The morning they opened registration for this year’s Silver State 50/50, I had my finger on the button to sign up. I hadn’t raced in over a year, and I missed it!
Friday afternoon, I texted Jenelle to see if she wanted to carpool. (Hooray for being vaccinated and being able to share rides again!) She said yes, and here’s how the conversation went down after that:
Me: Are you doing a drop bag:
Jenelle: Maybe. I need a backup pair of shoes.
Jenelle: Actually, JP will be at Peavine. I can just ask him to bring them.
Me: Sounds good. Ask him to bring rain jackets for us too, just in case! Ha ha JK.
Jenelle: [scared-face emoji, crazy-face emoji]
Me: Yeah, rolling the dice on that one!
Me: Oh shit, never mind. I just checked the forecast again. Chance of thunderstorms has increased to 60% and moved to 11:00 AM, with a high temp of 62 in Reno.
Me: I’m going to run with a vest and carry a rain jacket and sleeves.
So, that turned out to be the best decision I made in the whole race. Maybe this whole year.
In the morning at the start, I reveled in the joy of seeing so many friends again. That was the part I had been looking forward to the most. Not even individual friends so much (though, that too), but just being in a community of friends again. Ask, and Silver State Striders shall provide!
|On the start line with Jenelle|
|Sean and Alex on the start line|
I lined up with Jenelle, and RD John Trent gave us a few inspiring words about our friend Lucas, whom we lost this past year. That sense of community around here - it extends to those who can no longer be a part of it. With that, we were off into a beautiful high desert sunrise.
Most of these early climbing miles aren’t too steep, so I found myself running most of them. Still, race pace was an uncomfortable concept. It had been so long since I’d raced! I found myself thinking it felt fast.
Early miles climbing up behind Jenelle
I chatted with Jenelle a bit and let her pull me upward. Eventually though, I counseled myself to be smart about my pace, and she slowly pulled ahead. I would run basically solo for the next 20 miles after that.
At mile 12, the folks at the Peavine Summit aid station took good care of me, including friends JP and George. This is the highpoint of the course, and 50 mile runners would visit it three times throughout the day.
After Peavine1, runners head out for a 7-mile loop known as “Jimmy’s Loop.” This is a new section of the course since the last time I ran this race, and it essentially replaces the descent and returning climb from Sandy Hill to Riverbend and back. I’d heard it was technical and steep, and the race website said that it added to the overall climbing/descending of the course.
All of that turned out to be true, but it was also beautiful. I didn’t see another soul on the whole loop, and the sky was huge, with magnificent clouds rolling around it. Flowers, birdsong, and the rhythm of a steady pace down the trail all made for calm and joyous morning.
I swung by the Peavine AS for the second time before heading downhill toward the Long Valley Loop. Katie and Annie Trent had made camp a mile or two down the trail, and they cheered me enthusiastically.
The Long Valley Loop is another section (besides Jimmy’s Loop) that the 50K runners don’t get to enjoy. It's the most wooded and “mountain forest” section of the race. Big trees and unique rock formations share the sage-covered slopes with vast, open views. I had shed my sleeves during Jimmy’s Loop as the morning warmed up, but now the sun disappeared completely, and a cold breeze inspired me to put them back on.
|Big trees and cool rocks in Long Valley|
I was moving along feeling awesome, when all of a sudden, CRACKBOOM! Thunder. The kind that’s close and loud and crackles right overhead.
It seemed to come out of nowhere. I’d been watching the increasing clouds all morning, but there’d been no distant rumbles, no hint that the storm was nearly upon me.
I pulled my sleeve back to check my watch. 11:04. Well, the national weather service pretty much nailed that one.
Things stayed dry, with a few more thunderclaps that weren’t quite as close as that first one. I rolled into the Long Valley aid station where the ladies took great care of me and served me some of that delicious GU Hibiscus Tea electrolyte drink.
“I’m hoping that lightning goes away,” I confessed while they filled my bottles.
“Oh,” one replied, “yeah, it must have been a lot closer to where you were.”
They seemed less concerned about it than I was, which was simultaneously reassuring and disconcerting. When I left the aid station, would I be heading back into the storm?
