Great battles never start at the field; they start months prior driven by an instigating notion that can typically point to love or hate. Passions have been ignited by these core emotions and lives inevitably have been altered. Politics, the arts, religion…all have this same simplistic foundation.
Ultrarunning isn’t exempt from these powerful properties in the least. For the great ones and many of my mentors, love is proclaimed in every step on the trail, kind word to another runner, and aura that radiates from them speaking volumes without a spoken word. Not to be ignored, hate has it’s place. For many runners, this author included, intrinsic disappointment is often tied to this emotion. Many people don’t understand that not making a time goal or podium finish isn’t the real culprit of discontent. Personally speaking, the finish time is far from priority in my hunt during an ultra. I expect a performance that I have earned. Point blank. If I don’t put in the work, I have no argument for a subpar finish. This concepts puts true ownership on our actions and inactions consequently dismisses the insurmountable babble that we recognize as excuses. This resounds in all aspects of life and it’s equated to making me more responsible and less of a whiner. I have little patience for whiners nowadays and when listening to someone go on and on about bullshit that they are ultimately responsible for encourages me flirt with the notion of a random throat punch or..provided the assets..pistol whipping. Clearly, I have to tread lightly as I haven’t mastered this yet but my self-awareness has been heightened by my own mistakes, and I am grateful for that.
Disappointment reared its nasty little head the about a month and half ago at Kettle Moraine 100 in Wisconsin. Due to a chaotic schedule, my poor training schedule didn’t leave me with a ton on confidence but in true Steph fashion I lined up shoulder to shoulder with my pals and ultrarunning family. Forty miles of rain and mud and then spiking temperatures were variables that each of us had to contend with so we took in stride. For about 50 miles I ran as 2nd or 3rd female according to aid station vols and felt fine. Mile 70-77 went straight down hill and I found myself dry-heaving on the course, running into trees, and at one point taking an unscheduled, unwilling ‘nap’ on the trail. (Thank you kindly for the runners who shook me to my feet; literally.) Not surprisingly and justifiably, the race Medical Marshall pulled me from the race at the 77ish marker. Not being able to stay conscious is a pretty good argument however I’m sure I probably gave him hell. My bad dude..I’m not going to go into the details of what went wrong, but I definitely learned a few things and am a better runner now due to the horrible experience.
Fast forward a couple weeks and I’m still without my annual Western States Qualifier. I don’t have to explain the significance of the Western States 100 so I’m not going to go into detail. Simply put, it’s legendary and as a passionate pupil of this incredible sport, it’s my Super Bowl. The lottery tickets that I hold are cherished experiences that fuel my training and racing and the mere thought of losing my tickets over a failed qualifying year angered and scared the hell out of me.
Enter: Never Summer 100k.
My challenging scheduled had a glimpse of hope for the weekend of Never Summer 100k in Gould, Colorado. The course and altitude were foreign to me, but I’ve never shied away from a challenge so saddle up. The elevation chart made me curse and giggle at the same time. I found it sexy as hell and I salivated when I registered. As an Iowan flatlander, I was a tad nervous that I had less of than a month to train for elevation, mountains, angry moose, and then taper to recover and be ready to rock race morning. Ideal? F*CK NO. Doable? Maybe.
Shaking off the emotional baggage from KM 100 was easier than I thought now that I had another race to focus on. Plus, flushing away emotion has been a learned trait over my years of adulting. Next.
Having a new, ridiculous target on the horizon was all the medicine I needed to recover from some nagging 77-miles o’failure injuries and discomfort. Time to get really uncomfortable! Training for a couple weeks was like walking on glass. Strategized training replaced 3-a-day workouts due to a heavy work schedule and my old age wisdom reminded me that too many miles would put me in a position that was worse that too few. Early..and I mean EARLY..morning hill repeats at Ledges State park and Booneville backroads became plan of attack. I completely changed my nutrition plan as well as changed up some gear options. I ate as raw as possible to keep inflammation down, drank as much water as I could, cut caffefine (UGGGH..coffee I love you), tabled the shot glasses, and rolled, elevated, iced, cryo’ed, massaged, and did whatever else I could think of to be ready. Voo doo would have been entertained at this point if Tim Olson or Scott Jurek suggested it. God bless my teenager for surviving these rough weekends; I totally blame my psychosis on anxiety-fueled stress and the lack of coffee. It was a rough time and I realized early on that my own doubts and reservations were feeding my fears. Shortly in, I learned to focus on my finish line celebration and not if I was going to get there in the first place. This is probably my best advice for anyone stuck in the same boat.
