A thick layer of ice coated the windshield when I started the van at 4:00am. I pulled on my running clothes. The forecast for race day looked wet and cold. I drove to the mouth of Proctor Canyon and haphazardly threw a few extra layers in my start/finish tote just in case. I glanced at my watch. 4:57am. I should already be lined up. I grabbed my stuff and sprinted across the field just in time to hear the race director say, “Anyone who thinks they can win this race should step up to the front now. 10, 9, 8…”
I started making my way forward and found myself squarely in the middle of the pack by the time I heard, “3, 2, 1, go!” I had no idea who the lead group was, or how many were in it. I didn’t feel stressed; I registered for this race to be a training run. The entire course rests between 7,000-9,000 ft, has 14,000+ ft of gain and loss (which is respectable but not outrageous), and takes place early in the season. My only concrete plan was to run hard. I did not even start my watch – I wanted to race whatever pace “hard” felt like, without expectation.
150 runners shuffled in silence up the dark ATV trail leading into the canyon. 101.6 miles to go.
We turned onto single track and began the first climb above 8,000 ft. Temperatures plummeted. A thick frost bedazzled every pine needle and fallen leaf, and the ground itself grew white and sparkling. The rim of the canyon was capped in snow. At first, the altitude didn’t bother me. It felt like winter.
This year the course was a 50M loop repeated, but the first twenty five miles are radically different than the back twenty five. The first half summits two gigantic canyon walls and casually tours the top of a plateau. The course follows gradually inclining or declining fire roads with meadows in the foreground and snowy blue mountains in the distance. The first half is scenic and easy; I finished a trail marathon in just over five hours, even with the climbs.
The second half is wild. Rich red single track weaves along towering bright walls and in between striped hoodoos. The last twenty five miles feel like remote backcountry peppered with half-molded goblins out of orange clay. The trail is never flat and wanders every which direction, at every other angle, ceaselessly.
The first loop went ideally: I hoped to do it in twelve hours, and I came in three minutes after. The rain predicted blew in as gropple, which I’d infinitely prefer, and quickly disappeared beneath sunshine and warmth again. The sky gradiated from blue to gray to blue every hour, and I took my gloves on and off a dozen times. Many runners complained about the unseasonable cold, but as a Minnesotan I did not mind it.
I even secretly liked the snow, although it did mash into the trail to form a sticky clay that caked my shoes (or as one instagramming ultarunner put it, “my thicc bois are getting thicker!”).
Even when a storm cloud blew through a valley and the wind raked through my shirt, the course wound along rock formations or below ridges enough to keep the weather bearable. I passed a few people, and I think a few passed me. I had not caught up to the lead pack, but it was still early in the day. The field felt isolated and widespread.
At the end of the first loop, I stayed extra long at my tote and double checked that I was ready for a cold night alone. It would certainly drop below freezing in the early hours of the morning. I washed my feet and brushed my teeth. I wasn’t leading, so a few extra minutes wouldn’t matter. I realized I had forgotten to pick up my headlamp at the previous aid station as planned since it was well before sunset, so I borrowed a dollar store headlamp from a volunteer. I would hardly have to use it, if at all, before I got to my next drop bag in eighteen miles.
I set out again and instantly felt sick on the first climb. Nausea pummeled my tender sides and settled to rot in the pit of my stomach. Mile 55.
The altitude killed the second time. At 8,500’ my heart hammered uncomfortably against my breastbone and my temples throbbed. I closed my eyes and felt them bulging against my eyelids in rhythm with my heartbeat. I tried to slow my footsteps, but I simultaneously wanted to push myself. I reasoned that the more I hurried, the sooner I could descend.
By the second climb I started coughing and gagging. I knew I had lost my stomach. I started thinking how pathetic it was, barely halfway through the race, to be nauseous and walking. You’ve done this before, you should know better. Look at you. Look how slow and miserable you are.
Red flag. I recognize that voice. That rude and blaming devil rears up when I don’t have enough calories. I smirked a little; I knew the problem and now I could resolve it. Desperately I tried to sip on Tailwind and gulp a salt pill in hopes of balancing out before I reached Blue Fly; my hands and belly were swollen and soft. Running turned to marching.
When I finally reached the aid station, none of the warm food was ready and my pack was still full of Tailwind (frozen potatoes and crusty sandwiches did not sound appetizing). I estimated that I had plenty of calories, hydration, and electrolytes in my pack and I shouldn’t waste my time waiting. My second poor conclusion of the afternoon.
As the day wore on, I got sicker and sicker. The next nine miles of shuffling and walking with a rock in my stomach reminded me why I typically only carry water in my pack. More than once I had to duck into the woods in a hurry, and more than a hundred times I tried to run but was choked back by a wave of nausea. Even the downhills wouldn’t go. Bile welled up in my throat and I swallowed it back down sourly. I kept coughing.
The sun sank behind the pines and I was alone in the meadow with the worst headlamp on earth. A beautiful white full moon illuminated the empty gravel stretching ahead. Besides the occasional accidental step in a puddle, I could manage. I tried to keep up with another runner and his pacer, but even light jogging sloshed my guts. They gave me two Tums and a heap of pity, and I watched their lights bounce off into the distant pines.
I looked up at the moon. You told your friends that you were looking forward to things getting hard so that you’d have to dig deep. Liar. You can’t do this. You’re not a 100 miler. The devil came back to walk with me. For sixteen miles we walked together.
I had no light. I had no company. I was irritated with myself. I was 60ish miles in and struggling badly. I couldn’t even run my training race well. My dream to finish the Triple Crown of 200s was pathetic; no one as foolish and weak as me could ever do it. I told myself I would finish this stupid race and then quit; I’d confess to my friends that I was a fraud and I had no business being out here. There are runners who register for a hike with a 36-hour cutoff, and that is a legit style of ultramarathoning. That style is also not mine, at least not right now. I came to run hard. I drove 1,223 miles to race.
