This post, just like the run could have, can go two ways; either it’s going to be a quick business or a long journey with more twists and turns than the windiest road in the world. You, my dear friend, can already infer from the title which one of these possibilities proved to be the reality when I opened Pandora’s box of this race and instead of a Schrödinger’s cat found my own, beat-up body.
As a little preview, I might say that I certainly got my money’s worth as I got to experience it all in the nearly 25 hours it took me to complete this thing:
- Hallucinations (if you’re here only for these, skip to the subheadline “The Hallucinations”)
- Chafing to the point of bleeding
- Delirium (if you’re here only for these, skip to the subheadlines “The Delirium” and “Delirium 2.0”)
- Foot tendon injury (mile 23) & blown knee (mile 37)
- Hellish heat & hills
- Unstoppable nosebleed (lasted over an hour)
- Nausea and mild throwing up (including blood)
- Having to walk downhill backwards because my legs.exe stopped working
- Being stripped naked and force-fed and massaged (?) to the point of crying out in pain at an aid station to be brought back from the dead.
And now that we all know where this is headed, we can finally get down to how the day actually went, starting with… a quite late arrival at the starting line. My friend who was the driver, the crew, and, later, the pacer, had some trouble backing out the van he borrowed out of his driveway, so we arrived half an hour later than planned. I made a beeline for the bathroom, quickly checked in (promptly forgetting to grab my bib and having to go back for it), put on my shoes, and got to the starting line exactly 20 seconds before Martin, the RD, said “Go!”
North Loop 1 (13.5 Miles), 7:00 AM
Still trying to figure out what was happening (and that it was, indeed, actually happening), half a mile in, I found a comfy spot at the very end of the group. 50- and 25-mile runners started at the same time and they were all in front of me. The first slightly technical and, therefore, very fun downhill put me in a position where I passed a few 25-mile people, but all 50-milers were long gone.
The heat didn’t take long to slither in with a smug voice saying “let me introduce myself,” and it chose the best moment to do so: the Pig Farm Trail or, as some call it, the “Training Hill.” I was glad I was going to have to do it only twice, as opposed to the 100-mile runners who were going to have to go through the thing four times.
I leveled up on the top of the climb and acquired a new item: an ice-filled Buff collar around my neck. The next ten miles came and went, filled with more ice, more heat, and more hills.
Towards the end of the first loop, a truck slowed down right next to where I was walking on the one short stretch of road in the whole race. A friendly-looking smiling face was in the rolled-down window.
“Hey! How’s it going!”
“It’s… going,” I replied, smiling from under the hood of my sun-shirt.
We laughed and I kept moving while he drove slowly next to me. Almost immediately, he mentioned the medics, and how they’re predicting a really bad day.
“It looks to be the hottest, hardest day in the eight years I’ve been doing this.”
“Uh… that’s great to hear, given this is my first fifty…”
“Oh is it?”
“I’m Martin, the RD, by the way.”
We exchanged a round of nice-to-meet-you’s.
“Well, good luck. It’s going to be about who finishes today, not how fast.”
“That’s my strategy; no running until sundown,” I laughed. There wasn’t much running happening even if I had planned on running. But something in the way he said it made me resolve right there and then that I was going to be one of the survivors, no matter what.
“I like that strategy.” And he drove off, disappearing behind the very gentle curve of the road in the rippling air.
I finished the first loop, first half marathon, and met my crew. Tim and Kim (yes, names have been changed) were there with all the food I could wish for, including shrimp chips with Nutella (don’t say “ew” until you’ve tried it). More water, electrolytes, and food for the pack and I was off, feeling quite okay.
South Loop 2 (11.5 Miles, Total 25), 12:15 PM
Well, that was a f@u(k*&g lie… Half a mile later, my body decided it was time to screw me over once again (why does this always happen within the first 15 miles whenever I try to go far?) and put into motion a plan called “Let’s Make Her Stop No Matter What.” Here’s what my text to Tim and Kim said:
“Hip flexor is ducked. Stomach pain and got my feet drenched in the ONE stream there is. And I’ve got a migraine coming. I also forgot to put lube under my arms again.” In short, things were looking simply amazing. I tried to stretch a bit at the aid station, got a cramp so bad I could see my muscle cramping, let out a string of Czech curses, ate a ton of pickles, and kept going.
After roughly two miles, I met Stu. (Yep, not his real name.) The first thing he told me? Not a “hello,” not an “it’s real hot,” and not a “how’s it going,” but:
“I’m going to divorce my wife,” he said, an exasperated but mischievous expression on his face.
