Thursday, December 10, 2015

Chasing Down Bigfoot: Day 1...ish

The wide double track allowed us to space out in pods, all moving at a brisk hike or slow trot. I listened quietly to the Tahoe veterans, trying to learn by osmosis how to finish a 200 mile foot race. This race still didn't feel like mine, so I would have to create it along the way.

Photo Credit: Ross Comer
Quite suddenly, the trees ended and opened up into a wide expanse of talus boulders, a veritable playground of ankle-twisting cooled lava creations strung together with fence posts and flags to mark the general direction of the "trail." To call this section technical is an understatement, though it could have been more challenging if straight up hill in the dark on ice while chased by an actual Bigfoot. Without a doubt, this was an adventure, not a race, not even a run. After two large talus field crossings, we enjoyed a flowing downhill reprieve into the first aid station. Our line got caught in the beauty and easy trails, allowing ourselves to run faster and stretch through the switchbacks, just slow enough to continue conversation. The purple tank top and multi-colored shorts in front of me belonged to a woman named Tina. She was a finisher...Tahoe 200...Hardrock 100 (x4)...and about seventy other endurance trail races in the past fifteen years. Beyond that, she had a perfect record as a pacer, always getting her athletes to the finish line in time and in one piece. Listening to her stories, I heard my father's advice in my head. Emulate, Kate, emulate. 

Eating at the first aid station, it was a surreal moment when Candice, a living legend in my house since her record breaking Wonderland Trail adventure in September 2012 (check out her stories at, asked how I liked her course so far and whether I needed any ice. "It only gets better," she promised, after I gushed about the technical and panoramic beauty of the first 12.5 miles. My mind was also eased as Allie, the other Tucson runner's fiance, met me with a grin and assured me that Luis had made it on the trail and I'd see her for refueling as planned.

So began our first long segment, a soul testing finish to the "warmup" 50K. It skirted much of the way around Mount Saint Helens, along the Lewitt trail, across rivers, up and down scree slopes with the help of a belay rope, and mile after mile of punishingly slick ash that saw me on my seat (sometimes voluntarily) more than once. This segment was hard, so early in the race, because of the forced slow going for everyone, ash-induced blisters for some, and my own personal fears about sliding. Where some embrace the uncontrolled downhill scramble, others of us put on the brakes as we lose more and more control. Physically, that doesn't really help, and unfortunately, the early stress of overuse of these "brakes" under the volcanic base would haunt me for many miles in the not-so-distant future.

Photo Credit: Ross Comer

I arrived at mile 32 to a hike-in aid station out of water, starving, and well behind any 50K pace I had ever run. That segment broke us in, for most, or merely broke us, for a few others. I remember smiling briefly as another competitor complained about the hot and dry of the ash crossing of the dead zone...not compared to the Tucson deserts this summer, was all I could think in reply. In a way, that section and the complaints were a comfort. Perhaps my training, though less than ideal for the scope of this adventure, had really just been for this one small piece of the race.

The next segment was my first completely alone. At first, it felt hard to move forward out of the ash, but as the trail climbed up Johnson Ridge and the sun began to turn the mountains a brilliant orange, I was filled with a combination of joyous energy and nearly tearful sadness that the impending darkness would block my view of the scenery. This same combination of primal joy and sorrow greeted me at each subsequent sunset. I laughed for no reason, running along the ridge to the observatory, passing "Very Dangerous" trail warning signs on feet that felt almost light. Veggie burgers with homemade guacamole rarely taste so good as when you're sitting in a camp chair with freshly cleaned feet, new socks, and a top of the world view before heading out in the very last ways of darkness.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Chasing down Bigfoot: Prologue

Writing about my Bigfoot 200 experience is a little like cleaning house. Look at any flat surface and you'd think I needed to relearn the definition of "organization." Open a drawer, however, and you'll see everything in perfect and repeatable order. Look in my closet, and you'll see every piece of clothing arranged by type and time of year it's to be used. Take a gander at the shelves, and you'll find the DVDs in alphabetical order and the books arranged by genre and author name. It's not that I don't like things to be in order (or at least that's what I would explain to my mother), it's that things are either put away or they aren' half way, no in between...and so things build up until I'm ready to put everything away the right way. And so it is with Bigfoot. I feel a responsibility to either write about it "right" or not at all...and since I work a full time job and happen to have a rather time consuming set of active, living in the moment hobbies, reliving it for you all at once may never happen. Instead, please bear with me as I follow the advice of those who excel in keeping a tidy house: Break it down into manageable pieces and the task won't seem so big. If I were creative and had it all written out to dispense in teaser bits, I'd start with Part 3 or something, just to make you all confused, yet engaged in true George Lucas style. Alas, I am not...and Star Wars did that better than I would have anyway. So, welcome to Part Zero. 

The magnitude of the Bigfoot 200 experience makes it hard to sit and write about. There isn't one single lesson learned. There isn't one single dominating feeling, though at the end all those emotions briefly faded in comparison to the joy of crossing the finish line. Most of all, it does not feel at all like the solo effort that races in the past have been at their core. 

This part of the story begins at the airport in Tucson, where thankfully I made it through two rounds of security with my expired temporary driver's license and birth certificate. From there, I took a plane to a train to a bus (Dr. Seuss would be so proud), to spend the next two days with my buddies Trey and Ryan in Issaquah, Washington. Within a few hours, I found myself caught up on all the Uphill Running gossip from my three month absence and in possession of 2.5 new pairs of shoes for the race. When you plan to be on your feet for four days straight, traditional rules for breaking in equipment tends to go out the window. Also, for anyone who hasn't been vertical for that many consecutive steps, gravity and the rules of circulation make things like feet swell over time. Why the half pair? Trey was kind enough to send me with an extra extra pair on loan, just in case. If you're ever in Issaquah, do yourself a favor and stop by the Uphill Running shop. Tell them Kate sent you, and they'll probably offer you a beer...or just be share your story and have a conversation and they'll probably offer you a beer anyway.

The next day, I hijacked Ryan and his car in return for a breakfast stop on our way to Monroe to pick up a car from my wonderful friends and former landlord/lady (is landpeople a thing?), Alan and Heidi. You may be able to get through airport security with an expired temporary license, but companies frown on renting you a vehicle. Grocery shopping done, bean burritos made, further visiting had. To add some functional component to the remaining day at my favorite bachelor pad, I cleaned the inappropriately green fuzzy things out of the fridge and made enough French toast, scrambled eggs, and sweet potato hash to feed a small army...because, let's be honest, that's the real way to show love to a bunch of people who run up mountains for fun. Before leaving, I promised Trey I'd share a beer with him as soon as I got done, however many miles I ended up completing, whatever time of day or night. His return threat to only partake if I crossed the finish line was probably an empty one, but I'm only a little embarrassed to admit how much it motivated me to keep putting one foot in front of there other in the coming days when I couldn't come up with many other reasons to do so. 
 Thursday afternoon was filled with race meetings in the little town of Randle at the White Pass High School. A pit opened in my stomach as soon as I parked the car, which only got bigger as I fumbled through my drop bags and cheerfully asked the pink trucker's hat wearing gentleman (Yes, Phil, you get to be a gentleman for my story) next to me, "Any second thoughts?"

"Nope, I just finished Badwater and the Colorado 200 last month. My feet are a little sore, but it should be a good time."

Oh...shit. I'm in a place where even the normal looking people are actually running gods. 

It's a good thing my response to fear is to become very quiet and still whilst considering my options, because otherwise I might have started running a dark place to hide and say "Just Kidding!!" when asked about the concept of running 200 miles. Instead, I coerced my facial muscles to produce some vague form of smile or grimace by the time the pink hat turned back around. Then, all real prep work done, finding food to put in that ever growing pit seemed like the only reasonable task to keep from pacing in circles all night. Yep, food's a pretty big theme in my life. When in doubt, eat. Forty driving miles later, I was back at the campsite in possession of my Last Meal: a Subway egg sandwich and a bag of yogurt covered pretzels.

Nothing left to do, staring blankly at the Runner's Manual, I started writing down aid station distances and cut off times on my left forearm in permanent marker. I don't typically carry course descriptions, or even read them in detail before a race...something about taking the magic out of the exploration, I guess, but looking down at them, the task seemed just barely manageable. It reminded me of a chance remark from my first 50 mile race in December 2012. Trish turned to look at me as she paced the last fourteen miles of the course and said "you know, it's really amazing that even when you're coming off an injury or things don't go as you planned, you never have to worry about cut off times."

 Though I'd set up a tent, my anxiety of missing the early morning bus ride to the start had me trade a cramped position in the borrowed car for access to a cell phone charger for a fitful night of almost sleep, dressed in everything but my bib number (#73) for the next day.

Morning came, as it has a habit of doing, so cold compared to my desert training ground that it was hard to move in spite of my refreshed nerves. We boarded the school bus and began the winding drive to the start line. Conversation ranged from silent contemplation to booming and enthusiastic discourse of adventures past. The handful of 200 mile veterans were a welcome and stolid presence as well all wondered what the inaugural course would bring. The statistics alone set the Bigfoot 200 apart from all but the very most super human foot races, yet here we were, a bunch of very human folks without the benefit of morning coffee, ready to make an attempt.

At the Marble Mountain Sno-Park, we unloaded and dove at the provided spread of food and coffee (!!) with vigor that nearly matched the race's namesake. Resigned excitement began to join the knot of nerves in my least I had enough time to use the restroom before the starting gun, right?

"Luis Leon, please come check in!" Called Candice, the Race Director and living legend in my household for the past three years, naming the other Tucson runner.

No Luis meant no Allie (his lovely fiance who had graciously agreed to move some of my spare equipment between aid stations to lessen my self-crewed burden), so I said goodbye to my sunscreen and bottle of contraband ibuprofen, leaving the backpack I'd hoped to send with her with the pile of things to return to the finish. It was too late to worry whether I'd see the other resupply items (shoes, batteries, spare food, etc.) I'd left in her care. I'd simply have to adjust to whatever happened. Now that we were in the final countdown stages, it was all just part of the race experience.