I had two equally miserable choices: quit or hike forty miles. I knew I would hike, but I did not want to. The big dipper glittered above me. Stupid stars. Stupid everything.
At the East Fork Aid Station, I was welcomed into a cheerful glowing tent filled with shaking, freezing people. “I need some help,” I told one of the volunteers. I needed to start eating and drinking again, and I needed to have water in my pack instead of Tailwind. Tommy looked me straight in the eye, nodded once, and disappeared with my pack. Suddenly I had a lap filled with quesadillas and soups and hand warmers. He dumped out my drop bag at my feet and told me to assess what I should pack and wear for the next leg. I felt childish asking for someone to help me fix my problems, but I also felt too sick to care, not unlike other times in life I’ve needed help. Tommy smiled reassuringly and said we all sit in that chair sometimes. I thanked him, put on my headlamp and pack, and headed back down the dirt road.
It still hurt to run my all day pace, but I didn’t have the black swirling angrily inside. My body was starting to calm down and normalize just minutes out of the aid station. I looked at my watch. It was 10:30pm. My headlamp flickered and died. It was going to be a long road.
I was eager to get to the next aid station; not only because I needed a headlamp before I hit the single track again, but I knew my friend Barkley from Moab 240 would be captaining it. My excitement to see a good friend faded into a discouraging, endless climb. I made the final turn up to the tent, but I didn’t recognize anyone and disappointment piled on my shoulders. I walked toward the light of the fire and suddenly Barkley was beside me. I hugged his waist and looked at my feet. “It got gritty,” I told him, “and my headlamp is dead.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and held me at arms’ length. “You’re the second place female,” he said in a gentle voice, “and first place female is asleep in that car.” He pointed.
“That’s impossible,” I shot back. I quickly fumbled to calculate the last nineteen hours and how many people I’d passed and how often I’d been alone. I’d been shuffling. I had been depressed. There was no way I could be in the lead.
I didn’t deserve it.
He and Melissa gave me broth and a light. I was finally peeking out from the low. I had never felt such a cloud like that during a race, especially not for several hours. Typically I laugh my head off and find too many interesting people to meet and swap stories with. I do not muck around in self-talk.
I was suddenly eager to leave. I felt bolstered and confident in a genuine way. I had been convincing myself that I was failing.
Maybe I wasn’t.
Barkley walked out with me, lockstep, until the glow of the aid station had disappeared and the ponderosa pines stood over us. We saw two small yellow headlights bobbing toward us. “Go,” he encouraged, “Win this thing.” I grinned and ran off.
I ran hard. I can say truthfully that I ran every single small hill, every downhill, and every flat. I worried that the woman asleep in the car, the one who had led the entire race from the beginning, would wake up and hunt me down. I ran both with ecstasy and fear. I did not have to run faster than her, I just had to hold her to my pace.
Red Canyon is a small five mile lollipop-shaped offshoot on the course: it’s steeply stacked switchbacks and slow. When I returned from the loop, I asked the volunteers when the second place female had come through. She was less than an hour behind me. Third place was just over an hour. I chugged a slushy Red Bull and flew. Thirteen miles to the finish line.
How had my worst night racing turned into my best? I laughed out loud. I had fire in my veins (and a calm stomach). The moon illuminated the trail and hoodoos kept me company.
At the next aid station, I waved to the volunteers trying to stay warm in their trucks and ran straight past. The sun was beginning to rise; this was nearly the homestretch. I popped a salt pill and munched my frozen Clif bar. It was hard to swallow, but I kept chipping at it. I stuffed my frozen pack straw down my shirt to thaw. No more mistakes.
I thought of my friends at home, and I missed them. I thought of the year I’ve had so far; it, too, has been a heavy cloud just starting to lift. Maybe it could break into the best. I wondered if I could really pull this off. I heard Barkley’s voice: Go. Win this thing.
The end of the loop is a bitch. I said it. It’s an enormously messy climb with a steep descent slammed against another wicked climb. You have to surmount the canyon walls before lowering into the valley and following the road out.
It was 8:00am, and the half marathoners were running toward me. I wanted to shout, “How many of there are you!” (with perhaps an explicative or two). Laundry detergent-smelling neon people sprinted down past me as I clawed my way up to 8,100′ again (breathing like I was drowning). I was annoyed. The trail was flooded, and I was so close to the end.
Someone recently asked me if I cry during or at the end of my races, and I said no. Almost never, if ever.
The half marathon leaders were long gone and I butted into the main pack. Every single one cheered, congratulated, high-fived, patted my shoulder, stepped off the trail, or told me I was amazing. A few women said they were proud of me. One man smiled and bowed dramatically. One took a photo of me. “You go, girl! First female! Rock this. You’re strong. You can do this.”
I started choking up. Tears pooled in the corners of my eyes. I am sure I was overly-tired and probably starving, but that mile or two of constant encouragement is forever branded in my memory (I’m sure I grunted and half-nodded like a troll, but it settled deeply within me). All I had to do was get down, and I would be at the finish.
I kept running. Every few minutes I’d have to walk a few steps because I was completely sapped of energy. Then, I ran again. This race was my life. I clicked through my watch settings and it showed 166,000 steps. What a strange moment of perspective: so many tiny things had accumulated into this gigantic ending and location. I reflected again on the year I’ve been living. 166,000 steps.
The final arrow pointing left directed me off the road, out of the canyon, and into the green sunny field. The finish line was quiet and modestly welcoming. I did not mind. I was not there for them. I saw my ending and I took it.
Someone far away whistled, and just like that, it was over.