“She’s the one who designed the race.”
And we hit it off, spending the next few miles together. Stu’s presence and gift for storytelling made the miles go by as we mostly hiked on the single trails. We separated about four miles before the end of the loop when I first wanted to stretch my legs with some running, feeling motivated for a second, and then nearly cried only half a mile later at the beauty of a lake. Such was my mental state. But seriously, who wouldn’t cry at the sight of water in the scorching heat, surrounded by dried-out land for the majority of the day?
I crawled back to the same aid station where I had my previous bodily meltdown, two miles from the end of the loop. As it turned out later, I already looked like hell, and they didn’t expect to see me again on Loop 3.
And they almost didn’t. At mile 23, two miles before the start/finish, a tendon in my left foot decided to make the whole thing hella interesting.
I crawled to the start/finish and the volunteers sat me down right there and then, calling Tim and Kim to come over. It looked like it was the end of the race for me…
North Loop 3 (13.5 Miles, TotAL 38.5), 6:30 PM
I flushed down some painkillers with iced black coffee and wolfed down a sandwich. My foot was wrapped in ice, taped up by a man who arrived on a horse (I’m not kidding, a real horse — and no, I wasn’t hallucinating — yet).
“You made it!” he’d said and I faintly remembered seeing him at the aid station where I cursed out my body. He seemed genuinely surprised. Michael took care of my foot, cleaning it and taping it as if it didn’t just go through 25 miles of dusty roads and, therefore, didn’t look like something people outside the running community wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. He was all smiles and encouragement while my crew looked quite grim, none of them having dealt with anything like this before.
My morale was slipping once we made it back to our tent; Tim and Kim would have probably liked me to stop right then and there, and I don’t blame them. Having seen photos of myself from that time, I did look like it was the end of the race for me. But the resolve to finish, especially after my previous conversation with Martin, was not something to be trifled with.
The Pep Talk
I did still need a bit of encouragement, from someone who’s been there before; someone who’s been in the place where you really want to keep going but your doubts are eating away at you while your body is injured and screaming at you to stop.
And so Kim called one of my running friends. And he got me moving. Through the pain of it all, he got me moving. His pep talk might have been just the thing that saved my entire race.
Out on loop three, limping, and crying out in pain whenever the inflamed tendon slid over some bone, I talked with Stu and his wife a bit and flipped off Pig Farm when I climber it for the second (and last!) time. The sun set and the dark came, and I made it to the next aid station, ready (but not really) to quit again. The foot was screaming at me to stop with every step. But then I met volunteer Michael, the geologist (looking back at it, a suspicious amount of people there was named Michael), and he kept me going.
I ended up separating from Stu and his wife soon after, going alone into the night with only the dim red light of my headlamp. That thing doesn’t have nearly enough lumens, and the red light, though not as bright, highlighted at least some of the features of the rocky trail.
On the top of the second climb out of a valley with incredible stars, a lone water-and-ice-only, no-people aid station that featured ice and water on my first loop had Shasta Cola. I’ve never before been happier to drink an off-brand Cola (or to drink Cola, period).
The shining eyes of a few deer and one mountain lion later, I made it to the aid station, the one where they’d seen me broken and beaten before. So broken and beaten, in fact, that the usually only-thought words were said out loud: “I didn’t think we’d see you again!”
I was given more pickles and some pizza (yes, they had pizza there!) and chatted for a bit with another 50-mile runner. He was 2 miles from finishing the whole thing. And although I was in the best spirits I’d been the whole day, I wished I could be almost done, too.
Somewhere between this aid station and the end of the loop, I had to start walking downhills backwards as I blew my knee.
South, Loop 4, 1:00 AM
This is the loop where all hell broke truly loose. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.
I made it to start/finish. I was full of energy even though my knee felt like it was literally going to pop, and quickly started to gulp down the miso soup Kim prepared. Tim was all ready to go and pace me, in quite the good mood himself. I iced my knee, packed some more food, and we left pretty fast — this was the shortest stop at the start/finish of them all.
Then, once again, the South Loop decided to make my life a hell. (Well, theoretically, I was the one making my life a hell but still… really, South Loop?) I got over the pain that radiated from every single corner of my body by singing, probably terribly out of tune. I sang even the songs I didn’t know. Kudos to Tim for not just turning around and leaving me to go through the madness by myself.
When we got back to the aid station, the volunteer had me write on my leg with a sharpie: “I can do hard things.” She then wrote “XO” right under it. She was amazing, there’s no way around it.
