It’s about 4:30am and my husband Mark and I are in the car, driving to Fish Camp where we start our 50K, Shadow of the Giants. I’m looking out the window, watching trees go by running through the list of everything my coach told me. The biggest item, leave the self-doubt in LA. I thought it was odd, I had very little of it this time around. Maybe it was a bad sign, but it didn’t feel like it, I felt ready. I ask Mark if he is nervous and I get a head shake. Nope, no self doubt in this car. My first 50k was 3 months ago and I had run with my friend Kristin Neiderhaus-Henry who promised to make laugh through most of our race (and my first 50k) and she did. This time around I had a few goals in mind, and making my husband laugh the entire time wasn’t one of them.
We pulled into the parking lot of Fish Camp, the sun is coming up and I head to the bathroom expecting a line. No line in sight and as I exit I notice chalk arrows and see the trail leading out of the meadow and look up to see tall trees above me. It’s still and quiet and I’m thinking about the last 3 months I have spent running up hills. It had been countless hills of varying degrees in slope and length that at times had me yelling profanity as I climbed through canyons. I think about the village it took to get me here. I’m the newbie of my running group, surrounded by amazing mentors that provide daily support. It takes a village, and a great coach (Peter Fain), to raise a trail runner. Peter keeps churning me out on long runs and my village is there to build me up for the next one. It’s an amazing yet painful and rewarding cycle all at the same time, and I’m constantly learning and studying this ultra “insanity”. There is something safe in being the newbie, but I look at Mark and realize I’m not the newbie this time. I also say a quiet prayer that he put enough Vaseline on his feet to prevent blisters at the creek crossing.
In search of a creek crossing, or a unicorn
Our first six miles we spend going through a quick climb out of Fish Camp, mostly on a dirt fire road and down a steep incline only to turn around at the bottom and climb back up. At the end of the climb we remained on a fire road but found flatter ground as it wound around the mountain with a steep cliff on one side that was covered in different color pine trees all the way to the bottom. You could hear the creek at the bottom of the canyon and it was easy running through this section.
At mile 7 we’re leaving fire road and head into lower ground and a meadow. Large trees appeared as I looked at Mark to say I needed to use a tree to take care of business, and thought how great it was that they were so huge! I wouldn’t have to search for one far off the trail, but instead something caught my eye as I came down the hill. I’m mumbling to myself that it just can’t be. I’m staring at a porta potty. I laugh as I sprint towards it because my coach tells me on long runs finding passing ice cream trucks and porta potties are like finding a unicorn. It doesn’t happen, except today. Today it’s happening! I finish business and we are headed back down the trail. We’ve got clapping and hollering a half mile later as the creek appears. Photographers are at the creek, along with Big Baz (the previous RD) cheering us on as we cross. The creek is cold and we have an aid stating waiting on the other side of the it. The trees get larger as we head into the meadow and about a mile later we’re passing the large sequoia we see in the website photos. It’s enormous but the photos don’t do justice to this monster of a tree. It truly is stunning to stand next to it, but I’m not standing there long. In the back of my head I can hear my coach telling me that I’m loitering, so were off.
The burn zone
We’re working into mile 14 through a single track lush meadow. This kind of trail is my absolute favorite. I see very little “green meadow” where I live and I find it absolutely stunning when I can run through one on single track. Fresh air with the creek running below us and I’m thinking how good things feel. We have done well to this point keeping on pace, but the meadow quickly ends as we head into the aid station at mile 15. I’m noticing slight cramping at the calves and my hips are tight. The volunteer at the aid station hands me a salt pill and I take it with a cup of water as I look down. There’s a baby white French bull dog staring at me. We exchange a long stare as I eat oranges asking why he’s at aid. The volunteer tells me he is there for emotional support as he points to the sign. I turn and see the bright yellow sign directing me to “more hills”. It’s time. Peter told me they would start at mile 15. I tell them the bull dog will need to come with me for emotional support for the next few miles and I am rejected. I pet the dog quickly (I mean he IS staring at me), I glare at Mark and we head to the sign and hook it left up the trail incline. I look ahead at a woman pacing in a circle. By the time we get to her she is mumbling and looks a little frantic. We stand next to her and look up. Now I understand why she is pacing. It’s a steep hill and she appears to not want to go up it and is pacing in a circle trying to figure out what to do. We begin our climb as I laugh and state I had first dibs on the dog. Going back to aid for the dog is not happening so we climb, but we curve to the right and our environment drastically changes.
