Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Chasing Down Bigfoot: The Final Chapter

Entering the track with Jim Julian
Photo Credit: Samantha de la Vega
Water refilled, I thanked them and waved goodbye in the pre-dawn glow. Jim hiked back up with me, apologizing that he couldn't join me for the rest of the trek. Thirty minutes up the trail, the GI purge continued, and would at 15-30 minute intervals for the rest of the course. Jim bid me farewell when we met up with Susan and Reed on their own descent into the aid station. Though the company had kept me awake, I was glad to be alone with the consequences of my dietary indiscretions.

Over the next few miles, the sun rose to reveal a beautiful meadow in the midst of a comparatively mild climb to the final summit. Now out of danger of being pulled in the last stretch, I let the exhaustion sink in and allowed myself the luxury of a fifteen minute nap in the pink glow along the trail, breathing in the fresh air and wishing I could smell the wildflowers around me.

Finish line with
Photo Credit: Samantha de la Vega
The last peak summit soon followed and from there it was a downhill obstacle course of fallen trees. You think it's hard to navigate a log or two at the end of a 50K? Try out 50 or 100 after 180 miles. Honestly though, the debris didn't bother me so much, as it kept me awake and gave me a reason to focus on something other than my injury or exhaustion. The real trouble began when the "easy" part started. The trail petered out to a forest road and I watched as a horrified bystander as my bowels, temperature regulation, and ability to stay awake all seemed to revolt at once. I'd overhead, get chills, squat to feel my now empty stomach and intestines cramp, force myself to hobble faster to a given point, and slap myself awake when I had been still too long. The distance crawled by and I couldn't believe the final aid station hadn't appeared. All I wanted was to reach that aid station...because I knew my drop bag had wet wipes. Yep, wet wipes were my number one desire at that moment, which is saying something for someone who loves beer and ice cream and sleep as much as I do.

Photo Credit: Howie Stern
At last, the mostly cleared picnic table appeared and I barely looked at the two volunteers as they informed me that the official cutoff had passed a few minutes ago. I left with my precious cargo and a wave for the final stretch into town.

Once my feet hit pavement a new rhythm began. Shuffle until you have to walk. Walk until you have to stop. Stretch out against the poles. Fall asleep in that position. Wake yourself up. Repeat. It sounds awful, but the time was almost peaceful. Thanks to the wet wipes, my shorts were no longer so uncomfortable and the chills/sweats had abated. This segment did contain one very lucid hallucination of the road being blocked by a herd of cattle, but I knew that imaginary or real cows couldn't pull me from the race, so they didn't worry me.

Photo Credit: Jerry Gamez
A few miles from the end, a vehicle stopped on the shoulder and I knew before seeing him that Jim Julian would be inside. Sure enough, he got out and started walking. Less than a mile later, the head medic, Nick, dropped off another pacer named Peggy and together we marched on. I remembered seeing Peggy at the pre-race meeting some days before and thinking that she looked like the type of person I wanted to be friends with. In my haze of exhaustion, I think I forgot that we weren't actually friends at all, but I can tell you that my gut instinct was right. With the two of them sharing stories and buffering my path from passing cars, I no longer had to take stopping breaks until the last half mile. In response to the pavement, my feet began to swell inside the shoes to the point where it felt like walking on pillows that stab your soles. I listened as they talked about building things, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and home cooking, reveling in the realization that I could let these people be with me and support me without shame or guilt. It was joyous and humbling and made me more than anything wish to give back and support someone else on an epic journey.

Photo Credit: Jerry Gamez
The high school track finally appeared and Peggy asked if I wanted a beer at the finish. She ran off to fetch it and declined the hug and thanks I tried to offer...not until the finish line, she admonished. Soon, Jim left me too, and the music played as I "danced" and "jogged" around the track with Little Foot close behind.

What seemed like an army of people cheered and made a tunnel at the finish, Candice at the front and Peggy waiting with the promised beer at the end. It was over, I was the final finisher (DFL) following roughly 105 hours on course, and I had never felt so proud and part of something great in any time I'd walked away from a race with a podium finish. I had found the people, the adventure, the limit I had looked for since starting to run not so many years ago.

