Often, it feels like the last few years have been a mishmash of nonstop work, races, rushing from planes to meetings to class, logging long hours at the computer at night to keep up with everything, and then runs pre-dawn. I struggle when it comes time to drop everything, pack up, and head to a race, and yet I do, because I know that there is always a learning at each event – always something new for me to grasp and accept and take away with me. I have never completed an ultramarathon race feeling like the same person that I went into the race being. I grow softer, lighter, freer, and more in tune with life. Not only do these races remind me of the how wonderful people I do life with are, they teach me that I am stronger than I think I am.
I needed to run Javelina Jundred this year – which doesn’t mean that I wasn’t scared to run it. The last few months have been one of those intensive phases of transition for me – not only have I decided what I don’t want in my life, but I have taken actions to clear the way for what I do seek in my life. Running a 100 miles in the Sonoran desert at McDowell Mountain Park in Arizona meant time away from the endless emails, from the always-growing to do lists; time away from all the responsibilities that pull at me daily, and a chance for me to stop and think and feel. Time to turn off and tune in. JJ was my 1st 100 miler in 2011; it was my 4th 100 miler in 2012, and in 2014, it would be my 14th. I couldn’t wait to get out amongst the Saguaro Cactus, the canyons, the great wide open, and lose myself for a bit – take it all in, be, and experience. When my dad and I arrived in Arizona on Thursday, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be.
1st loop: 100 Mile Hoopla
This year, 500+ folks would be running the 100 miler at JJ, which meant a large crowd at the 6 am starting line. I am a more-the-merrier type of person, so I loved that there were massive troops heading out on the trail, but those first few miles it was a bit tough to navigate through the clusters of runners and find clearings in which to run. A few miles in, as the sun rose, its picturesque orange-pink hue layering the mountainous sky-line, a scattering of mountain bikers heading towards us appeared on the trail, which meant some careful navigation around the rocks, cactus, and crowds.
The 15.3 Pemberton Trailhead loop was all that I remembered: the climbs, the rocks leading to the first aid station at Coyote Camp, then uphill rocky climb, leading to the sandy washes, the dips and more climbs before you drop down to the midpoint at Jackass Junction, and then onward into the sandy section, full of twists and turns and downhill’s, heading towards Rattlesnake Ranch aid station, from which you run 1.5 miles through sandy hollows until you are back at the start/finish line: Javelina Headquarters.
Each race has its cast of characters which you play a game of leap frog with for the duration of the race – runners who match your speed or race agenda – and their presence becomes a driving force of your race, as in, if you don’t see them for a while, you are either pushing ahead, or falling behind. The characters of this race included the three young shirtless guys with wrist tuxedo cuffs from Idaho (many folks at JJ run in Halloween costumes due to the proximity to the holiday), a man in a Hawaiian shirt who often ran with them, a guy who wore a long, curly blond wig and black fitted outfit; Gordy Ainsleigh – as in Western States founder Gordy; and the amazing and colorful Catra Corbett, who had told me at the race start that she was injured, and that it would be a slow one for her. I would see these folks for the next 28 or so hours, with one of the shirtless guys dropping out.
I hit my goal of finishing the first loop in 3 hours, which was a relief, but I was feeling a little beat. Likely a mix of pre-race adrenaline crash, and the realization that I would need to keep pushing for at least another 24 hours. As always, I was thrilled to see my dad when I crossed through the start/finish – he was already settled in to hang out race day mode.
2nd loop: The Great Wide Open
By the 2nd loop, the sun was in full bloom. To me, JJ has one of the most majestic courses. The towering mountains, the looming cactus, the great wide -open expanse all around. It is awe inspiring to me. Little me in this great big world. I feel close to my mom out on Pemberton Trail. It is like a stadium of life and there I am in the middle of it all, looking up and around at the magnificent views: the sand, the rocks, the sky in abundance.
I had taken my headphones and music out with me for this loop. It is not something that I typically do in an ultra, but with that backdrop, I craved a soundtrack. As I climbed and descended the trail in the counter clockwise direction en route to Coyote Camp, I blasted Trevor Hall’s “Chapter of the Forest” over and over. Its earthiness seemed to fit with the scenery. With no one in sight, I stopped and took it all in, spinning round. There is something magical to being alone on this course at random points, feeling so far away from my own reality, so immersed in nature. I cried for my mom – how close and far away she felt. I thought of my sweet Buddhi cat that had passed, too. The ups and downs of life, the peaks, the lows – the course reminiscent of life, of the journey, of surviving and surpassing. Moments such as that make these races worth it for me – the feeling of oneness with myself, with the universe. I feel alive in a way that makes me aspire to be better, to do better, to keep going and pushing and loving it all. I feel deeply grateful to be alive, to have a body and mind that keep me moving forward in life, to have great friends to share the journey with.