It is here that I stop. Not because I am tired, but because I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Mark and I are alone and it literally feels like we just stepped into a war zone. It appears a bit darker overhead in this section and I look down at my feet and see that we are standing in black ash. It’s thick and my shoes are covered in it. Not only my shoes but my ankles and lower shins have taken a black tone to them. The ash has been disturbed by runners that have already gone up this hill so it’s in the air. I realize we are in the burn zone. The fire in September 2017 ran through a large part of this race trail and parts of it had to be redirected. New growth has not started here yet and while I feel fortunate to be able to see what a large magnitude fire can do to a forest, it’s erie and sad at the same time. We begin the single track up, quietly, not speaking. I am taking in my emotions as I climb, looking left and right at the enormous burnt thorn bushes. They go for at least a half mile on both sides of us as I point out it’s not a great place to fall (Captain Obvious decided to jump in there). This climb lasts about a mile and a half as I look up to our last small hill to see a burnt tree that has fallen overhead and is balancing over the trail. I have Mark take my picture heading up this hill and standing under this tree. It has framed the trail which seems oddly coincidental because I can see past this point lays regrowth. It’s the exit sign and my fresh green meadows have reappeared. I look back at the miles we just crossed, I want it in my memory forever. The raw, quiet mix of emotions that stirred through that burn zone will be with me for a long time, but for now it’s time to go.
Flats are a speed gift
My meadows last long enough to get me around the back side of the mountain as we talk to a few runners we pass along the way. The path is flat and we’re making good time. A “speed gift” as coach likes to call it so we try to hold our pace which seems to be working until we hit mile 21. By mile 21 we are back on fire road which wraps back around the mountain. If you are brave enough to look up during this 6 mile stretch of endless fire road you will see the slow gradual relentless incline. It is here that misery enters and takes a front row seat. My speed gift is slipping away and the pain cave I came looking for in my pursuit of breaking a 7 hour marker has arrived, and it’s ugly. I deny it at first, telling myself we’re moving forward, I don’t feel it. Half a mile later, I feel it. My legs will not turn over for even a fast jog. It is pain and it is the point that music should have probably entered the picture by way of ear phones to push the demons out, but it did not. My thoughts are racing faster than my legs, and although I came looking for this pain it appears I have much to learn in the “embrace the misery” game because it is kicking my ass.
Ring the bell
Our fire road and my dark place ends about mile 28. In front of me lays lush green meadow. It’s like a gift and my heart is singing. Beautiful single track and we hear the bell at camp. I know I’m close and I’m tearing into a mad sprint. Not a peaceful jog, it’s a throw an elbow, get out of my way kind of sprint until I round the corner to find an enormous tree in my way. No jumping over this thing, no “sticking the landings” and I’m hollering, “you have got to be kidding me” as I hurl myself on top of this tree and throw my body over it. I’m off on my sprint only to hit tree number two. It’s starting to feel like an Indiana Jones movie. At mile 29 things aren’t cooperating as I’m half laughing, half in agony trying to get myself over these trees, five of them to be exact. I didn’t turn around but I am pretty sure Mark is ready to just give me a swift kick to get me over these trees as he waits patiently (cuz it’s a long walk home). As you cross the bridge into camp you run by the bell. It’s all pride as I run by, pull the rope and cross the finish line. That bell… it’s awesome. It’s a great touch to the end of this race.
I’ve crossed and I look behind me. Mark is finishing, he did it. We did it, in under 7 hours. So many thoughts are present. I’m feeling thankful. I’m thinking about my village. I’m assessing pain and I’m wondering at this very moment, how would I run another 20 miles to get me to 50. Stay tuned, I’m going to gather my village, because it’s coming!
Much love to my Donner Party Mountain Running group. Thanks to all of you for helping to get me through ultra #2.