Chasing demons in the desert. A race report and a tale about change!

The decision to run Javelina Jundred was made out of necessity.  After being forced to withdraw from the Gorge Waterfalls 100k in April due to some niggling IT band pain, which I didn’t want to become a full blown issue before the World 24 Hour Championships, I was left with just a few Western States qualifying races to chose from later in the season.  Although Javelina Jundred has a reputation as a well organised, competitive yet fun Halloween party in the desert I had always shied away from it thinking that frolicking in 90 degrees on exposed, sandy and rocky trails really wasn’t my kind of race.

This notion wasn’t just something I imagined either.  I spent three years as a pediatric resident at the University of Arizona in Tucson so I was very familiar with the weather and environment. I knew what it felt like to get into a car where the thermometer read 120 degrees when you turned the key.  I had a collection of water bottles with wide mouths, all the better for packing with ice as water alone became unrefreshingly tepid in no time at all.  I quickly learned not to leave a container of gummy bears in the car during a work shift as they dissolved into one big jelly mess. I also learned to dress our kids in long pants before going to the park in the middle of summer so they wouldn’t fry their bottoms on the slide!  I was way too familiar with rattlesnakes, tarantulas, scorpions and the infamous javelina who often liked to eat the flowers out of the pots by our front door.  

While I loved the culture and desert environment, my life in Washington, now six years on, was so different and I couldn’t quite imagine the new me in that old haunt. By the end of three years in Tucson I’d become a beaten down resident, an exhausted mom of two young kids and a shadow of a wife to an equally exhausted resident husband.  I didn’t exercise, had a diet that consisted mainly of Wonka candy and drank too much beer.  On one particular day in some sort of attempt to restore a healthy existence, I pulled on some exercise gear and attempted to run a few miles. However, I’d become such a shadow of the former track athlete and model student that I was in my youth that I lacked the motivation and strength to continue the process of change. This chaotic roller coaster ride threatened to continue when I accepted a Pediatric Cardiology Fellowship at UCSD.  I would struggle through twelve hour days and come home just in time to see Dave leave for his nocturnist shift all the while childminders raised our children. Sure, some couples and families function well in these types of situations but we realized quickly that we would not be the best physicians that our patients deserved, the best parents that our children deserved or the best partners that we both deserved. So at the end of 2011 we moved to Washington to enjoy the slow pace of small town living as a family with a new lease of life.

Inevitably I discovered trail running and beginning in 2014 I followed that path from one ultra distance to the next until I had finally signed up for my first 100 mile race in 2015.  I craved the opportunity to run classics such as Western States and Hardrock both requiring qualifying races for lottery entry. And so here I was, in the summer of 2017, choosing Javelina Jundred as my twelfth event of 100 miles or further and my Western States qualifier for 2018.  A hot, deceptively difficult race consisting of five loops with a traditionally low finishing rate.  And I absolutely needed to finish despite being burdened with a trunk full of emotional baggage from a past life in the Arizona desert.

As I started to prepare for the race I felt that the greatest challenge would be the heat.  I’d suffered during many Washington races that weren’t even warm by Arizona standards. So my heat training plan included hot runs, either during the hottest time of the day or on the treadmill with extra clothes and the heat turned up, sauna time and race day tactics to combat the heat.  From about six weeks before the race I began using the sauna after runs.  I spent about thirty to forty minutes sitting in 150 degrees, followed by a warm shower and slow re-hydration. Initially I followed this routine daily, then every other day and finally stopped about four days prior to the race.  Once the Fall weather settled in Washington I opted for some hot treadmill sessions with John Snow!  As for race day tactics for dealing with the heat, I learned a lot from Pam Smith’s witty and entertaining Western States 2013 race report: http://www.irunfar.com/2013/07/pam-smiths-2013-western-states-100-race-report.html. So I quickly got to work putting together what I’d joke was my Pam Smith Halloween costume for the big event. This included a loose white cotton shirt, white arm sleeves, a hat and a white ‘cool off’ bandanna. The plan was to stay wet and packed with ice during the day and then ditch the cotton at night and replace it with dry synthetic layers.

