Castle Peak 100k 2016, Safety Check #3, Palisades ~6 p.m.
JP Prince: “Hey, so, what’s going on? Why are you in distraction mode?”
Me: “I’m not! I’m totally fine.”
A year a go in the same place, at the same time, JP was completely un-concered about me running 100k on a broken tailbone. Ultrarunners pick interesting things to worry about. JP runs back up to Mt. Lincoln, and back down the chossy rocks and off-camber dirt. When he passes me again and stops to hang out, I stop fronting.
Me: “You’re right, I have no idea why I can’t just chill out.”
Earlier in the year, I had my (running) shit together. I ran the Canyons in a solid time, didn’t make a complete fool of myself at Mt. Marathon, and I even showed my face at a few speed workouts. From February to July I trained like a real athlete without getting myself in too much trouble. I had planned on spending July and August running long miles and prepping for the Bear 100 to get mine after I didn’t make it to start in 2014. A few weeks before the race that year, I spent a week in a hospital in Woodland fighting sepsis. The day of the 2014 race, I stood under Middle Palisade glacier under first snow, weak and nauseous, and wondering if I could have run it anyway.
It was a good, solid plan, all about overcoming the disappointment of the tortured past and feeling resurrected.
Somewhere in there, I showed up at a Monday run that derailed my summer off a cliff, and the training train fell into the ocean of overwhelming expectation and ambitious treading to stay head up above waves of haphazard trials.
After chasing each other down Johnson Canyon from the Drifter Hut, Naomi Plasterer and I were instant friends—a chance meeting that’s completely changed my life. A few weeks later she asked me to do Nolan’s 14 with her.
I like racing, but I don’t need it. I’ve never really had a problem being motivated to go out, as long as there’s a peak, or a sunrise, or a sunset, or a cool tree, I’m really good at making up excuses. The idea of completing Nolan’s, a straightforward route where the object is to cross up and over 14 14,000ft peaks from Salida to Leadville, captured my heart because its brutality is in the simplicity. To make the 60-hour cutoff, you have to move fast off trail; taking easier trails will not get you there in time, because they spend so many miles meandering around the difficult things.
In time for what? The 60-hour mark is totally arbitrary. With some things, if you don’t put a timer on, you could spend the rest of your life climbing low-grade roads to all of your summits.
“You just have to go over all those peaks,” says Naomi.
Training for our push at the end of August was insane, fun, a mess of injury management. I went up Diamond Peak 8 times in one day. I did a Crystal Range traverse where I got stuck moving on 5th class off Mt Price for way too long. Taking Steve Firebaugh’s Job’s Peak route, I fell on a Manzanita bush, got an inch deep puncture wound that I irrigated and dressed in the Gardnerville Walgreen’s parking lot. When it healed halfway, I bushwhacked to Mt Lola from the south. The week before, I ran up Mt. Dana with three angry Russians, slept in a mining cabin, then did a speed workout up and down Mono Pass for lack of being able to make it up to 14,000 feet before the trip (ever in my life, not just this year).
I showed up at the Denver airport feeling healthy and stoked to shove all of that debauchery in two and half days of a huge effort.
After pulling the plug on day two, after huge highs and panic-attack lows, supported flawlessly by Corbin, Stephen, Ruthie, Brandon, Cowgirl Sue and dog Lopi, after 50 miles and 5 peaks, I went through a pain cave I’d never been in before. I’ve toughed some things out in my life, and will usually opt to finish anything I start; the only times I’ve dropped races were out of spite. To me, racing can be artificial, so letting it go feels superficial. The Nolan’s line feels eternal. Always open for a push, we picked the time; we picked the gear, the fuel, the crew. The responsibility of dropping that felt final, it’s a part of me.
Even with the high cost of heartbreak, I was elated and grateful to be a part of something feeling so grand, and the time spent planning, running and recovering with Naomi was priceless.
We pulled into Soda Springs around 2 or 3 a.m. driving from Salt Lake City in one go. I slept that night, closing my eyes thinking that I would just probably rest and not venture out much for a long time.
When I woke up, I didn’t feel any of those things. I didn’t want to rest, and I didn’t want to be inside.
I had become so used to heading out for running or mountain climbing at odd hours, whenever there was free time. I got up before the sun and stayed out after it went down, running with friends, hiking in supplies for Castle Peak, course marking, and hiking to drink some whiskey where I could look up at the Milky Way.
I called my training partner Jodie and asked her to pace me at the Bear. I hadn’t planned on showing up had we finished Nolan’s; I figured my body would be too wrecked.
Since I had the rest of that week totally off from work, I ran and hiked around for 70 miles in the name of not losing fitness. Or that’s what I told myself. The truth is I couldn’t go home.
BUT, as long as I was outside I didn’t feel anxious or sad or heavy from failure. All I could feel in that sense was the promise of those things crashing on me if I didn’t bail fast enough.
For the Bear, I figured I had some pretty good endurance on my legs, but in training for Nolan’s, I had stopped speed work to scramble rocks on Tuesdays, and I hadn’t ran much at all. I was able to get in some real running with Jenelle early in the mornings, and logging her birthday miles before I worked at Tahoe 200, but I still really felt the pull of going up mountains, just to stand on top of something and see the world a little different and a little new.