Not long after leaving the aid station, I passed a runner who looked to be struggling. He was the first runner I’d seen for miles. I watched the dirt of the trail intensely for signs of raindrops as the sound of thunder around me came with increasing frequency.
Eventually, a gentle rain began to fall. I gave it about 20 seconds to make sure it wasn’t just teasing me, and then I promptly took my pack off and put my rain jacket on. I knew I didn’t want to end up too wet before I got my rain jacket on.
It was the right call, as soon my gentle rain turned into a heavy rain, followed by a downpour. When it started to hail, I laughed out loud. Seriously? Well, yes, I told myself, thunderstorms usually come with hail.
I was only a mile or so past the Long Valley aid station at this point, which meant I had about 3 miles to go to get to the aid station at Dog Valley. I had on my super warm sleeves from the Pocatello 50M under my jacket, and I felt warm enough so far, even as the hail stung my bare legs. Now I could see the lightning every time it lit up my surroundings, and I would grit my teeth until the deafening cracks that followed made me instinctively wince and duck my head.
After enduring a particularly terrifying thunderstorm at Hardrock in 2012, I am not one to get overly afraid in a thunderstorm (until things reach that particularly terrifying point, and then I freak out). Still, being alone, soaking wet, pummeled by hail, with lightning constantly cracking around you - I knew it wasn’t the best place to be. I also knew my best move was just to keep moving forward to that next aid station.
I pulled my headphones out and plugged in one ear. Although I could barely hear it over the constant thunder, the music helped distract me and calm my nerves a bit. I haven’t listened to music in a race in well over a decade, but I was happy to have it at Silver State this year!
If there’s one thing weather like this does, it’s motivate you. I dug in and cranked, knowing I still had another two miles to get to Dog Valley. Soon, the trail started to turn muddy, and suddenly, I was overcome with an intense feeling of dread.
Lightning is not great, but there is nothing more terrifying than Peavine mud.
By this point, water was seeping in through my collar, and I was beginning to get a bit wet. I was still warm enough, but a solid wind whirled about, and I knew the combination of wet and wind could be as deadly as a lightning strike.
These worries tugged at the back of my mind, when suddenly, there in the distance was Brandon Dey and his “Big Ball of Dildos” costume. It says a lot about my state of mind that I did not bat an eye at this bizarre costume (which I think was actually just supposed to be a crazy alien costume …?) and instead met his whoops and hollers with whoops and hollers of my own. Dog Valley Aid Station!
|Brandon and his crazy "alien" costume (photo: Valerie Hewitt)|
As I approached, captain Valerie Hewitt immediately let me know that I would have to stop there because we were on lightning hold. It makes perfect sense, given the circumstances. Still, my first thought was, “Oh no, if I can’t keep moving, I’m going to get hypothermic real quick.”
Little did I know how prepared the Dog Valley team was.
When I ducked into the tent I was greeted by Jenelle, Sean, and E.J. among a group of about 5 runners. I have never been so happy to see a crowd of friendly faces, and my attitude immediately shifted from one of worry to one of joy.
|Jenelle, Sean, E.J. and crew. How could you not be stoked upon arriving to the aid station to these faces?|
“Heeeeeey!” they all cried upon seeing me.
“Come have a seat!” called Sean.
“Do you want some broth?” offered Janelle.
“There are more blankets,” someone said. And I noticed then that everyone was wrapped in furry blankets and sleeping bags.
Every thought of “keep moving” was instantly erased, and I happily made my way over to the proffered seat and blanket. We exchanged survival stories as the hail thrummed on the tent and thunder cracked overhead. Sean had survived an incredibly close call, and we were all grateful not to be out there for the time being. When the volunteers pulled out the Pendleton whiskey, I knew I had found my people.
|Cheers! The ground behind me is white because it is covered in hailstones, which you can see are still coming down hard. (Photo: Valerie Hewitt)|
|Sean regales us with lightning tales (photo: Valerie Hewitt)|
I sat there for 20 minutes (Thank you, E.J., for reminding me to stop my watch!), but it all seemed to go by in an instant. Fresh quesadillas, warm broth, and whiskey shots will do that. Sean had been the first to arrive after the lightning hold had been enacted, and I think he was probably there for at least 45 minutes.
