Friday, April 01, 2011

Howling at the Moon

It was a dark and stormy night...

...but, I didn't notice because I was tucked safely into my nice, dry hotel bed. 

I'd later find out that the weather was so nasty that many of the early 100 mile starters dropped after a 'mere' 26 miles.  By the time I toed the starting line at 10am on Saturday, the foul weather had retreated.  It was a beautiful day to run.

At the start we were given the option to begin running directly up the trail (with no penalties) or we could race around the perimeter of the field first and then begin the run.  The 100 mile folks (that's right, as an early start 100k runner I had the privilege of starting with the speedy, late-start 100 mile runners) chose to head up the trail as quickly as possible.  I don't know if this is because they were feeling the pressure since they were starting in last place and chasing people that had (in some cases) a 12 hour head start, if it was because the 100 milers had the extra obligation of carrying a rock to a memorial at the highest point of the course or if it's because they were party poopers.  I figured the extra 5 minutes I took to run around the field would not make or break my ability to finish so I took off at a leisurely pace around the field wearing a rainbow beanie on my head.  Why, you might ask?  Because I was told to wear it until I was passed up by a faster 100k runner and I do what I'm told.   Once my lap around the field was done, I headed up into the mountains.

Oh yes, did I mention the mountains?  I had a chance to meet them the day before at packet pickup.  Josh made fun of me because I got more and more nervous as we approached.  This is only because the closer we got the taller they got!  I had, of course, looked into the elevation change on the race website.  I understood what 19,000 ft of elevation gain meant intellectually.  I just didn't realize what it looked liked.  If you asked me what I disliked most about my first 50 miler (Dick Collins Firetrails 50), I would tell you that the only thing I didn't like was the hills.  Why did I turn around and sign up for a race that had 3 feet of climb for every 1 foot of climb that Dick Collins had?  I.....don't.....know.  In any case, the mountains were tall and all of my training was at sea level along a nicely paved beach path. 

I knew I was out of my element but I wasn't sure what to do about it.

That's when I noticed the two guys running ahead of me.  They were running at a pace that felt comfortable to me.  More importantly, they were talking about this race as if it was not their first time running it! 

I started shadowing them like a feral animal.  I didn't want to get so close that they'd notice me.  However, I panicked every time I lost sight of them.  You might think it was silly to panic, but, you don't know how easily I get lost.  The average person would not be able to get lost on a path that has no turn offs while following 10ft behind another person.  I'm above average.

I guess I was following too closely because one of them turned around and asked if I wanted to pass.

"No!  I'm fine."  I tried to say it cool.  In truth I blurted it out and probably sound half crazed, half panicked and half confused.  Yes.  Coyote 2 Moon is the type of race where you can have 3 halves and it still makes sense.

We ran in silence for a few more minutes when they turned to me once again.  "Do you want to join us?"

"Sure."  This time I was cool....but I was quite excited on the inside.  One of my main goals was to meet ultra-runners and possibly make friends.  I had run an entire 50-miler and had managed to not have a single meaningful conversation with any of the other runners over 11 hours and 9 minutes of running.  I did talk to a very nice guy with a dog.  The German shepherd's name was Loki.  I don't think I ever asked the guy what his name was.  Clearly, I'm socially inept.  Coyote 2 Moon seemed like the kind of race where you can't escape making friends even if you try.  Now, I had permission to run with two "Mooners" for the next 60+ miles...It seemed like even I couldn't mess up the bonding.  My other main goal was to survive.  Running with them seemed like it would help me achieve that goal too.  Win-Win.

We exchanged names.  They were Jack and Justin.  I (of course) am Jessica.  I appreciated the symmetry of the names and decided from now on I will only run with people that have J names.  It did occur to me that beggars can't be choosers, so, I don't know how firm I will be in this new rule, but, for now, it stands.

The cool thing about running with Jack and Justin is that they seemed to know everyone on the trail!  Every runner we passed or that passed us would pace us for a while to chat.  Even the super fast people, you know, the kind of people that have sponsors and 20hr times on courses the rest of us take 40 hours to run would say hi.  One extremely fast lady named Jen (or Jenn) with the most impressive calves I have ever seen spoke to us many times as she came and went.  The 100-milers run a slightly different (and longer) course than those of us running the 100k so I was never quite sure how far into the race she was at any given moment.  I think she was about 60 miles in when we were about 20 miles in and she looked fresher than I did at the starting line.  That's the kind of runner I dream of being as I wash a chocolate chip cookie down with a swig of Coke.

The next few hours have all kind of blended in my mind.  We ran up...and up....and up....and, just when I thought we couldn't possible run up some more, we would round a corner and discover that, yes, we needed to go up just a little (ha!) bit more.  At night it was eerie to see the glow of the headlamps and flashlights of other runners bobbing around about 200-500 ft above my head.  At different times the guys I was running with would cough, clear their throat, spit and do other things that runners do.  Jack mentioned that they were really noisy and I was being extremely proper.  Of course, this is only because he hadn't seen me wipe my runny nose on my sleeve every 5 minutes over the course of 14 hours.

The bulk of Coyote Two Moon has been filed in my mind as a series of grueling climbs and descents broken up by amazing views (my favorite was being on top of a ridge watching small snowflakes float up from the valley below) and fantastic aid stations staffed by the best people in the world.  The folks at the aid station go out of their way to get you fueled up and entertained.  There were disco wigs, animal costumes, shots offered for bonus minutes (though this tee-totaller had to abstain) and food!  My aid station rule is to eat anything that looks good.  Pre-race I'm always dreaming of the sweets.  During the race though I always end up grabbing the savory foods.  I ate one of the best grilled cheese sandwiches I have ever had, a PB&J a tasty quesadilla and some soup.  I also drank Coke at every aid station.  Coke during a race makes me super happy.