Finish line with Tina Ure
Photo Credit: Jerry Gamez

Epilogue: Time doesn't stop at the finish line, though it sometimes feels like it should. Becoming re-acclimated to "real" time took a bit longer than expected...leading to a missed flight and my friends again coming through to save the day. It pays to have friends with connections at airlines and ones who will literally give you the shoes off their feet when you can't find yours at the airport (thanks, Ryan and Trey!). You also sacrifice time with injury, which is why it must be a personal choice to continue with unknown consequences. For those who want to know, it took about two weeks to not have constant foot and ankle edema and a whopping eight weeks to have close to full range of motion in my left ankle/foot again. It still has a big knot of scar tissue at the foot to ankle junction that is likely to be a permanent change in my anatomy.

The elevation profile from all those peaks and valleys also made a permanent physical change in the form of a tattoo that spans my upper back, so more than scars and pictures remind me of the lessons learned and stories gained on a daily basis.

By far what I think about most when I look back at the four days of the Bigfoot 200 is joy and gratitude. The awe of beauty at the edge of reason and limit, mixed with the fierce desire to give back. Thank you for being a part of my story and allowing me to be a part of yours.

Happy Trails!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Chasing Down Bigfoot: The Beginning of the End

I followed Jim Dees' (also known as Darkling Thrush) dulcet tones through the woods for some time, straining to hear until they faded into the distant sound of running water, breeze through the trees, soft tread of my fresh shoes on the pine needle floor, and rhythmic click of poles.

Warned that there was a long climb ahead, I drank and washed my face in the winding river tributary. The climb was long, but not terribly steep in my now time adjusted memory. It leveled out high on a panoramic view just before sunset. To get a better view, I climbed a little higher off course for a picture, turned on my headlamp, and said "hello" to another night. This night blurred in and out of focus, punctuated by the sudden development of nose bleeds (a new life experience) and the need to watch out for cars on a network of forest roads.

For once, the aid station appeared earlier than I expected! Following my "feet up, eat, get going" plan, I chatted with the one conscious aid station worker and stuffed my nostrils with paper towel wads until the dripping stopped. It was a short distance to the next station and next planned sleep opportunity, so my mood was great. In fact, I had decided since midway through my time with Cody that I would be in a great mood for the duration of this time on course...whether time ran out, regardless of pain or weather...that I didn't deserve to be on this trail if I couldn't smile or feel the joy of it.

One of the questions I sometimes get is "how do you run safely on the trails after dark?" I have to say that when you're sleep deprived, it's actually far more dangerous running in the dark on roads. The trails keep you interested and awake(ish) and give you borders. It's something like bumper may not roll a strike, but at least you're not ending up in someone else's lane. Moon lit forest roads, on the other hand, turn you into a ping pong ball that bounces from side to side across the road until a car comes and encourages your sense of self-preservation to kick in.

I learned an important lesson at the Chain Lakes station. Bad sleep can actually make you more tired than shuffling around in the dark. My mattress choice was a poor one, so I ended up on a deflated rubber mat in a frozen daze 90 minutes later. Temperature regulation goes out the window when you sweat a lot and don't sleep enough. Phases that felt like too much tequila, followed by teeth chattering like a Christmas movie, eventually resulted in a return to decision making ability. Enough coffee could revive the dead, I think. More coherent, I noticed Allie's van and was delighted to get a fresh set of batteries for the final night, as well as my own resupply fuel options.

About a mile back on course, it hit me how much energy I had used getting warm again. I was exhausted. A tree crashed in the woods and I imagined what it would be like to be squished by a brontosaurus... Then promptly fell asleep on a log in the warm glow of the morning sun. Fifteen to twenty minute power naps in the sun do more than 90 minutes of frozen dozing. Lesson learned.

No longer worried about dinosaurs, the trail spun down a winding track. It was hard to find a rhythm, though because my temperature regulation still wasn't cooperating. One minute, I'd be sweating profusely like a menopausal hot flash. The next, I had chills and goosebumps. After hours alone, I heard chatting behind me. An older competitor, Reed, and his pacer caught up and I used their rhythm and conversation to revive my own forward movement. Just a bit of human contact was enough to clear the cobwebs and I suddenly felt strong power hiking back up all the elevation we had lost early in the segment. Together we hiked up to the expansive view of Elk Peak, then scooted down to the third to last aid station, just ahead of an ominous mountain storm.