I ran up Tallac with Jay Wilsey, practiced eating shit on scree, and summited Rose the same day. Those two mountains I had only gone up once before each, both horrible experiences. I felt calm and collected for the first time in a long time by deciding to have fun instead—that’s what those places are to me now, just joy.
Sam Skrocke and I went up North Palisade one day, and I looked straight to the right and down where I was standing two years earlier. We got lost, I got a bit sick, and we had to run down from Bishops Pass sans headlamps in the dark. I cursed my way through half of it, but it was still just joy.
So that’s what the Bear was going to be too, not an intense redemption, but just making peace and a happy thing out of the dark.
Wild places feel like home. Not in a tame sense, or out of entitlement or ownership, but there’s no anxiety or dread associated with being outside for a long time or in the night, I don’t wait for a walk to end so I can go back inside.
Waiting for a weather window for Nolan’s (which didn’t work out in our favor anyway) was so stressful that I never took a very close look at what we would face at the Bear. I’m pretty sure the notion of “Indian Summer” in the slogan is meant as a joke—I know of many people who drop the race for hypothermia, so I packed all of my cold weather gear.
Driving through Salt Lake City, Jodie and I were on the edge of tornado and a downpour all the way into Logan, and we made the pre-race meeting with 10 minutes to spare. I relabeled my drop bags since they rerouted the course to skip the last half, requiring more backcountry access.
It turns out the weather was the worst that race had ever seen. Below 7,000 feet, there was rain and sleet that switched to snow higher up, and the varieties of precipitation didn’t subside for the first 24 hours. I haven’t ever run in anything like that in my life, it was a little different and a little new and infinitely beautiful.
Every time the course topped out over a canyon, we could see the ridges covered in snow that dusted bright red, orange and yellow leaves that rolled down into the mist hanging at the bottom. As bad as I love to run faster on dry trails that aren’t washed out, I wouldn’t trade the abandonment of stability that day for anything.
Three of my drop bags got lost in the second quarter of the race, and I didn’t eat for that time, but I was able to recover from it as soon as I saw Jodie and my stuff at Tony Grove, mile 53.
Because I’m not a good planner, and it was just the two of us, Jodie had to hitch a ride to Tony Grove, or else we’d have to hitch a ride to get my car later, which actually wasn’t feasible because she had to be back in California to complete a physical fitness test for a fire department the day after the race, meaning we were going to have to high-tail it out of Logan. Apparently she made it up with the Hortons of Hardrock fame, there to crew Kaci. Jodie always makes it happen.
I was in normal ultra pain, and since we were running through water most of the night, we got pretty cold, so every aid station we stopped to warm up so we wouldn’t get hypothermic. That slowed things down through the night, but I was able to run in the second half.
When the sun started to come up, and we got a little warmer, we skipped the heaters and the fires and just changed socks and shoes before going. I fell asleep for one 5-minute stretch while Jodie was eating some hashbrowns.
Somewhere around mile 80, we started the last big climb that would spit us on the last ridge before descending back to Logan. I was wheezing and having a hard time climbing, so we had to take it real slow, and Jodie had to talk me down from my frustration a lot.
At the top of the climb, I started to try to jog. Every step was pretty painful since my feet were getting so macerated from being wet all day and night. Jodie told me to calm down and not stress. Instead, I yelled a bunch of expletives and started sprinting down the fire road. I figured I would just be in pain for less time by doing it faster.
Jodie switched gears instantly from supportive friend to hard-ass coach and we never let up on that descent. We passed people I hadn’t seen for the entire race, and my mind started to drift out of the pain, and with the drying trail and sunshine I could finally look up and watch the buildings and roads of Logan drift forward.
We got to the last aid station and I threw down the four jackets I used to run through the night, my ski gloves, and my shell pants and ran through. Jodie had to stop to pee but caught me quick to give me a lecture about not eating a banana.
Instead, I sucked down a bunch of maple syrup and we ran some of the uphill and all of the downhill on the rolling hills back to the start. We caught several runners, and I felt like speeding up every time we did, just to see if I could get the next one.
We hit the road, and I felt release as we rolled down the asphalt and all of the dirt caked from rain and snow fell off our shoes in tiny pieces.
“You’re not allowed to smile yet,” said Jodie.
I shoved her shoulder and we starting laughing hysterically.
I passed under the absurd banner of a screaming bear in 31:40 and 11th female.
We stuck around the finish for an hour or so, dreading parting the magic to get stiff in my tiny Yaris for 8-10 more hours.
The drop bags hadn’t made it back by the time we headed out, but a friend, Ben Light, who I’ve taped twice at Tahoe 200 sweetly volunteered to collect them and send them back to me. My one life skill has now finally paid off for me.
We pulled into Soda Springs around 2 or 3 a.m. Jodie slept for 3 hours, gave me a big hug and took off to her test. I slept for another hour and headed down to the Truckee Marathon to hang out and cheer in the sunshine.
Jodie passed her physical fitness test, probably because she warmed up the right way.
Thanks for everyone who helped me get my head on straight before the race: JP, Sam, Jodie, Jay, Mike T, and Jenelle.