Monday, March 16, 2009

An ultra post for an ultra run

Warning: you are about to read the entire low down of my race experience. This post was written more for posterity than for the few morbidly curious souls that will actually read the entire post. Proceed with caution in reading my ramblings, interspersed with Switchfoot lyrics from The Beautiful Letdown album, as it practically took me as long to write this as it did to run the race.

“When I wake in the morning
I want to blow into pieces.
I want more than just okay, more than just okay.”

I was up before my alarm was supposed to go off at 6:00 AM. The familiar “zzzwwwrrrrr” of the grinder and the welcome smell of coffee let me know that Poetroad was already tooling around downstairs. Breakfast was waiting for me downstairs too. Gotta love that guy!

“When I'm up with the sunshine,
I want more than just a good time
I want more than just okay, more than just okay.”

D-man volunteered to be our chauffer for the day, and he and Irongirl picked me up at around 6:40 AM. We had just enough time to drive to the Cool fire station and pick up our race packets before the race began at 8:00 AM.

“When I'm up with the sunrise,
I want more than just the blue skies
I want more than just okay, more than just okay”

The sky split open with pinks and oranges as we headed East on I-80. I was glad for the beautiful distraction. And then we had to stop in Auburn to get gas at 7:30. I was a little worried that we wouldn’t get to the fire station in time before the check-in cut-off, which was at 7:45. But, lucky for us, D. sped through the hair-pin-turned, winding, eight-mile trek from Auburn to Cool like a maniac.

We made it with minutes to spare. What was I worried about?

The start of the race was fairly casual as the first section of the course was easy going. While we hit a few rocky downhill jaunts, the up-hills were tame. Even so, Irongirl and I parted ways at about mile 2 – at the very first hill. I’m sure I heard her bleating as she pulled away from me and eventually merged into the heard of runners in the distance.

“I'm not givin' up, givin' up now.
I'm not givin' up, not backing down.”

It was along this first stretch that I met Suzanne. We chit chatted about running and our experience with ultras. Of course I didn't have anything to say about that since this was my first ultra race. Suzanne talked about the experience of finding herself at mile 15 and realizing that she still had more than 15 miles to run. She said, "Instead, of thinking, 'I still have so far to go,' I learned to run in the here and now. When I feel overwhelmed with what lies ahead, I ask myself, 'Can I keep running now?' And the answer is always, 'Yes.'"

Great life advice, if you ask me.

Not long after our conversation, I passed the first aid station. Soon found myself several miles down the trail. Where the previous 10 miles had been easy going, this was where the real work began. I prepared to tackle my nemesis, the first “moderately” steep hill that summits at “Brown’s Bar,” by popping in the earphones and letting the musings of Switchfoot distract me.

“More than fine, more than bent on getting by.
More than fine, more than just okay.”

I knew Irongirl was powering up this ascent without stopping – just as she did in all of our training runs. However, I was content with my hike, run, run, hike strategy. I continued that strategy all the way to the first aid station on Auburn Lake Trails, too.

By the way, as advertised, a half of a mile before the aid station, the lead runners met the last 100 runners on this track of trail. Those five passed me on their way down. I wondered if I was really one of the last 100 runners in the race. I promised myself that I would be somewhere closer to the middle of the pack.

“Yesterday is a wrinkle on your forehead
Yesterday is a promise that you've broken
Don't close your eyes, don't close your eyes,”

Even before I began that four miles of winding, single-track trail ascent, I had already run out of water, so I was relieved finally arrive to the aid station. And I was starving. Who ever thought that red potatoes and chicken broth would taste so good in the middle of a run?

“This is your life.
And today is all you've got now.
And today is all you'll ever have.”

And then I began the next loop of the run. The first half of the loop went fairly fast; I found myself leapfrogging with a conga line of 10-15 runners. Somewhere along the way, we passed the infamous Barbara Schoener Memorial. Apparently, Barbara was training alone on this trail when she was “fatally injured by a mountain lion.” With that in mind, I tried to stay with my pack of runners so that I wouldn’t be singled out for “lunch.”

Over the course of the next mile, I passed four or five people as I flew down a twisting and turning descent. For few minutes, I ran alone, and then I realized that the runner behind me was talking to me. “We are almost there. Just about a quarter of a mile ahead, at the clearing, is the first of two hills. There it is. I see the sign. The hills are pretty steep. Just take it one step at a time.”

Was he channeling Dr. Misono, my sensei of running?

I rounded the corner, and at mile 20 I reached base of the dreaded “Ball Bearing” ascent.

“This is your life, is it everything that you dreamed
That it would be when the world was younger,
And you had everything to lose?”

They say that the “Ball Bearing” is only a .70 mile ascent. It was steep. It was rocky. I had to grab onto boulders and pull myself up through parts of the ascent. Like a trail of ants, the other runners steadily moved to the top of the hill. I moved like I just ate ant poison.