Eventually, the lightning abated, and Valerie decided we were safe to continue. By that time there was a crowd of 12 or more, and we all set off into the rain, ready to meet whatever lay ahead.
It was nice to be sharing the trail with Jenelle again, but the conditions were so challenging as to be ludicrous. I don’t mean that it was still raining (which it was) or that my hands were too cold to open a GU packet (which they were). No. I mean that mud. That Peavine, shoe-sticking, trail-sliding, getting-nowhere, slopfest mud. If you’ve ever tried to run on Peavine or nearby Reno trails anytime after a rain or snow storm, you know exactly what I mean.
In some areas, it was so wet that every footfall slid out from under us, like some malicious slapstick comedy, utterly preventing forward motion. But those weren’t the worst parts. No, Peavine has this very special sticky mud. In the sticky-mud stretches, one footfall adds about an inch of mud to your shoes, and it does not come off. With each step, more mud clings. Within seconds, each shoe weighs 10 pounds, and the rounded ball of mud on the bottom gives you no control whatsoever. It’s frustrating, exhausting, and injury-inducing.
So, this is what Peavine had for us as we trekked determinedly upward, through the cold, wind, and rain, toward our next aid station at Sandy Hill. At one point, I looked up to see a runner in the distance trying desperately to keep his feet under him - right foot, left foot, right foot slipping again and again, until he finally reached a desperate hand out onto the ground in front of him. I couldn’t even laugh because it was a fate that awaited us all.
After the initial climb, we hit a long stretch of flat road that should have been fast, gravy miles. Instead, it was covered with sticky mud. Slow, soul-sucking, and exhausting.
The Sandy Hill aid station was staffed by dear friends of mine, and I arrived filled with relief. One more milestone checked off on the way to the final Peavine summit, after which, I could start heading down and get off this mountain. (I carefully refrained from calling it "this damn mountain" just there, because I do not want insult Mother Peavine.)
Here is where I would like to take a moment to explain how Sean, who had been running far ahead of me all day, put everyone else and their safety ahead of his own need to race that day. Our friend Alex, who was also Sean’s good training buddy, had become severely hypothermic and was recovering in someone’s truck at Sandy Hill. Sean wouldn’t leave until he’d made sure everything was okay and he’d contacted Alex’s wife, meaning Jenelle and I left that aid station ahead of him.
She and I were hiking and chatting, when suddenly we heard Sean call out from behind. We turned to see him waving his poles frantically at us. We’d missed a turn. Crap! Jenelle turned around and headed back toward him, while I yelled as loud as I could to a runner ahead of us, who I couldn’t see anymore around a corner, but whom I knew was up there, ignorant of his mistake.
Sean flew by me up the trail to track down the missing runner while Jenelle and I gathered sticks to create a big arrow, hoping to mark the turn more clearly so that runners behind us wouldn’t make the same mistake. I looked up to see Sean, who, after retrieving the runner, was on his phone calling ahead to the next aid station to let them know the turn might need to be remarked since the rain had washed the chalk away. (A short while later, we encountered a jeep of volunteers coming down to take care of it.) Later, at Peavine aid, I heard Sean checking in with the volunteers about the status of another runner (possibly Alex).
Thank you, Sean, for taking care of all of us!
The rest of the day was mostly more of the same (rain, wind, mud), except that after Peavine, there is a whole lot of downhill. I left the summit still in Jenelle’s company, and tried to keep my downhill running engines on high. My fingers were still fairly useless, and I was keen to get down to warmer climes.
|Leaving Peavine for the final time, with our cups of hot broth. (photo: Mat Glaser)|
After a couple of miles, Jenelle slowly pulled away. By the time I hit the aid station with only 5 ½ miles to go, my hands were warm and my feet were trashed. So I slowed to a more casual pace.
I closed in on the finish, and the Reno skyline, all sparkling and washed clean by the rain, was beautiful. I smiled, reflecting already on what an adventure the day had been. My first Silver State 50M, in 2008, had been sunny and 98F. People ran out of water and suffered severe dehydration. It was like the polar opposite of this day. Mother Peavine - she’ll deal you every hand in the deck, and you’d best be prepared.