At Klickatat, I felt awake and finally ready to get going on finishing this course. Kent "Bull" Dozier, another ultra distance legend, came p to discuss the weather report, a lost runner, and his and Phil Nimmo's decision to drop due to foot issues. While sad for their shortened adventure, this knowledge armed me with additional motivation. No matter how slow it was, I could smell the finish line and had a plan to get there. I had been right not to quit all those miles ago.

Storm subsided, I followed Reed and his new pacer (his lovely wife, Susan) into our last sunset. This part of the course had been reverently dubbed the "Bigfoot Game Trail," and it quickly lived up to its name. It wound across the side of slippery, gravel strewn longer single track, but a choose your path of lease resistance and hope that it led you to the next marker. Reed and Susan had gone ahead during a downhill portion, so I crawled and slid and marched and scrambled alone, watching the cutoff grow closer, knowing I couldn't go faster and I had no room for error. Later, I heard many people talk about time spent lost in this for over 18 hours, another who slept overnight on the ground with her pacer after becoming confused and sliding partially down an embankment. Why didn't I lose the trail? I think it's probably because I was no longer willing to second guess anything, because it would break my concentration. I willed the next marker to appear, because I had no time to turn around and add superfluous steps.

The single track finally reappeared and my best guess of distance left me with a good chance to make the Twin Lakes cutoff with about ten minutes to spare. Suddenly, I saw a headlamp coming toward me, then turn back around. The mumbling I heard sounded like Reed, but Susan wasn't in sight. As I got closer, he said something confused and incoherent, looking ten years older than when I had last seen him seven or eight hours before. Fortunately, Susan appeared up ahead, and I felt a stab of guilt as I passed, knowing that his race had come to an end.

Not far past them, I made a left turn onto a trail that I though marked about three miles to the station. Forty five minutes to cut off...tight, but I could get it done. Then, my heart sunk and unexpected panic began when a sign appeared thirteen minutes later. THREE MILES TO GO. I hadn't put together a ten minute mile in over 100 miles! I was going to get cut with less than a marathon to go and more than twelve hours to complete it in.

Not caring the consequences, I literally hauled myself down the trail, throwing my poles in front of me and launching forward with my upper body strength, letting my feet find any landing place possible. It was reckless, stupid, but I wanted to arrive at the station having given everything if this was my end. I would go out fighting. Five minutes, four, three, two... the aid station lights were visible, but I wasn't going to make it. An exodus of my friends...Jim Dees, Stephen Jones, and others who had become friends simply because we were on the same journey...came from the station toward me and cheered that I was still going, even as my heart was breaking.
Twin Lakes Aid Workers-Photo Credit: Jerry Gamez

At the end of them was a man I didn't recognize. He pulled off trail and followed behind me, telling me to walk instead of continuing my awkward pole vaulting gait. He introduced himself as Jim Julian. He'd paced the first place woman (Gia Madole) and was now working the aid station. He was sure that Craig would let me keep going. My panic only slightly abated and Jim received about half of my attention as he rambled on about all the things this aid station lead had done that made him a regular bad ass. All I cared about was the fact that this one person was in control of when my race would end.

Five minutes after the official cut off, I came into the Twin Lakes aid station. Craig Longobardi took one look at me and said I was good to go, but that I couldn't sleep. The workers commented on how coherent I was...being an emergency veterinarian makes you a very good actor when tired. (I probably shouldn't admit how easy it is to convince someone to let you make life and death decisions when sleep deprived.)

Photo Credit: Jerry Gamez
Since they couldn't offer sleep, I think I became Craig and Jim's project to get to the end, so they were going to feed me. Halfway though the second plate, laden with every vegetarian option available, I realized that they may have killed me with kindness. Midway through a bite of artichoke dip, I felt the gastrointestinal rebellion and barely made it to the porta-potty before the diarrhea began.

Yep...I'm going to leave you with diarrhea before I finally wrap up this Bigfoot story. Somehow, it seems appropriate. Sorry, not sorry.