“Welcome to the planet
Welcome to existence
Everyone's here
Everyone's watching you now
Everybody waits for you now
What happens next?”

Then as one runner passed me on the way up, she asked – get this – “Are you a runner or are you just a hiker?”


“Um, yeah, I’m actually running the race,” I said as I showed her my number.

“Welcome to the fallout
Welcome to resistance
The tension is here
Between who you are and who you could be
Between how it is and how it should be”

And all of the other ants trickled on by me as I struggled through this personal hell. Silently, I cursed Irongirl for talking me into this whole race thing in the first place. I was no ultra runner. Real ultra runners know how to RUN hills. I am good at running downhill. Anyone can run downhill.

I summitted the beast, and then made my way to the next aid station.

“I dare you to move
I dare you to lift yourself up off the floor
I dare you to move
Like today never happened
Today never happened before”

Luckily, aid station number three welcomed me a few miles beyond the summit of Ball Bearing. Which was good because I had run out of water AGAIN. And I was starving AGAIN. And my hands were beginning to swell up – always my first clue that I am dehydrated. I needed to ingest some salt. This time I saw someone dip the red-potatoes into salt and then eat them. Brilliant!
And then I began the return run, retracing my steps that brought me there almost an hour before.

I was mostly alone on this four-mile stretch. There was one other guy – another virgin ultra runner – who leapfrogged me, but I could hear him talking about cramping, and his trainer/running partner suggested that they walk a bit.

“It was a beautiful letdown
When I crashed and burned
When I found myself alone, unknown and hurt.”

I was glad I ate the salt.

For another mile or so, another guy and I ran together. Then he had to stop and walk for a bit because his knee was hurting.

Now don’t get the idea that I was ONLY running on this stretch of rollers. I walked up every hill. Even the baby hills. I took every chance I could to rest. But in the back of my mind, I knew that this portion of the race was really downhill even though I was sometimes running uphill. I was trying to take advantage of my “strength” as much as possible.

Eventually, I crossed the little wooden bridge once again, but there wasn’t anyone there to tell me which way to turn. I knew was that I wasn’t supposed to run back the way I came. Also, I knew I was supposed to run up a hill named “Goat Hill.”

For ten long seconds, I stood alone in the middle of the forest and contemplated what to do next. I could hear runners in the distance drawing closer, and I seriously considered running back to them to get a second opinion regarding which way to go. While I saw the familiar pink caution tape blocking off where NOT to run, I wanted to read an actual sign that said, “Run up this hill, dummy.” Or, at the very least, I would have liked to read a sign that said, “This is Goat Hill.”

“In a world full of bitter pain
And bitter doubt
I was trying so hard to fit in,
Until I found out
I don't belong here
I don't belong here
I will carry a cross and a song where I don't belong.”

Then I noticed that there was a nearly inconspicuous serpentining trail carved into the red clay of a steep hill. I went up the hill.

“It was a beautiful letdown
When You found me here
And for once in a rare blue moon
I see everything clear”

On the way up, I saw another runner ahead of me, which confirmed that I was headed in the right direction. Now I knew that they said the Ball Bearing was the longest ascent, but this goat hill was almost as steep and it kept going and going and going up, up, up.

Did I mention that I suck at running up hills?

“I'll be a beautiful letdown
That's what I'll forever be
And though it may cost my soul
I'll sing for free.”

At the top of that ascent was the next aid station. This time I ate chips and refilled my bottle once again.

And then I kept on running. Knowing that only four more miles were between my and the finish line was almost invigorating. If only the rest of the trail were downhill from there on out. I even asked someone at the aid station, “Are there any more hills?” He replied reluctantly with, “Yes, but not like the one you just climbed. Still, there are a few more hills.”

“Twenty-four oceans, twenty-four skies,
Twenty-four failures in twenty-four tries.
Twenty-four finds me in twenty-fourth place,
With twenty-four dropouts at the end of the day.”

I ran the next stretch with two guys and two girls. I passed them on the downhills, and they passed me on the ups.

“Life is not what I thought it was
Twenty-four hours ago.
Still I'm singing Spirit take me up in arms with You.”

One benefit of not being time and space oriented is that I cannot conceptualize what a “mile” is or what “a half hour more of running” really means. One drawback of not being time and space oriented is that I cannot conceptualize what a “mile” is or what “a half hour more of running” really means.

“And I'm not who I thought I was
Twenty-four hours ago
Still I'm singing Spirit take me up in arms with You.”

I remember that I looked down at my watch and realized at one point that I only had two miles more to run. Those last two miles were the longest two miles I have ever run in my life. There was a part of me that said, “Hey, you’ve already covered a marathon worth of miles. Just walk the rest of the way.”

“Twenty-four reasons to admit that I'm wrong
With all my excuses still twenty-four strong.”

Still, I kept running.

“But see I'm not copping out
Not copping out
Not copping out
When You're raising the dead in me”

Finally, I crossed highway 49 again, stopped for a quick drink at the aid station, and then headed toward the finish line that was a mere 1.3 miles away. Of course you know that most of that was uphill.

“And You're raising these twenty-four voices
With twenty-four hearts
With all of my symphonies in twenty-four parts”

As I reached the top of the final hill, I saw the grove of ancient oaks in the distance. I knew the trail flattened out there. And I knew that soon I would be within eyesight of the finish line. Which meant I needed to run the last half mile because to walk that would be lame.

“But I want to be one today
Centered and true
I want to see miracles
To see the world change”

In the last steps, an older, wiser, more experienced runner began to overtake me. He said, “Let’s cross the finish line together.”

And so we did.

My time was 6:38. I took 325th place out of 450 runners. I was 88th in my age group out 144.

Don’t knock it. I wasn’t in the bottom 100 as I suspected I was. As a matter of fact, I finished an entire hour faster than I thought I would.

In addition, you’ll be glad to know that no 63 year olds were injured on my way to the finish line. I think she finished the race in 5 hours.


Aniket said...


I bow to you Lady! 50 kms... that too with hills in between! I couldn't even dream of it. And so nice of you not to injure the poor old lady. lolzz

Thank you for taking us on this wonderful journey... I enjoyed it through and through. Especially the goat hill part. :)

I was all smiles, all the way through.

And the lyrics of the Beautiful Letdown is so awesome and fits aptly through the post... Congratulations Jana and you have every reason to be proud of yourself. :-D

Am off to listen to Beautiful Letdown now. :)

Jerolyn Bogear said...

An awesome account. Thanks for sharing it. Yes, I read the whole thing and loved it. Had to read out loud to child #3 sitting nearby about Suzanne and the older man at the end. Choked up while reading. What an amazing experience. Proud of you, but I still think you are crazy. :D

Jim Bogear said...

Love the read. Tired just reading this:-) Way to go and what a story to tell all of us about perseverance and finishing. I love it and great motivation to let all of us know, no matter what, we can accomplish it. Celebrate with you, as you fire me up to stay focused on being focused. In the words of Winston Churchill, "Never, never, never, never, never, never, ever, give up!"

My new quote is, "Ability will help us to move. Attitude will determine how far we will go."

thanks Jana

Dalene said...

31 miles is just insanity. I can't even wrap my brain around this. You're amazing. You inspire me~!

Karen said...

I read the whole thing and love it and the interspersed lyrics that fit perfectly.

I can't even imagine running/walking/climbing for 6 hours steadily. Good for you! Congratulations.

Jane D. said...

Friend! You are the runner.

Wonderful post, every last letter.

Word verification: gordo

JR's Thumbprints said...

Running that far would be all uphill for me. You have to be crazy to be an ultra-runner.

iron girl traveling said...

How do you remember all that??/!?? That was all a 6-1/2 hour blur to me! Guess Dr. M. is're ready for the 50 MILER now! Loved sharing the training & experience. Here's to many more.

bluesugarpoet said...

@ Aniket - lol, glad you liked the goat hill - hope you enjoyed some of the music too. :)

@ Jer - thanks, and I am crazy...:)

@ Jim - thanks for dropping by. :) love that W.C. quote...and your new saying too!

@ Dalene - actually, this race seemed much less difficult than the marathon, and I'm not sure why that is except that in the trail run we get to eat at each aid station. And eating is much more fun! I actually felt better at the end of 31 than I did at the end of the marathon. Who woulda thunk it!

@ Karen, thanks! :) Believe it or not, a year ago I had trouble running two miles. Weird how six hours of running is actually do-able (mind you, I walked a portion of those 31 miles too).

@ Jane D. - no, you da runner! Can't wait to tackle a marathon with you next year! :)

@ JR - funny you said that because i was actually thinking that same thing (while I was running). Ultra runners are crazy! :)

@ Iron Girl - hey...don't go getting any ideas!! I actually thought to myself - while summitting the Ball Bearing - I NEVER want to do this for 50 miles.

Maria said...

WOW -- that's all I have to say.

Whitenoise said...

Yeah, wow. My current max is 7 miles/1 hour and my goal is only a half-marathon... Very nicely written.

bluesugarpoet said...

Thanks for stopping by, Whitenoise. You run 7mi in an hour? A 1/2 marathon will be cake for you. Why not go for the full meal deal? Just remember that running distance is 95% mental. Get over the mental wall, and you are golden to run as long as you need to run.

Maria - what are your plans for running your first race? :)