Things were going smoothly until Cozy Dell aid station at mile 30.3.  As we got into the aid station, the sun went down and the rain came up.  I sipped some broth, chugged a cup of Coke and rested a bit.  At this point I did a 'gut check' to make sure that I was ready for the next leg of the race.  You see, I had been warned.  There is no quitting on the ridge!  If you get yourself back up there you'd better be ready to get back down.  I decided to continue.  I had plenty of 'run' left in my legs.  I was warm.  It was raining lightly but I had a rain jacket.  

I began the 6.6 mile 3,400 ft of elevation climb towards the Gridley Top aid station.  I wish I had taken a moment to consider that light rain might get heavier or that rain at 1,000 ft might be an altogether different animal at 4,500 ft.  I would still have made the decision to continue; however, I might have pulled my Moeben sleeves out of my pockets and put them on for a bit more warmth.  Hindsight and all of that....

As I'm sure you've already guessed, the gentle drizzle did not remain a gentle drizzle.  It turned into a downpour.  The downpour turned into icy slush being blown sideways into my face.  I pulled the brim of the propeller hat down at whatever angle the slush was coming in at to gain whatever protection I could.  As we climbed up higher the icy slush turned to snow.  Lots of snow.  By this time everyone on the trail started to look like refugees in a disaster movie, faithfully moving forward having heard rumors of a safe place up ahead.  I considered stopping to put on my sleeves for extra warmth but I didn't want to stop moving and I certainly didn't want to unzip my rain jacket so they stayed in my pocket.

At some point I got separated from Justin and Jack.  The legs that had seemed so fresh down in Cozy Dell were now rebelling at the continued climb.  I would 20-30 feet then stop and rest.  I saw someone coming up behind me and moved to the side.  Then I realized that I had misjudged his pace.  I kept going then moved to the side when I thought he was about to pass again.  Again I had misjudged.  I did this a third time.  I think he might have thought I was losing my mind because instead of passing me he suggested that we stick together until we get to the top.

"I'm concerned I'll slow you down."  I didn't mind dying out there on the mountain but I was going to feel really bad if I took someone else down with me.

"That's o.k.  In conditions like this it's best to stick together.  My name's Jeffry."  That's when I knew it was meant to be.  As I said, I only run with J's.

I did not realize how cold I was until I arrived at Gridley Top and stopped moving.  It's the coldest I can remember being in my life.  I was completely soaked.  A giant bunny took my gloves and put them over a stove to warm them up.  Then she rubbed my hands to get the blood flowing.  It hurt!  But, at least blood was still flowing.  By the way, I wasn't hallucinating.  This particular aid station was full of giant barnyard animals.  The kindest barnyard animals I have ever met.

I started shivering.  Not the delicate shivers of a 90lb woman on a 75 degree day.  These were full-body shivers coming from deep in my gut.  I got put in the small tent they had that provided shelter for people in the worst condition.  Some were curled up in a ball of pain.  Others had been stripped down and put into sleeping bags to warm them up.  I was offered a dry sweatshirt (provided from the extra gear packed by the Gridley Top volunteers - as I said, they were amazing).  The bunny reappeared and handed me a water bottle full of hot water.  I sat in the tent, clutching the water bottle, trying to get the shivering under control and all I could think was that I had been specifically warned not to complain about being cold up on the ridge.  It was not my proudest moment.  A man that I would describe as a gruff teddy bear (not because he was in a bear suit but because he was simultaneously gruff and yet comforting) told us we could stay as long as we needed to get better but then we needed to get the hell out.  Having already messed up with the 'dress warm enough' direction I wanted to at least excel at the recovery so I thought warm thoughts.

My race was over.  Of course, when your race is over on the ridge you still have to get back down to Gridley Bottom before you can catch a ride back to the starting line.  So, 'over' still involved a 5.8 mile descent through some rocky and rooty technical trail.  I started the descent in a group of four but we picked up more people as we descended.  About 20 minutes in we were passed by some of the fast 100 milers who were heading back up from Gridley Bottom - still in the game.  About 40 minutes later we were passed by them again as they headed back down - the race had been canceled.

 In the end, I succeeded in my goals of surviving and of making friends with some ultra runners.  I lost my head lamp - a faithful friend that brought me down off the mountain but didn't manage to make it back to the hotel.  And, I gained one rainbow beanie which remained on my head even through 40 mph gusts.  I covered 43.8 miles (which is the 2nd farthest I've gone in a single run) and had the time of my life.


  1. hey, how come your mom hasn't written anything yet?!!? fun story to read, thnx for taking the time to construct a cathartic recap of your madness and challenge. good luck in your attempt to find lost sanity...


  2. This sounds grueling, yet somehow, less painful then you cutting your finger in your last post. I'm glad you made friends and sad that I can't run with you, as I aman L name. Thankfully, I have Luke,should either of us ever decide to get our lazy A's off the couch and run.

  3. The ridge was right above us, and we were happy to finally be there, until it became clear we were walking in a sideways whiteout with two miles or forty minutes to go to safety, and even that was fragile shelter. Sticking together to share our lights and battle the snowy onslaught was the best decision I made in the 26 hours I ran.

    For a small lady with a propeller on your head, you showed a lot of pluck, courage, humor and inspiration. Few know what you endured in those two miles. I do. Thank you for being my companion that evening on the ridge.


  4. And Jeffery... I doubt you'll read this, but thank you for running with my sister, knowing their is safety in numbers and of course... for having a J name.