3rd loop: Redemption
I got the first of my many second winds on this loop. Moving back in the clockwise direction – my favorite—I felt strong, and so happy to be out there running. I was exactly where I wanted to be in my life, with nothing else to do and nowhere to go, but forward. As I approached Jackass Junction, I became aware that I was leading the troops when a 100K runner coming in the opposite direction said, “Girl, do you have any idea how many people you are leading!” But I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to see who or how many were behind me. I knew it could disrupt my euphoria and make me lose my confidence. I listened to Simple Mind’s “Alive and Kicking” once, again, another three times and I felt it in every ounce off my being – I was grateful for the gift of running, to be part of the world, to be taking it all in. Complete and utter euphoria is the only way I can describe it. I felt sure of my footing, strong, and like I could keep pushing the uphills and gliding the downhill’s, darting around the rocks and gaining speed. I was loving the obstacle course of the trail.
I led the troops for a good 45 minutes until the three shirtless guys passed me with the Hawaiian- shirt guy in toe, and then I fell back into my own rhythm and stumbled on to the aid station. I met up with my new friend Chris right after Jackass Junction. I was in take a break and walk mode, but he told me to come with him and I did. He pushed me forward, running at intervals and then taking a few minutes to walk. I didn’t want to know his timing strategy, because sometimes I am better off if I let someone else worry about the timing. There was a magic to this loop: about a mile out from Coyote Camp AS, we came upon the ice pop man. In the heat of the day, there was nothing better than helping myself to a cherry ice. And Chris pushed us on. Sometimes you share some of the journey with a person and it calms you inside, even though you are pushing. Chris had that effect on me – he was steady and strong and had a positive and joyful attitude. We hit the start/finish line (45.9 miles) in 10:35, which felt like a steady pace for me. I got to see my brother and his family when I came in – always a high to see folks cheering you on and know that my dad was in good hands. And then I was off!
4th loop: Am I still in a race?
Although it was not yet dark, it was clear that nightfall would hit in the midst of this loop, so Claire, my pacer, opted to join me as I went back out on the trail, counter clockwise direction. As soon as I was with her, it no longer felt like I was in a race. I didn’t pay attention to who passed me, who we passed. We opted to walk for a bit – I had plenty of time and recharging at this point seemed like a good idea as I got ready for the night. Our speed-walking pace still managed to keep us in a grove and we even passed a lot of folks. We had discussions on our lives, relationships, we pondered who in the world would be interested in taking naked yoga, and we were even ambushed more than once by the runner guy with his butt cheeks hanging out with some sort of arrow drawn on his flesh—who needed to see that? When nightfall came, we put on our headlamps. It still didn’t feel like we were part of the race. This was gossip, catch up, hang out loop and I enjoyed every minute of it. I knew that at some point we would need to pick it up and begin to run, but walking, talking, taking it all in was perfect. We got through it a bit slower than my other loops, but with nightfall, I knew that I was likely to slow down a bit.
5thloop: Killer Cactus
This was the long and winding-road loop, complete with the cactus horror show a la Chris. There we were, chatting away, laughing, and having fun, when we caught up with Chris and his buddy who was pacing him. One moment we were talking – he was telling us about his destroyed toes—and the next minute he swung his hand right into a cactus. Imagine the world stopping for a moment as he pulled his hand away, two cactus balls imbedded in it, with a third cactus ball imbedded into his calf. He was in immediate pain, and as we all looked on, horrified, he attempted to pick one bushel out, only to cover his clean hand in prickles. Painstakingly, he pulled one cactus ball off, then the other, leaving behind cactus prickles on his hand, which was shaking. He hadn’t yet touched the calf bushel. The moments were tense, and we agreed that he should walk back to the aid station, which was yards away. Cringing in pain, he complied and made his way back.
The image of the killer cactus imbedded in Chris’s hand stayed with us, and as we charged forward, Claire and I were careful to stay in the middle of the trail versus the borders, which were lined with cactus short and tall. Later, the memory of Chris’s cactus horror would spur hysterical laugher.