For nutrition I continued with my ketogenic diet and the race day nutrition plan was similar to my past races.  I’ve run well on about 150 calories per hour.  So on this occasion I planned on getting 80 calories in 16 ounces of Skratch Labs hydration fluid and the rest from tried and true cookies, chips and Skratch Lab chews.  I read that the aid stations would be serving pumpkin pie so I also bought myself a whole pie which no one else was allowed to eat just so I could practice ‘fueling’ with it! I knew that I’d failed at hydrating well in past races so this was another focus in my training. After some research I found an interesting review article from Asker Jerkendrup, one of the world’s leading sports nutrition experts and an accomplished endurance athlete and Ironman triathlete: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5371619/ .  It really highlighted the fact that many of us fail to realize that the gut is an athletic organ that needs to be trained for race day just as much as our heart, lungs, muscles and minds. While I would primarily be relying on fat burning on race day I knew that I could improve my stomach comfort when it came to drinking 16-18 ounces of fluid per hour and eating cookies and pumpkin pie.  So on most runs instead of being lazy about gut training I practiced what I planned to do on race day.

Next I tried to come up with a realistic race goal and pacing plan.  Looking at past results and trying to get a feel for other athletes who’d run similar times to myself in other events, I felt that twenty two hours would be a realistic finish time and maybe twenty hours if I was having a fantastic race. The idea of a ‘podium’ finish crossed my mind but winning times have varied so much through the years depending on the entrants that I really didn’t focus on this. So I came up with a brightly colored pace chart for twenty and twenty two hour pace. Having recently run twenty four hour events I hoped that I could pace pretty evenly.  However many experienced friends offered advice which included running the first lap in the cool of the morning a little faster, not pushing it in the afternoon heat and expecting to slow down during the night. So all I knew for sure was that an average pace of about 12 minutes per mile would get me home in twenty hours.  However, when I accounted for aid station stops, approximately five minutes at Javelina Jeadquarters and Jackass Junction on each loop and ‘ice stops’ at the other two aid stations, that gave me nineteen hours and twenty minutes of moving time and an average pace of about 11:35 minutes per mile.  So that was that! The best scenario pace plan.  Don’t go out too fast.  Try to stay steady.  Be patient in the heat of the day.  Move quickly and efficiently in the aid stations.   

All too soon race weekend rolled around. The kids stayed at home for this one so it was just me and Dave.  Our first time away together without the kids in 10 years! I planned on being self sufficient and pacerless during the race so encouraged him to spectate and support as much as he wanted but also to catch up on sleep, lounge poolside and enjoy margaritas! On Friday morning I did a short and easy shakeout run and felt good.  Afterwards we spent an hour or so mingling at the expo before getting a late lunch of a bunless burger and salad.  As all pre-race days tend to go, the time flew by and soon we were back at the hotel, fussing over last minute tasks and winding down for the night.

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On race morning the darkness of the start area was alive with nervous energy, twinkle lights and music. I jumped into a crowd of runners behind the start line.  The last ten seconds to start time were counted down and we were off.  I took my place in the conga line of runners and tried to enjoy the moment.  There was a hint of sunrise on the horizon and I could make out the outline of the the surrounding mountain peaks.  I remembered all the amazing sunrises I’d witnessed as a resident either driving to the hospital or waking in a call room after my night shift. Anytime the sun ascends or descends beyond the Arizona horizon the sky becomes a stunning masterpiece of vibrant color.  So I knew we were in for a treat.  

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Photo: Howie Stern.

As we all settled in I glanced at my watch to find I was moving far too fast so I pulled back on the reins and started walking the hills. Sometime after sunrise I got my obligatory nose dive out of the way falling hard on my knees.  Embarrassed I jumped up and got back to running not noticing my bloody knees until a volunteer suggested that I might fare better on my feet rather than trying to crawl on my knees! I made one stop at Jackass Junction to refill my hydration pack with a liter of Skratch Labs fluid and completed the loop in under four hours having taken in about two liters which included 320 calories. Dave had gone back to the hotel to sleep so I wasn’t surprised that he hadn’t made it back yet since I was quite a bit ahead of schedule. I quickly dropped my headlamp, grabbed more hydration powder and some solid snacks, refilled fluids and headed out for loop two.