Jenelle was at the finish line to greet me, along with Steve, Gia, and other running friends. Somehow, Jenelle and I finished 2nd and 3rd for the women, with our friend Amber taking the win. It felt crazy because I hadn’t even been thinking of time or performance since just before Dog Valley. What? Third place? You mean there are places in this thing? Was this a race?
There were hugs all around (hey, we’re all vaccinated, it's cool) and we all just laughed at the crazy day we’d survived. It couldn’t be over until we cheered Sean across the line (who, any other day, would have long since finished), and it was such a joy to see him run it in.
If my sense of excited anticipation for this event was about a return to my running community, I don’t think I could have asked for a more bonding experience than this one. I know there were a lot of people out there whom I didn't get to see, including runners in the 50K. But we all experienced a truly special day out there together, not to mention an incredible sense of accomplishment.
Huge thanks to the Silver State Striders, John Trent, and all the incredible volunteers who braved the lightning and mud to take care of us. Special shoutout to the Dog Valley rockstars. Next time, I won’t wait 10 years before coming back to this race!
|Muddy, wet, and stoked. At the finish line with Jenelle.|
|Summitting Squaw. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
Sometimes I look back on the things I loved in childhood, where my favorite novels were wilderness survival stories and my favorite TV show was High Mountain Rangers (That link will take you to a fuzzy version of a particular HMR episode about a woman in the overall lead of a 100 mile trail race across the Sierra.), and it seems like I must have just sprinted out of the womb with a desire for adventure, wilderness, and endurance sports. I don’t know how a girl becomes such a thing at a young age, but when I first heard about the Western States 100 as a kid, I knew I wanted to run it one day.
My first actual encounter with the race was to volunteer at one of the Memorial Day Weekend training runs in 2004. I’d never run an ultra before, but I was supremely ultra-curious. I’d lived in Truckee, very close to the race course, for a few years, and I needed to see this thing with my own eyes. I would be working the Michigan Bluff aid station, but I and the other volunteers had arrived much earlier than necessary. So Shannon Weil brought us all back to her place to hang out for a while.
I had absolutely no idea who Shannon was at the time, but I felt so welcomed into the Western States community by her. When I saw the Wendell Robie Cup sitting in her living room, with Ann Trason’s name engraved 14 times, my eyes about popped out of my head. We drank cold sodas and lemonade on her porch while Shannon shared stories from past races and from recent training days when she had hosted Scott Jurek. This was back in Scott Jurek’s heyday, and I was honestly like, “Umm, you know Scott Jurek? He stayed at your house? You are the coolest person I’ve ever met. Tell me everything!” I just sat there soaking it all up. I could not possibly have gotten a better introduction to the world of Western States!
Fourteen years later, and I was a 5-year loser in the lottery for Western States. (It had taken me 5 years to get in the first time, but I never actually won the lottery - I just got shuffled in under the now defunct Two-Time-Loser rule to run the race in 2011.) I am typically very matter-of-fact about the Western States Lottery. Don’t expect to get in, and you won’t be disappointed! But 2018 was different. This was my 6th year in a row, I had 32 tickets in the hat, and I was sitting in Sean Flanagan’s lucky seat. (I am sworn to secrecy about exactly which seat this is, so don’t even ask.) So when Shannon Weil stepped onto the stage to pick the next 20 entrants, I had a good feeling. I’m totally in to the whole symbolism of these things, and I felt it would be rather poetic if Shannon pulled my name.
And then she did.
|With Sean and Jenelle, at the lottery.|
Coming full circle, my growth as a runner, developing my own roots in this historic community. These turn out to be the themes of Western States 2019 for me. For most of my running career, I have always been about faster or farther. I am unashamed of my competitive nature. But this year would bring me no improvement on either of those fronts, and I am happy to discover I’m finding joy in my running and racing in spite of that.
Western States is an incredibly special race for everyone, and I am no different. Just winning an entry makes you feel like the whole universe loves you, even if it denied you on 9 of 10 previous occasions (which it did). One result of the excitement that surrounds the race is that I immediately had the support of my best running friends for crewing and pacing.