Pictures taken, we counted down the ten seconds to "Go!" and trotted leisurely to the double track entrance of our Mount Saint Helens partial circumnavigation through a chorus of cheers and GPS watch beeps. A hairy fellow with large feet chased us out with a growl and a wave. Now, it was just a matter of one foot in front of the other. This was what we did. We were home.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Taper

Relentless forward progress is the art of finding finding oneself by becoming lost to the world... 

The taper. The dreaded calm before the storm of your big goal, your day, your race. It's a terrifying and frustrating time in an endurance athlete's life when, instead of enjoying our reduced energy output and increased healing time, we put that energy into holding everything together as it seems to be falling apart.

We feel the physical pain of old and new injuries that come on without cause or explanation. My knee hasn't hurt this whole training season, yet I limped up the stairs while listening to it grind on Saturday night.

Our mental demons pop up and remind us how much that daily dose of endorphins helps us through the day. For me, it's a slide into the trap of diminished self-worth and self-love. It manifests with a need for companionship and spontaneous affirmation (my profound thanks for those who unknowingly provided just that over the past two weeks, you are a daily blessing in my life) , which I am objectively aware is a response to my rejection of myself. While I enjoy good company, I only crave it when no longer at peace with myself. In turn, I become someone who I respect and enjoy spending time with less... And the vicious cycle becomes hard to break.

Sometimes, luck and all things out of your control seem to take advantage of the fact that your guard is down. So while you use your suddenly old, aching, and fat 28 year old, 130lb, ultra runner and fighter body to stare down your self-worth demons, your truck breaks down, your clothes get stolen, and your replacement driver's license gets lost or delayed somewhere in the mail.

Tapering almost makes running a 200 mile race seem easy by comparison, right?

Last Tuesday, after the "Go get up and run you lazy girl!" voice finally won over the "Just stay under the covers... And maybe eat some cookies" intonation, I ran up the road to Mt Bigelow under brilliant blue skies does with white clouds. As I neared the crest, I could hear the faint echo of thunder. Staying at the top, there was a wall of black on one side, allowing me to have one outstretched hand and rain and the other in sun. It was like standing in a real life analogy of dark and light, if climbing a hill only to have a storm. And yet, all I could do was smile and turn my face up to feel the contrasting breezes of dry warmth and cool damp. You probably know by now that I love running in the rain. Especially in the mountains. It fills me with joy as each step feels like an accomplishment; as the tactile stimulation of each raindrop grounds me and tells me Be Here, Be Present, Just Be, This Is Real, You Are Real, You Are Enough, This Moment Is Enough. For an instant, for a series of moments, for a ten mile loop, the trail of the taper cycle is broken. Soaked to the bone and sliding along rocks, I am light and beautiful and alive and free.

Some day, I would like to say that I respond to the things I cannot control in the same way I do getting caught in a thunderstorm. Right now, getting stuck in the taper blues tells me I'm not there yet, but today it's raining hard enough that I can feel a smile building and am ready to make my own luck on the way to a great adventure.

Bigfoot 200, here I come!

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Are your dreams big enough?

"Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." ~Helen Keller 

Once the precedent of pushing limits is set in our lives, of identifying fears and facing them with a touch of masochistic glee, it is nearly impossible to remain content with remaining where we are, regardless of what we have accomplished. And so, it is only in natural progression that, having completed the once far off goal of running a 100 mile mountain race, this formerly red-faced and miserable Physical Education participant would train for a new race over double the distance (Bigfoot 200-August 2015). That is a long, long way to go on foot, and I am excited to learn whether this time I have finally chosen a physical challenge too big to finish the first time around.

To dream dreams with the understanding that failure is real option, and to strive forward whole-heartedly anyway, is one of the bravest (and possibly stupid) things humans can do. Evolution selects for those who avoid risk, who embrace the negative bias; joy and growth select for those who place the potential for more over survival. As a rational person, a scientist, a doctor, it is hard to make high-risk life decisions. Since last writing, an attempt to do just that resulted in two cross-country moves, bringing me back to where I started (fortunately physically, more than mentally) after an all too brief taste of the Cascadian wild. I’d like to believe that the search for physical failure is teaching me to be more accepting and loving of the professional and personal failures in my life, to view all aspects of life in the way I feel about a challenging solo climb with hail stinging my face and the rocks dissolving under me. Without my most recent “failure,” I may have never had the freedom to volunteer 50 hours of trail building time, eaten lunch on Mt. Rainier after learning to snowshoe, sang around a campfire with new and hopefully lifelong friends until well past midnight on New Year’s Day, or come back to the desert with renewed appreciation of the people and experiences here, but it’s never easy.

Another Tucson runner offered the following advice regarding my next race adventure “Just will and plain stupidity to finish is all it takes.” So cheers to dreams that are too big, to will, to stupidity, and to change!