It was now late morning and the temperature was starting to climb.  I continued to try and hold back on the pace and walked the few steeper hills.  I seemed to be tolerating about 16-18 ounces of fluid per hour along with some chews and cookies.  My main stop again was Jackass Junction where I refilled my hydration bladder (with Skratch) and 10 ounce bottle (with plain water for washing down solids and pouring on myself as needed) and restocked on Ziploc baggies full of solid goodies.  It was also warm enough on this loop to need to pack my bandanna with ice and soak my shirt, sleeves and hat at each aid station. I rolled into Jeadquarters still ahead of schedule and excited to see Dave.  He offered me some of his snacks, sushi, cheese and cold meats.  Heck no!  As we quickly refilled and restocked my pack he let me know I was in the top ten group of women. Nice!  I said a quick hello to a Washington buddy Ather, who was also restocking at the aid station. Then I gave Dave a kiss before leaving him to continue working on patient notes on his laptop and headed out on loop three.

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This was going to be the tough loop in the heat of the afternoon. My goal was to be patient, slow down as needed, walk more hills, rely on liquid calories over solids if my stomach started to rebel and stay cool.  The cotton shirt and other measures I’d taken to help with the heat had been working well but now as the temperature crept into the high 90’s I found that I had just enough fluids to make the two longer stretches between aid stations and I desperately needed ice and cold water as soon as I reached them. Although I let my pace slow naturally, my stomach held strong and I told myself that the perfect pace for this loop was sub-nausea pace.  And so I survived the hottest loop a little sluggish after all the sun exposure but really not too worse for wear. Dave was ready with my drop bag again.  I changed out of the cotton shirt into a polyester tank, grabbed a long sleeve top, headlamp, more solid goodies and refilled my fluids. I was still ahead of 20 hour pace and probably 5th female at this point.  A quick kiss to Dave and I was off on the 4th loop.

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Photo: Howie Stern.

The sun set, painting another masterpiece in the sky. I picked my way over the trail in the half light until the beam from my headlamp became useful. For the first half of the loop I continued to feel a little sluggish after all the sun exposure during the afternoon. However I was thankful that my legs felt really good and my gut was cooperating. I slowed down on fluid intake just a little becoming somewhat tired of the taste of my hydration mix.  So instead I opted for more water and a little coke or ginger ale at the aid stations. At Jackass Junction I decided to grab a second light for my waist feeling that the improved visibility would help with keeping a better pace.  The desert came alive with lights on this loop.  Runners and their headlamps moved in both directions and the glow of aid stations was visible on the horizon long before they were reached. Pleasantly surprised, I found myself running more on this loop. Mostly because the temperature had dropped but also I kept my head down a lot so as not to blind oncoming runners with my headlamp beam.  This meant that I didn’t see the uphills as I approached them and continued running.  My legs felt good so I just dropped the hill walk breaks altogether.  While there was plenty of company from other runners on the trail I occasionally found myself alone in the darkness with the silhouettes of giant saguaro and mountains on the horizon. Those were some of my favorite moments. Those, and that split second I nearly stomped on a tarantula in the middle of the trail but successfully adjusted my stride mid girly squeal, thus saving his life! I rolled into the last aid station of the loop to find Sage Canaday serving cups of soda but by this point I’d realized that a sub 20 hour finish was possible so I quickly grabbed a ginger ale and got on my way! I reached Jeadquarters happy with my pace but feeling like I may have drifted backwards a little in overall placement.  However, according to Dave I was now 4th female and gradually gaining on third.  Larisa Dannis was running an amazing race in first place and Dana Anderson, last year’s winner, was running strong in second but that final podium spot was still up for grabs. My mind registered the information but since my time goal had been a priority over a finishing position goal I seemed to continue to focus on that. With my pack restocked I gave Dave one last kiss and headed out on the final loop.

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Photo: Howie Stern.