Throughout this journey, I had a few courageous people question why I was doing this to myself. “My pain is self-chosen..” -L.S. (RIP). Love and a little hate…
And just like that I was flying to Laramie, Wyoming, and snagged my ghetto rental car to jet south to Colorado to the my rustic cabin in the State Forest State Park mountains. I had quite the home for this gnarly adventure. No running water and a warning to watch for bears at night when walking to the outhouse may or may not have encouraged me to poop in a Target bag. I will never tell. Overall, interesting experience ‘roughing it’..I realized I am more of a snob that I care to admit. Ultrarunner points lost for sure.
There is nothing like race morning and the Never Summer 100k morning was no different. The air was thick with energy, anxiety, and genuine badassedness. The crackling fire light up the finish line and check in. Runners wandering around in headlamps, checking and rechecking their gear which encouraged me to do the same. I had no clue what was in store but the great unknown left me wired and strangely aroused. Sick bastard.
The RD rallied the troops on the start line and began the countdown. Nervous excitement was thick in the air and my heart rate was nuts as the race base camp was thousands higher above sea level that my Iowa body/corpse was accustomed to. No time to acclimate so I was banking on tricking my body as long as possible. I incorporated an O2 restriction mask into my training leading up to the race. I knew this wasn’t going to be a huge asset in dealing with the air at 12,000 feet, but I figured it couldn’t hurt. Who knows, could have been a total hack…but I didn’t buy it from an infomercial so maybe it was legit.
Go time and the battle begun. Within 5 or 6 miles we were already touching about 11,500 feet after summitting the first climb. I was quickly reminded that hills and mountains aren’t even remotely related..further than 3rd or 4th cousins. All I could do is laugh while I power hiked and even foraged up the mountain on all fours on several points. Trekking poles were a common sight, mental note taken.
The altitude was felt in full force. I’ve ran at elevation before but never coupled with such ridiculous climbs. My body felt heavy, extremities tingled, and could feel a slight headache for most of the race. GI distress flirted a bit as well and gave me immediate KM100 flashbacks.
My plan for the race was simple but highly contrasted my previous strategies:
No caffeine. This was the single biggest race plan change to date. No gels, no magic green tea pills, no coffee, no candy, no HEED, no VFuel. Justification: caffeine historically doesn’t encourage the most settled stomach and I had read that altitude sickness is enhanced by caffeine so..buh bye. I’ve never ran an ultra without gels so this scared me a bit.
GI problems: Drink water constantly, by a timer on my watch. It goes off, I drink what I can in relation to where I was between aid stations and refills. Rationing was key. At aid stations, take a shot of Ginger Ale. I have NEVER tried ginger ale in my life and didn’t know what to expect, but I figured what the hell..the pros do it.
Foot care: I had 2 shoe and drymax sock changes scheduled throughout the race, strategized after the most water crossings. I don’t sit during races and rarely at aid for more than a minute so this was another first for me. I studied the course the best I could and matched different types of shoes to what I thought I would need.
Temperature fluctuations. MAJOR fail here. I froze my ass off after the sun setted behind those beautiful mountains that were so surreal it looked like Bob Ross put them in. Moving and keeping the blood pumping was my only savior. I had to chisel the failed frozen snot rocket attempts.
