Sunday, January 3, 2016

Chasing Down Bigfoot: The Middle Miles

Darkness fell on the next segment. Riding the emotional high of the sunset and physical energy boost of a warm meal, I ran the entirety of the comparatively short (8 miles) and downhill segment to the first available sleep station. Very shortly, this would be a nearly race ending decision in hindsight...but at the time, it felt good to trot along with gravity on my side, listening to the chatter of the folks behind me.

Opting to keep moving though the next long and technical chunk of trail in the cool of night, I used the station to eat another meal and have some preventative foot care on a hot spot under my big toe. Before leaving the station, I excitedly grabbed a piece of black olive and pineapple pizza, hardly believing my good fortune as this is my favorite pizza topping combination, only to discover quickly that jalapenos camouflage as olives when illuminated by head lamp. Ouch.

A runner who I came in with agreed that we should take on the next segment together, so I headed out slowly into the night and waited to hear Todd's footsteps behind me. My left shoe felt tight and twinges of discomfort spread occasionally across the top of my foot and ankle. Loosening the shoe seemed to help a little, but I made a mental note to change shoes at the next opportunity. Todd rejoined me just before we began climbing to the highest point of the race. Though we kept enjoyable conversation about our lives and goals for the course, the climbing was steep and slick with false summit after false summit. The moon occasionally reflected off of water below so brightly that we confused it for headlamps in the distance. Though this is typically the type of terrain I enjoy, each small downhill became more uncomfortable, until I had to admit that something was seriously wrong with my left foot. By morning, we reached Mount Margaret, watching the dawn break over a pair of lakes and looking back at Mount Saint Helens. What should have been an easy jog down into the aid station was an excruciating, nauseating experience.

From Bigfoot 200 Endurance Run Facebook Page
 I arrived in a painful fog, about an hour past our goal for the segment, thankful for Todd's willingness to stay with me when my downhill pace started to resemble a disjointed shuffle. My GPS watch died not far from the station, but I no longer cared, fairly certain that my race would not last much longer.

I love aid station workers. The slower I go, the more I appreciate them. When I race for a placing, I tend to be so focused that I miss not only the people, but the drop bags and even stations themselves. People ask me after the finish what I though to the "amazing X at aid station Y" and I respond with a confused "they had that?!" Each time I race a longer distance or with a new injury, I hear more stories, see more people, and have the opportunity to thank more volunteers. This makes every pace enjoyable and, beyond the stunning views of the mountain runs, is a reason to keep competing regardless of imperfect training or circumstances.

I feel the need to proclaim this admiration before stating that this was the worst aid station experience I've ever had. Perhaps it only ended up that way because everything else was so well organized and I saw the experience through the eyes of hunger, cold, exhaustion, personal disappointment, and pain. Regardless, I had to find someone to check me in and much time was wasted while I sat in a dazed stupor in a wet hair until a fellow runner who was injured and dropping out of the race offered me some trail mix. There was no coffee, no warm food, no one to fill water packs and prod and poke me in the right direction to restart the journey. Over an hour of empty time. I finally crawled out of my stupor, refilled my bottles, and was offered some ibuprofen by Todd's wife...possibly my two people at the moment. As I wandered slowly to the bathroom, Luis (my fellow Tucson runner) came in and I confessed to him that I wasn't sure that I would be continuing much past the 100 mile mark.

The next segment was mental and physical agony. I watched many people pass without hope of catching or keeping up. Had it not been for Cody waiting at the next station, my race would have ended at Mile 75. The thought of hobbling for over 100 miles when I already felt this bad was just not tenable. Hiking 35 miles with a companion who had slept in his car so he wouldn't miss me coming in? Painful, but doable. I certainly had enough time to spare!

Before I get into Cody's segment of my Bigfoot journey, I should admit that I am a terrible person to pace. I love team sports, but endurance is a solo thing for me and even the most lovable people just seem to distract me from where I need to be in order to have my best race. I envy people who laugh and get energy from their pacers, joking the night away. I just leave mine at aid stations... My dear friend Shawn made me promise to be nice when he heard that a mutual friend had agreed to pace double the distance I had ever run with another person. How did Cody get himself into this mess, you ask? We didn't even actually run together when we lived in the same state! Truth be told, his name popped up with a "moved to Washington, the trails are great" Facebook status on a day when I was in the midst of an "oh my God, what am I doing and why am I doing it with no crew???" moment. I shot him a message and next thing I knew, I had a pacer and no clue what to do with him. You have to know all of this, because now I'm going to tell you why Cody almost single handedly saved my race and why I would travel anywhere in the world to pace for him.

Photo Credit: Cody Cunningham
Back to the Bigfoot. By the time I got to Elk Pass, the sun had burned off the chilly fog and had marginally improved my spirits, if not my pace. Cody and the aid station crew met me with infectious smiles, offers of quesadillas and ice cream (I accepted the first, not the latter, remarkably), and a covered place to sit and ice my foot and ankle. The medical team lead, Nick, wrapped me up and agreed that it was a painful but not unstable injury. I could continue forward as long as I wanted. And by now, I definitely wasn't ready to throw in the towel. I'd at least get a new distance PR out of this! Aid station magic at it's best.

Photo Credit: Cody Cunningham
Thanks to the wrap and time off my feet, I found it possible to shuffle the rare flat portions and more efficiently hike the ups and downs at a steady 2.5-3mph average. It's not racing, but it was more than enough for Cody to realize that I could finish if I just kept moving. So we began a new trend between stations: start off strong and happy, if not fast; develop shooting pains as the inflammation increased halfway to the next station; laugh and joke between long silent pauses and hyperventilating at the top of each hill in preparation for the descent; drag into the next station with gritted teeth; sit down, eat smile; repeat. What made Cody so remarkable as a pacer for me, I think, is that he never questioned the rhythm. He allowed the silences to be painful without trying to "help." He understood that there's a time to laugh at the pain and a time to just be. That, above all else, this was still my happy place. He understood because it was his, too, and no matter how tired he was or cold from the rain, there was always a "kid in a candy store" grin behind his eyes.

In our three segments together, I slept for the first time and awoke to steady rain in the dark, we climbed rutted and rooted double track that was determined to break quads of ankles, a drop bag disappeared, I had a mild panic attack that we'd somehow missed a turn after not seeing a marker for nearly a mile, and we enjoyed a beautiful six miles along the Lewis river, complete with waterfalls.

Photo Credit: Jerry Gamez
We parted ways at the Lewis river aid station, roughly 125 miles into the course. The well stocked station met us with grins, flamingos, and time and space for more sleep. When I woke from my two hour respite, I was ecstatic to find new socks, shoes, and batteries waiting for me. Cody had tracked down Allie's van and brought them back as his last vote of confidence that I would be moving on just fine on my own.  Fed, rested, and rebandaged, I bed the flamingo and his crew goodbye with a wave of my trekking pole. (Ok, maybe my aim was a little off the fist time...two waves of the trekking pole)

Photo Credit: Jerry Gamez