This was my hardest loop; I was beginning to get tired, and cold, but I knew that if I was warmer, I would grow more tired. Sometimes in an ultra, cold is good through the night, as it keeps me alert and moving. The conversation continued – I don’t remember what we were talking about a lot of the time – family, more relationship talk, discussions on the past, the future, and at some point Claire began to have some discomfort from a hernia operation she had a month back. I was at that point of an ultra when more things ached and hurt than not, so it was easier to forget everything and just move forward; I felt slightly discouraged, but determined.
6th loop: Alone but not Lonely
We decided for this loop that I would go it alone. Claire was going to rest for a bit and recover. Off I went, counter clockwise, alone but confident. Strangely, I was not worried about getting lost. This was a first for me. My biggest concern and fear for every ultra is getting lost at night.
I doubt myself so often – whether it is about writing, or running; about my corporate career or taking a chance in my personal life. These races, as silly as it may sound, enable me to recognize my strength, allow me to overcome the quitter in me – that faint little voice – that tells me it’s okay to stop, that none of this matters, that I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. While all of those statements hold merit – in reality, these races don’t matter and I don’t have to prove myself to anyone—I do have to live with myself, the shortcomings and all. When I quit, I am giving in to the doubt, the fear, letting all the vices of my mind take over, put me in a corner. The ability to go on, to endure, uncovers that element within me that is like granite, unbreakable and strong, that enables me to experience who I am at my core, what I am made up of. None of these races get any easier, but they help me to see the proverbial light, and to acknowledge, or perhaps to accept, that pain and discomfort are short lived. That life shifts. The course shifts. I shift. There will be highs and lows and everything in between, but if I can endure, find comedy in the moments of suffering, peace in the lows, then anything is possible, both on the trails, and in my life.
7th loop: Uphill Battle
The endless uphill of misery. It is fascinating to me how the last few miles of JJ feel as if they are going on forever. And ever. This year, as Claire and I climbed, I really thought it was impossible to go on. I wasn’t beat, I wasn’t hungry, or tired or anything, really. It was just that the runners ahead of us seemed so impossibly far beyond, and I could not imagine that I had to keep moving upwards. For me, at that moment, nothing could compare to tedious nature of the climb. The journey felt pointless, until all at once, we hit the turn for the Tonto Tavern and I knew that it was almost over! Joy and salvation that I had made it that far.
A few more miles on runnable, sandy switchbacks, and then, the final .8 mile up and downhill until we crossed the road and made our way to the finish line. There was my dad, waiting patiently for me to come in, and then, it was over! I sat down for the first time in 28 + hours. Nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Finishing an ultra, for me, is both uneventful and the most complete and wonderful feeling. After all of that pushing, you no longer have to push. For the next hour or so at least.
This race was a blend of no big deal – a lot of forward motion that didn’t require much thought—and struggle. There were so many moments in which I felt that I couldn’t go on. There were times when I wished I could just transport myself off the course. How would I ever finish? How would I ever get through it? But then the forward motion aspect would come back, and I would clock miles free of thought.
This was the first race that didn’t feel sick of myself or bored with running. I had trained alone more often than not for the 7 weeks leading up to this race – a choice for me. I sometimes feel that the true training comes from the mental aspect of being alone – of knowing what it feels like to be alone in my head for so many hours. The monotony of it. The ability to change the channel of my brain without external stimuli.
My biggest success of the race was that I didn’t get nauseous. No stomach issues. I used Tailwind after the first loop, when I felt myself getting light headed and dizzy from only being able to get two gels down. Once I implemented my Tailwind program, I never looked back. I put two scoops into my handheld every time I hit Jackass Junction and JJ Headquarters. I didn’t use endurolytes and didn’t really need food, although in the middle of the night, I began to pick at some real food – potatoes, two mini milky ways, and vegan pretzels.
Finally, these races do not happen without the support of so many amazing people, from the race directors, to the tireless aid station volunteers, to friends and families that spend endless hours of waiting around. I am forever grateful to my dad, who has seen me through every one of my 100 milers with a smile on his face, and to friends like Claire, who take a time outs from their hectic lives to come and help me to survive! And of course a race would not be complete for me without seeing my inspiring fellow Floridians out on the course – knowing they are out there with me, giving it their all, makes it all worthwhile.
These races help me as I navigate and plow my path – they strip me of my fears and doubts and demons, and teach me that I can endure – that I can keep going. I hope to be able to run many more.