Altitude-induced physical issues: I kept a close track on my heartrate and didn’t max it out. During the major climbs; I probably only climbed 20 feet max at a time before stopping and bringing my heartrate down. Leading up to the race, I started lap swimming and tried to extend my stroke count to improve my oxygen exchange to essentially let me body perform on less oxygen. I also sang a lot, and loudly, during my long runs. I can’t sing worth a shit…especially when I had Dope or HellYeah on the Ipod. I should probably apologize to local park go-ers and residents of those back roads, but I won’t.
All this helped improve my body’s performance during restricted oxygen so when I was climbing at Never Summer, by recovery time only took seconds instead of minutes. Win. Still, the frequent stops during the climbs added hours to my finish time, easily.
Run for WS qualification, not to podium. 23…That was the magic number. Jordan baby! I will grudgingly admit that I suck at pace restriction. As my buddy and pacer will contest, I have basically one gear. However, I knew I wasn’t going run a PR and all I needed was to finish in under 23 hours. Fear chased me throughout most of the race and I had a hard time enjoying the views as I wanted to. However, I had to stick to a strategy that would get me to sub-23. I was surprised to see how aggressive the cut-off times were and I wasn’t horribly confident in a few legs of the course. I see why this was called “Little Hardrock”. Geesh.
Having those strategies in the forefront kept me focused. I opted for no music again as I wanted to feel every earned mile and stay as attentive as possible to my steps. Along with some wicked climbs, the descents were very technical. We crossed a couple segments that were large loose rock and a segment that was literally large boulders that you had to traverse. Some of these moved a bit and the fear of starting a boulder avalanche was definitely a factor.
After summiting the first major climb, soaking in the magnificence of the alpine lake, and working through the forest, we set off for the second and highest peak summit. There aren’t words that can describe how intense this climb that took hours to complete was. Often time there was dead silence in a pack of climbing runners. Straight focus. At any moment and wrong foot placement could have ended up in a slip, fall, and snowball effect sending dozens to their possible demise. I tried to apply my knowledge of physics and weight distribution to make each step as efficient as possible. I assessed the angle of the climb and tried to react with shifting the angle of my body to encourage my strongest muscles to fire, using mathematics and gravity in my favor. I swear this saved me a ton of energy. #NerdsUnite!
Regardless how much I strategized on that beloved ascent, it was no joke..imminently dangerous but the most breathtaking (literally) experience that I have ever been blessed to be a part of. The ultra gods shone favor on me that day and the sights I took in of the Colorado mountains left me humbled, speechless, and connected with all the runners around me. Reaching the summit was like a scene from Rocky. Instant energy surged as a small local band rocked out as each runner touched the flag at the summit. I got choked up…I’m assuming this was fueled by exhaustion, sheer joy that that bitch of a climb was over, and also legitimate pride. I’ll never forget that moment. Thank you, ultrarunning, for reminding me that I’ve got what it takes, and then some.
Running down that mountain was mixed with ‘oh shit’ moments, ‘yay!’ moments, ‘damn it, how is there another climb on a downhill’ moment, and even a ‘I hope that moose doesn’t see me’ moment. The rollercoaster of experiences kept me on my toes and holding a tight grip on reality of my environment.
Temperatures soared and water was key to keeping me trudging forward. I was honored to share some water with a runner that tapped out on his supply 3 miles from the next aid station. That’s what we do, we’re ultrarunners, we’re family. Along the course I ran into local Midwest runners. I loved that..we truly have the some awesome peeps in the lowlands.
Wildlife popped up from all over. I heard of a couple bear sightings early in the course so I kept a watchful eye out. Surprisingly, the most aggressive animals were these elk-deer type things that truly wanted to battle. Being the badass that I am; I grabbed the nearest stick and started talking a massive load of crap that I could no way back up. They didn’t call my bluff and no one got hurt…in other words, I got super lucky as did the other runner that I was trying to protect.
Sweating and running through snow was a definite trip. It messed with my head a bit. A handful of blinding white, alpine snow down the sports bra as a refreshing reminder that I was truly running a mountain race.