“She’s our favourite,” she told Tim. “She always thanks us and tells us how much she loves us.”
And yes, I did realize later that I professed my undying love to every single volunteer I met with something like “I love you guys, I love you so much. You’re amazing. Oh my god, thank you. I love you.”
We left the lights of the aid station and were swallowed by the darkness. And this is where the fun part starts: the part where my brain became delirious.
It started right after a river crossing less than half a mile past the aid station. Distances ceased to make any sense at all. My memory of the trail from earlier that day (or, more accurately, the day before) got all scrambled up and I started to think we had to be lost every ten steps.
First I couldn’t recognize the trail, then I believed we must have gone far enough to miss the next two aid stations. The place where I met Stu before wasn’t coming up, even though, in my mind, we were supposed to hit it about an hour before we actually did.
Tim started to try to force some food and water into me, as my intake slowed down considerably. Which wasn’t good because even in the middle of the night, it was still above 80 degrees.
Then we finally made it to the place where I met Stu for the first time. I told Tim, excited. And then the hallucinations started.
The first one was a stick insect. It was bigger than my palm, sitting on the side of the trail. It had black and white squares on it and moved very slowly. It meant me no harm, and after only a second or two, my brain caught up to me; it was really just a twig. The same happened a second later with a gigantic black-and-white checkered spider that turned out to be just a pine cone.
Suddenly, the forest came alive with movement and sounds. I tried to shoo animals (that weren’t really there) off the path with my poles (Tim later said it looked more like I was trying to stab them). There were arms reaching out to me from the sides of the trail, most of them harmless, but I still tried to avoid them.
And then I got attacked by a hairy lizard. I screamed and turned around and ran into Tim behind me, believing this was the end of me. The lizard was vicious, coming for blood, and I was having none of it, losing it mildly. When Tim made me look back, it was just a tiny twig laying peacefully in the middle of the trail.
After this, there were no more attacks. I spent the next half-hour politely asking small bulbous white see-through people to please move off the trail so I could pass, although, in a video Tim sent me later, I’m just blabbing and mumbling like a newborn. There were no actual words coming out of my mouth.
I do remember a bit of pain. But it was somewhere far away, and it wasn’t screaming at me anymore — or I just didn’t hear it in my body. It felt as if it was locked up in a padded room, unable to reach my brain.
“Why would they put mailboxes in the middle of the woods?” was apparently the first legible thing I said after an eternity. Mind you, there were no actual mailboxes.
I started to push harder up the hills. The water-and-ice-only aid station had to be close, so close. I was barely able to force myself to stay on the trail when I saw it in the distance. Tim correctly convinced me it was just another hallucination.
I stopped in my tracks. To the left, there was a gigantic snake in the grass.
“Ra… ra… ra…” I tried my best to pronounce the word I knew was correct but my mouth wasn’t listening to me, so I kept pointing there.
“It’s okay, it’s just a leaf, you’re okay,” said Tim but I refused to move. And then it started to move onto the trail.
“Oh wow, it’s a rattlesnake,” Tim said. It was so hot during the day that at whatever time it was (likely around 4 am), there was a huge rattlesnake slithering around.
My head cleared out enough to resolve a bathroom emergency and refill on water at the water station but soon after, I was back to being practically mute.
After what felt like centuries, the forest gave way to a meadow. And at the end of the meadow — light! Light and voices! It was the aid station. I registered that much, although my brain was floating in a strange space of non-pain and absolute lethargy. There was the notion of just stopping and asking someone to drive us back, but the thought couldn’t form fully — either because I was so completely out of it or because I seem to be quite pig-headed (although others call it determined; maybe I should adopt their outlook).
We drew closer to the aid station, volunteers cheering us in. Tim joined in with the mini-celebration, calling back out to them. I… tried to engage my brain and switch from “step-step-step-step-” to actually thinking. Coming back from whatever strange version of high I was in was excruciating. All the pain came back at once; chafing, foot, knee,…
“Sh… Chafing. Horribly,” I managed to say. When they saw me in my completely delirious state, suddenly, the volunteers were all around me. They sat me down in a chair and told me to lift my arms. They stripped me naked (yes, including my bra) and started to pad me down with a wet towel, cleaning my chafed, bleeding skin. I felt hands on my back while someone asked if I’m feeling hot.
I was in a glacial river and in the middle of a wildfire at once, and trying to convey that hot-and-cold take turns so fast I can’t even make sense of it was quite the piece of work.
They fed me pancakes with maple syrup and pickles and mustard. They basically stuffed an electrolyte ice pop into my mouth. They kept telling me how I had it, how I was great and amazing and strong. I didn’t feel any of these things; I felt like a dumpsterfire filled with things unmentionable on the internet.
They took off my shoes to pick grass burrs out of them. They checked my foot and then took to aggressively massaging my calves because they were apparently hard as a rock. I didn’t manage to stay quiet for that. I cried out a few times, but the new and different pain brought me to.
They gave my bra to my pacer, saying I was going to finish without it. They put a new layer of vaseline on my skin and drenched my legs in Biofreeze, a minty hot-and-cold pain reliever (or at least it’s advertised as a pain reliever, to me it felt as a pain-causer). Then they got me up, put my clothes back on, and walked my a$$ out of the aid station before I could even remember that I kinda wanted the whole thing to end already.
By then I was more awake. I told them my hips are all stiff and one of the volunteers ran back for more Biofreeze, she told me to take off my shorts and lathered my hips and butt with the stuff. Then they released Tim and he caught up to me and for the first time in several hours, we could have a conversation again. The last wisps of fog lifted from my brain, helped by the fact that the Biofreeze got into my chafed groin. That was a massive ouch, let me just say that. It hurt like a mother-fluffer.
And we were off. Only five miles left to go, on a blown knee, bleeding, with an inflamed tendon, and with a body that, although it was still trying to mute all the pain, was also receptive to it once again.
By the lake, cross the streams. Several of those stream crossings were on logs and wobbly wooden planks, requiring a more thorough engagement of leg muscles, which was something I would have preferred to avoid at that point (or, well, since mile 10 or so, but I couldn’t be too picky).
We crossed the river, rock-hopping our way across it, and set out for the last huge climb of the race.
Halfway up, my nose started to bleed.
And it didn’t stop at the last aid station where the volunteer who had me write “I can do hard things” on my leg nearly force-fed me a 12 hours old pizza.
And it didn’t stop when she sent us off.
And it didn’t stop when we headed out on the last two miles of this ordeal.
It didn’t stop — but I didn’t stop, either, and that was the one thing that mattered.
The closer to finish we were, the faster were my legs turning.
Because, goddamn it all, I was doing it. I was finishing my very first 50 miler, my very first official ultra, and the most brutal run I’d ever done.
The Finish (Mile 50), 7:55 Am
We saw the cars parked along the road that led to the finish. We sang the stupid refrain of the stupid song that was stuck in my head for 15 damn hours. We laughed.
A 100-mile runner and his pacer passed by, looking at my bloody nose as if it meant I’d passed some secret initiation ritual and calling out words of encouragement. We conveyed our “you’re awesome!” to each other and kept going.
The front of my shirt got covered in blood, as well as my dirty beat-up legs. On the road only a few feet from the trail, 5-kilometer runners were heading out. One of them stared at me and then hollered something along the lines of “you’ve got it.”
And then I saw it. The tents of the finish line. And then I heard it; people cheering. And then I bent over and threw up the blood that went down my throat against my will.
And it was absolutely bloody beautiful.
“You’re back! You’re back and you look beautiful!” Called out Michael the foot-taping horse-rider. “This is the image of Cool Moon right there!”
Then there was the arch.
And then there was the end. I’ve done it.
I cleaned my wounds and finally stopped the bleeding in the back of Tim’s van. The finish line volunteers wanted me to go to urgent care for the bloody nose, as it’s been bleeding for well over an hour at that point but alas, a bit of ice and some magic later, it was done.
I laid down and let my legs — my dirty, bloody, beautiful, strong legs — rest for the first time in 25 hours. Sue, one of the lovely volunteers, made me waffles and an egg-in-a-hole bread. We drove to the nearest pharmacy to get painkillers. And then we headed back home as if nothing had happened, just another non-descript white van on the freeway among many…
The biggest thank you goes out to Tim and Kim for being there for me. I wouldn’t have made it without you guys. (Tim, how the hell did you survive my delirious mumbling when I couldn’t talk? You must be the most patient person I know.)
More thanks go out to the volunteers — a suspicious amount of which was named Michael. (Maybe I was just losing it, who knows.) Thank you to the horse-owner Michael who taped my foot for me and to the geologist Michael who, perhaps unknowingly, stopped me from dropping by talking about rocks. And to Martin, the RD who really, genuinely wants every single one of his runners to finish.
And, well, thank you to my body for bringing me this far. You put me through hell in the past but I’m so grateful you can carry me across these insane distances nowadays. Kudos to you, my legs, you held up well.
All pictures in this post were taken by “Tim.”