Safety checkpoint #3, Palisades, ~8 p.m.
JP Prince: “Is that Julia? You’re here!”
Me: “Well I told Jenelle I’d write a race report, so here I am! I figured I’d better finish.”
When I was 8 years old, I wanted to be a professional musher. As in 100 percent commitment, move to Alaska, own upwards of 20 unreasonably energetic dogs, and compete in the Iditarod. I felt that some wild purity was left out there, known only in completing a monumental task mirrored by the relentless backcountry it traversed.
As told in a previous race report, I became ill with the oft-debilitating Ulcerative Colitis at 17. After this point, all of my choices, goals, and dreams stopped being about things that appealed to me, or excited me, and became instead about proving that I was equally capable as any healthy person. I needed to prove that I could “make it” in the traditional sense, and sought in particular to become a doctor, as a stamp of approval of becoming an adequate human being, worthy of a place in the world. My disease has enhanced effects when I am under stress, and as a result I was in a high amount of physical pain for at least a few hours every day I was in college. I found resting during this time to be immensely troubling, since it left me alone with my doubts and fears about becoming successful as someone this sick. Instead, I opted to work more, and work hard enough that I had no attention remaining to devote to the pain I was feeling. I held several medical jobs over these years, including my last position working as an Emergency Medical Technician. I always did my job well, but the mental weariness of using what little strength I had to care for others caught up with me, and I quit—the first time I quit anything significant in my life. Following a game-changing infusion treatment, I wanted to rekindle my drive for pursing an MD, now that I had more energy and would be a healthy person with an almost-normal red blood cell count. I told myself I would renew my EMT cert, find a way to continue working in patient care while I took more classes and studied for the MCAT, and valiantly trudge on. It almost sounds like the training and running of ultras.
The way I experience Ultrarunning is actually nothing like this. Ultrarunning, to me, is a celebration of the unique spirit of the runner, the trials they have surmounted in life, as well as their talents and strengths. Longer distances and more challenging terrain take away the standardized nature of track and road running—there’s an unpredictable vast variety of ways to finish an ultra, each valuable and fascinating. When I run, I seek to be true to myself, true to my limitations, and complete the task at hand encompassing setbacks rather than ignoring them. The normal small aches and pains of running all day are a part of the process, and staying presently aware of pain puts me in control of it as well. I think there’s a difference between being in pain, and being upset about being in pain. It took me a long time to own up to the fact that I wanted to go to medical school just because I thought the achievement would somehow make the pain of my disease disappear if I shut it out and just kept working harder, continuing to pretend I was some whole person, and not a hollow shell always on the verge of disintegration. That validation was supposed to be my cure. Through the rewarding ardor of training for the Castle Peak 100k almost completely solo, I was able to reflect on these decisions, and reinvent the way I deal with pain.
The test of my reevaluation of adversity came earlier than expected, when I was hit by a drunk driver one month before the race. I sustained a fracture in my tailbone, and I was honestly not completely Zen about the whole thing. Pissed off and incredulous at the lack of humanity and responsibility in the world, I felt like I had some pathetically awful bad luck. This lasted for a few days, after which I decided I was going to reasonably and healthily continue preparing for the race, because it was what I wanted to do. There were adjustments in mileage, more Epsom salt baths, more foam rolling, and choking down copious amounts of inflammation fighting “green juice.” Every day I worked toward my goal with all of limitations in mind, I felt less bitter, and more appreciative of myself, and the way my life was heading.
The atmosphere of the inaugural Castle Peak 100k is unparalleled in authenticity and sincerity among all of the ultra events I have attended, worked, and ran in my time with the sport. Every single aid station was staffed with kind, excited volunteers, and the positive energy sent shocks of inspiration; I craved the miles to come, and never found the impending distance daunting. I started the race running what felt like an easy effort, had the best 20 miles of any ultra I have done so far, and I truly did not feel exhausted, sick, or have a sky-high heart rate all day. However, sometime after the Wendin Way aid station, on the climb up to Castle Peak, I noticed pain in my tailbone that would alter my stride running downhill. I found I could walk pain-free, and pressed on hiking. Obviously, I would have loved to run more of the course, and since my mother lives in Soda Springs, I have run up and around Castle Peak regularly since I started trail running three years ago. But I think there’s a key point in that, too. There would be other days to run here, the point on the day of this race was to travel 62+ miles through the mountains before midnight, testing my limits in endurance. This course was not easy and offered so much more than just a place to run, I felt that out of respect for my body, and this beautifully conducted race, there was no shame in hiking the rest of the way to the finish at Donner State Memorial Park. So, hiking up to Castle Peak, I had already decided that it was going to be a great day, not contingent on my usual fear of the perception of my athleticism and worth. In this, I believe I reached a personally new sense of “unafraid.”