I welcomed the sunset with a delicious downhill section that was actually runnable. This was shortly after a scheduled shoe change so I felt like friggin Forrest Gump for a half hour or so. I stopped twice during this section, not out of necessity but out of absolute awe. The sunset was unmatched. No words to describe it…give me a minute…ahh..it was surreal.
Seconds after the sun left us for the day the evil temps crept it..and quickly. The headlamp was now lighting my path to survivial, not just the finish line.
I met Jose throughout the day and ended up partnering up on this sunset trail...15 miles or so to go.
Jose got me; I could laugh, curse, or be completely silent focusing on the trail and digging into every asset I could find to press on. He ran when I ran, power hiked when I did, and rested his heart rate when mine was hitting the red zones during the higher altitude climbs. We ran into a few adventures along that last fifteen miles.
The list of things that I fear is actually pretty small; however significant. Cows, specifically cows at night, definitely makes that list. Laugh all you want but you know that if the intent was there, you would be at their mercy! At one point I came to a dead stop listening to the shrieks (ok, they were moo’s) of these beasts in pitch darkness. I shined my headlamp around me and was surrounded by about a dozen of these assholes. I couldn’t see them, just those menacing eyes that would likely haunt my dreams. Their moo’s seemed satanic and provoking and I about poo’ed myself. Jose probably has bruises on his arm from a few moments of terrified panic after realizing they were so close.
Coyotes, foxes, and unknown cat-like creatures were also seen momentarily through headlamp discoveries. Jose and I made a plan to make random checks behind us so we wouldn’t get flanked. Between the horrible cries of those bastard cows and the sounds of our own pounding hearts, we couldn’t hear anything. The silence was too loud.
The stars reminded me how small we were and also gave me a sense of someone was protecting us. I was beat down, hard. I knew I was close to bonking so inhaled small servings of broth, cinnamon bagels, and tortilla chips. The peanut butter and jelly wraps and quesadillas were on point as well. “Eat damn it..” I had to tell myself that a few times. I was super tempted to take in a gel or VFuel but opted to stick to my plan as the altitude sickness plagued me without warning throughout the day and night.
The shoe changes were monumental in pressing on, a total win. As always, zero chaffing thanks to Squirrel’s Nut Butter.
Aid station placement was sufficient for the most part. Poor Jose wanted to eat at aid stations and chill a bit, but I wasn’t down. “Let’s finish this…” moved us both and we were back on the trail sufferfest. My co-runner had turned into my pacer and we both conceded to our God-given roles.
The climbs continued to be relentless. This course was far more based on power hiking than running and finish times reflected that. At one point we were confusing the course reflectors with stars. Let that sink in for a moment..
Two miles out we hit the final aid station. This spurred some solid run sets. Looking down at my watch confirmed that unless we were attacked by a bear, mauled by a mountain lion, or devoured by a god-forsaken cow, we would finish under WSQ time. I choked up. After a mental defeat and horrible lost battle at Kettle Moraine 100 and 21 hours, 55 minutes, and 44 seconds of a pure test of perseverance, I crossed the finish line at the Never Summer 100k with my Western States Qualifier.
Logistically speaking this was not a phenomenal finish and not even close to a podium performance..but, that wasn’t my goal. I was at war with myself. Kettle’s failure beat me down to a place where I don’t want to ever be again with my running. I created a battle plan and stuck to it. I modified a racing strategy that has historically lead to wins, top tens, and even course records. Changing all I know was a risk, but it was a calculated risk. Stepping outside my comfort zone was encouraging completely by education, a little bit science, and pure desire. Realistically I would never suggest a runner try something new to that extend with some much on the line, but desperate times call for desperate measures. This course was not going to adapt to me so I had to completely respect the elements and modify to please the mountains.
I’m grateful. I have a renewed confidence in myself in strategy implementation and I’ve matured as a runner. I like how my body performed without caffeine so I may play around with that. Straight water and real food calories lead to this success as well; maybe Maffetone was right on a few things. My finish time is completely irrelevant when gauging my triumph on this race. Some of the most successful assets don’t fit on a podium.
Trail on, my friends.