As the bright lights of Jeadquarters gave way to the darkness of the trail I started to form a plan in my mind. There were still almost twenty miles to go.  Don’t try to pick up the pace straight away I told myself, just stay strong and steady, run the hills and start pushing after Jackass Junction. I knew that my full bladder and water bottle should get me around the loop without taking the time to refill so l’d just supplement these fluids with some cups of soda or water at the aid stations. I’d continue to alternate oreos and ginger snaps because well, they never failed me. Dang! I’d forgotten all about the pumpkin pie!  Well it was too late at that point.  I wasn’t going to try something new on the last loop.  I passed quickly through Coyote Canyon aid station just slowing down enough to hear Sage chatting about some runner who liked to run races without even carrying a handheld water bottle.  Then back into the darkness.  Stay steady.  Run the hills.  Cool, my legs still felt pretty good!  I rolled into Jackass Junction, grabbed a drink and a cookie and told one of the volunteers that I was done with my drop bag so that it could be sent back to the finish. That’s when I heard another girl tell a different volunteer the same thing. Huh!  Who was she?  She had a pacer with her.  Not a 100k runner.  So was she the third place female that I’d caught up to or the fifth place gal that had caught up to me?  Either way it was time to go! I left the aid station before her. Crossing the timing mat, now in third place, I unwittingly sparked late night excitement among a bunch of online followers. While I wasn’t quite sure of the identity of this runner it seemed that both she and her pacer knew who I was.  They injected some pretty impressive speed moving around me and heading down the trail. With still over ten miles to go I knew it was too soon for me to commit to the chase.  Today and on many occasions in the past I’d seen runners make premature moves that fizzled out and were unsuccessful. So I continued alone as I lost sight of them in the darkness. But they knew exactly where I was as the beam from my headlamp chased them along the trail.  I knew I needed to run through the last aid station.  But then my headlamp gave me the warning flicker that the batteries were about to die.  Decision time!  I had the waist light but what if those batteries died too?  It could happen!  But even if they didn’t the increased visibility from both lights was really helping me to move faster.  So I decided that I’d stop for a second so one of the volunteers could grab my spare battery and I’d change it on the go as I left the aid station.  Then I saw Jason, another Washington friend, sitting in the aid station looking miserable. He introduced me to his pacer, Chad who grabbed my battery for me.  As I changed it out I stood and chatted and heard how Jason had been having a rough day with nausea and vomiting.  Okay, not what I’d planned but taking a few extra minutes to chat to a friend having a tough time seemed like the right thing to do. I wished him well and reading the sign that said 3.7 miles to the finish I felt as if I could cry with excitement.  So I dug deep.  I was going to make it under twenty hours. How close could I get to nineteen and a half hours!  Keep pushing!  Could I catch the girl and her pacer?  And what position would that put me in?  I still didn’t know! Whatever! I was going to achieve my ‘A’ goal, finish and get a Western States qualifier.  I was also going to achieve my best scenario ‘B’ goal, a twenty hour finish.  So anything else would be an added bonus. Tearing down endless, winding trail, I ran the hills, pushed through the sandy washes, passing runners along the way.  Runners on their fourth loop but not my gal and her pacer!  Keep pushing, it’s less than a 5k now! And then I saw the glow of Jeadquarter’s lights and heard the boom of party beats! I gave it one last kick as I looped past all the tents lining the path to the finish. Dave greeted me as the clock read 19:33 and change.  The gal, Stacey Buckley and her pacer were still standing by the finish having crossed the line in third place less than a minute and a half before me!

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I cringed just a little as this realization dawned on me.  But in all honesty I’d have had to force myself to feel any lasting disappointment, just as a person might force the flow of crocodile tears by thinking about a lost puppy.  I was just so excited to have run a well executed race.  The training and extra preparation had paid off and I had succeeded in running nearly thirty minutes faster than my best scenario finish time. But more important than running well, I’d come back to the desert as a completely different person, physically and mentally healthier and stronger. I didn’t just run a great race taking three hours off my trail 100 mile personal best.  I’d proven that I was capable of changing my life for the better and through dedication, motivation and consistent hard work, I went from struggling to run two miles in the Arizona desert to six years later running 100 miles and finishing fourth female and twenty fourth overall in one of the biggest 100 mile races in the country.  So, in future I will continue to strive to be the best version of myself that I can be. Because by continually competing with others we risk becoming bitter but by continually competing with ourselves we will surely become better.         

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Photo: Howie Stern.

  

 

 

 

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