The miles that followed were stunning. The excitement of travelling farther than I had gone before added a sense of wonder to the scenery, compounded by the intense weather. The high of inspiration crested for me as I stood on top of Castle Peak trying to pry open a metal box with numb, shaking hands, bracing myself against insane-mph winds so I could retrieve a card that would prove I summited. After quickly putting on a jacket, I stowed the card in the “important things” zippered pocket of my pack, held onto my baseball cap, and could not help but to run down the peak with reckless abandon. This is my favorite section of trail to run down, anywhere, ever, and would be the last time I ran well during the race. I made wings with my arms as I sped into the aid station, to cheers and a sweet comment of, “nice footwork!” After chugging some Fresca, and getting some salt cleaned off my leg by a charitable dog, I jogged out and down into Hole-in-the-Ground. The hike from the bottom of the first descent of this meandering mountain bike route to Van Norden was slow, forested, and relatively uninspired. I saw Sean Flanagan at the trailhead and the start of the mile long road section, and I think I said something totally unoriginal like, “I feel like shit.” He was incredibly supportive all day, and I hope for his sake I was not exceedingly sour at this low point.
Finally at Van Norden, I was able to sit on a party bag of ice that my sister, Helen, bought me, and as I recovered, the approaching 17 miles seemed to shrink in my mind. One of my favorite parts of the day was hiking with Helen out of the aid station, while she kept me company for two miles, and had me laughing the whole time. I couldn’t have asked for a better “safety runner.”
The trail to Crow’s nest is a home section of running, for me, and I felt comforted and happy from that. I was interested to discover that there actually exists a trail along the Palisades section, something I had completely missed when previewing the course—on a training run, I bushwhacked then climbed the top crest of the ridge, for better visibility. This easier route, along with the awesome ropes set up buy Sam Skrocke and Javier Castellar, made for a faster trip for the race. It also took some stress off, and I was able to take in an incredible sunset, that shone bight red between the Sierra and the clouds.
Talking with JP was the first moment I really knew I was going to finish; in a vote of confidence he observed that I am not a quitter. When he said that, I realized that I didn’t really feel the desire to drop from the race for the entire day. I set out to do something I wanted to do, and I was executing it slowly, but with conviction, and I was still having fun after 50 miles.
I hiked the rest of the race into the finish, where I arrived with another runner, along with his safety runner and daughter, who made an awesome pair. This is the most accomplished I have ever felt in any running event, I wasn’t fast, I was closer to the end of the pack and I had lost dozens of places from Wendin Way to the finish, but I didn’t injure myself to get there, I just accepted the limitations I was presented with, and ran the best race possible. I sat down only once the whole day, and never mentally beat myself up. In the horizon, I know there is a future of different circumstances, and opportunities to really race and test my athleticism. The 2015, inaugural Castle Peak 100k was about facing myself, all of myself, pain, illness, injury, and loving everything.
It is in my nature never to quit, but most importantly I believe this means to never quit on yourself. For the past several years, I denied myself a lot of happiness to try to find success in the pursuit of medical school, to be worthwhile in the eyes of others. This race was a turning point for me, because every single kind word of encouragement (there were so many!) was just a reflection of my own sense of achievement, instead of a drop of water I needed to survive in a desolation of self-deprecation where I was paralyzed by the fear of not being enough. I cannot say enough about how well this race was executed. Helen Pelster and Peter Fain’s love for the community, and the open spaces we were fortunate to cross was alive in every detail.
Running in the backcountry takes me to a state of mind that is not confounded my the complications of life, where I can enjoy the wild purity I dreamt about as an 8-year-old and have the courage to live out that passion. Today, August 30, 2015, is the final day that I am a certified Emergency Medical Technician in the state of California. Does anyone know of any huskies for sale?
Kicks & Eats:
Salomon Sense Pro until Wendin Way
Nike Zoom Elites from Wendin Way to Van Norden
Salomon X-series for solid scrambling and the final descent
2 packets of maple syrup
2 boxes of raisins
3 epic bars
A handful of carrots and Fresca from Castle Pass Aid
2 hardboiled eggs with an avocado
3 doses of green juice formulated and hand crafted by Rainbow Rubin in Berkeley, CA
Carbopro metasalt tablets (no cramps all day)
VESPA! (no bonks all day)
Thank you to all of my wonderful coworkers at Fleet Feet Davis for the support,
All of the nurses at Woodland Memorial Hospital Infusion Center for their awesome work with my chemotherapy,
And last and certainly most: