtrip and you run it twice. Like I said. Unbelievable.
So really, the whole point is to get through Red House Loop twice and into Mt. Rose before dark where I can refuel with the crew, reenergize and pickup my pacer, Julie. But Red House Loop is where I dropped last year and this year I finish it but I’ve got this funny, squishy feeling in both my feet. I think my toe nails are falling off and I still have 33 miles to go. I take a seat at the aid station at 6:30 PM (currently in 4th place), not really wanting to take off my shoes and see what’s going on. But I know I need to do something. I take inventory and can see two of my toe nails are in bad shape. Luckily, there is a podiatrist working this aid station (what are the odds?) and she goes to work on my feet. Thirty minutes later (now in 6th place), my feet are bandaged and I’m heading to Mt. Rose.
The next 9 miles are tough. I’m passed by another run and his pacer on the north side of Incline. The sun goes down and it is hard to keep myself motivated to run when everything hurts. Finally, I pull into the Mt. Rose aid station. Everybody is there and I eat and drink as much as I can. But it is hard to stomach anything. I’m hungry but don’t feel like eating. I’m thirsty but anything I drink just comes right out in the next few minutes. The friendly faces provide as much strength as the food. Julie and I bundle up, turn on our headlamps and head out. We cover the next 9 miles in 2 hours. It took me 3 hours to do the same stretch on my own just a couple hours before going the other direction so we are moving at a good pace. I’m feeling much better. But I spend too many minutes at the aid stations, trying to drink at least one cup of broth and eat something solid. These minutes don’t seem to matter now, but they will in the end. The climb up Snow Peak takes a toll on me. A few times I have to stop for a minute just to catch my breath. I feel like I’m falling apart. I’m winded like I’ve never been winded before. Atop Snow Peak, Julie forces me to eat and drink more, but I’m just not wanting to swallow anything. Nothing sounds good. My stomach doesn’t know which way is up and I need to head off to the bushes for a quick break. We have 7.5 miles to go, all mostly downhill. The run along the ridge in the daytime is spectacular. At night, exhausted and light headed, it is a little scary. We run as much as possible but after slamming my toes into rocks or sliding off the trail, we walk a minute so I can gather my senses. Julie keeps telling me to drink and passes me a pretzel every 10 minutes. That was our deal. A bite of food every 10 minutes.
The descent down to the finish came down to seconds. About 3.5 miles from the finish we see a light above us through the trees on one of the switchbacks. A few minutes later, the light passes us and we exchange congratulations. There went 7th place. There is an aid station 1.7 miles from the finish. We stop there, take a sip of a Coke and a bite of an Oreo for a quick sugar rush. We pull out of the aid station and hear the awful sounds of another runner coming into the aid station. Julie’s saying we gotta fly and that’s what we try to do. Unfortunately, it’s not fast enough. It’s hard to describe the sensation of running as fast as you can when you’re dead tired. You’ve fed your body every lie in the book to reach this point and it just doesn’t want to listen to you anymore. But we are so close. And we are running through the woods, over rocks, through bushes and can only see a couple feet in front of us. Exhilarating. We reach the wooden bridge and can see the lights of the finish, but my foot catches onto something and down I go. If only the race was 100 miles and not 100.4 miles.
I ran with my thoughts for most of the day. The first hour I just thought about the day and tried to mentally prepare for the journey. The next few hours I thought about the people whose lives had been touched by cancer. The next couple hours I thought about Leslie Grey and Len Sprotti. Leslie was Randi Vessels’s sister and she died at age 39 after a 4 year battle with breast cancer. Len was Randi’s father and he died at age 72 of liver cancer and a brain tumor. Over the next couple hours I thought about Susan Hann’s mom, Joesphine Horner and what she had to endure in her battle against lung cancer. She passed away at age 46. Julie Ridenour donated in memory of Debbie Bridges who also died from cancer. And Robin Marcus donated in honor of her grandfather, Alvin. Jana Kyntl donated and she is a cancer survivor. Susan Hee donated in support of Debbie Gurnett. I’m sure we all know a few people who have had their own encounter with cancer.
I thought a lot about my mom and her own battle with breast cancer. I remember at about 9 PM, about 20 minutes from Mt. Rose, I ached. But I suddenly remembered sitting in a hospital room with my mom as they drained over a liter of fluid from her lungs. At that moment, I knew I should have the strength to keep running to the next aid station. And I thought about new life and living and experiencing the fullness of life. I thought about Nicole and our baby and friends waiting at the finish. You think about a lot of stuff.
Thank you for your support. Most people don’t understand what a run like this is all about but even if you don’t understand it, I appreciate your support and concern. It’s about living, suffering, endurance, friends and learning a few lessons along the way. In its most basic form, it is simply a race from point A to point B, with lots of high and low points along the way. You strip away a lot of the comforts and you are left with some shoes, socks, shorts, shirt and a couple of water bottles and some friends to help offer you support along the way. It doesn’t change who I am. I wake up the next morning with the same problems I had the day before (plus a little extra soreness). But it changes everything about me. In less than 23 hours, you can learn a lot.