Jenelle. In addition to running hundreds of training miles together, we had attended the lottery together for the last two years where she won in ‘17, and I won in ‘18. There’s something awesome about sharing that moment with someone who completely understands the significance. She has run the race twice herself, in addition to crew and volunteer duties on other years, so I knew she was the perfect person to have as my crew chief. I would trust Jenelle with my life. (Plus, as you’ll notice in this race report, she’s an incredible photographer.)
Jamie. This woman has finished Western States six times, including one top-ten finish, and she is the one who originally showed me the ropes by taking me on countless training runs on the course. If there was anyone I wanted coaching me through this race, it was Jamie. I asked her to pace me, but after a significant injury prevented her from running all spring, she teamed up with Jenelle to help crew.
Donald. Over the years, we’ve shared a connection through races, writing, adventure runs, and epic pacing gigs. Donald has been my pacer at both my fastest 100 mile race and my slowest, and he keeps me entertained with dad jokes, Harry Potter trivia, and showing off his knowledge of Hamilton lyrics. He’s the perfect mix of low key, knowledgeable, entertaining, and supportive.
My training went about as well as could be expected, given our epic winter and my inability to leave work at a reasonable hour most days. Luckily, Truckee, Tahoe City, and Squaw Valley plow their bike paths, and I spent most of my mid-week runs on these trails. I blew through two pairs of YakTrax, and I discovered that when the weather is so bad that driving anywhere is simply not an option, I can actually run a whole lot of laps on the 1.5 mile loop in my neighborhood. I had a nice, progressive race schedule (WTC 50K, Sonoma 50, and Miwok 100K), and Jenelle and I went down the hill most weekends to train on the course.
|Running stormy laps in the 'hood.|
|Finishing a long run in the rain in Auburn with Jenelle.|
Nonetheless, I knew I was not in the same kind of shape I had been in back in 2011. I was not expecting a PR for the race, but I thought sub-24 was probably possible. Everyone likes to tell me how 2011 was a really fast year. Yeah, okay. They are probably right (jerks). But you know what else was faster in 2011? Me. So my finish time goal was simply “finish as fast as I can.”
They say everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame in this life, but when you run Western States, you are a rockstar all damn day. And night. Being relatively local, and having spent the last 16 years meeting other ultrarunners in the community certainly helps in that regard. This was one of the many differences from my race in 2011. I believe there was only one aid station the entire race where I didn’t personally know the volunteers. Even if you don’t know anyone, the volunteers at States are THE BEST and will treat you like a queen, but nothing keeps a girl going like being greeted with smiles and hugs from friends every few miles.
|Mugshot at check-in.|
|Ready to rock on race morning.|
I wore my now famous “I Love Butter” hat. I’ve yet to have any ultrarunners recognize as band merch from the band Hot buttered Rum, but I love wearing it to races because I always get a ton of smiles and positive comments on it. Well, the fans at Western States blew my mind with their awesome love for my hat. And for butter.
Summiting that first climb at Squaw Valley might be the pinnacle of those rockstar moments. It’s hard to believe the number of people who make the four mile hike up at 4:00 in the morning to watch runners crest the mountain at the same moment the sun peeks above the horizon. I’d been chatting with Kelly Barber and Curt Casazza on the climb, but when I reached the summit, all at once I felt both completely alone and surrounded by a raucous crowd.
|Celebrating the rockstar life at the top of the Escarpment. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
The beauty of the sunrise and the cheering crowd filled me with energy. I saw so many people I knew and heard so many people cheer my name that I can’t recall all of them. Jenelle, who had also given me a ride to the start, was there, along with countless running friends, coworkers, and even parents of students. Like getting my name pulled in the lottery, it was an outpouring of love and support that I’m not sure I earned, but I soaked it up and smiled all the same. I knew I needed to carry their energy with me, fuel to get to the finish line.
I enjoyed the high country, even though it was snowy and slow. It’s the one part of the course I had never seen. The weather blessed us with cool, overcast skies, and I kept my long sleeves and gloves on almost until Duncan. Although it was well-marked, the intermittent snow made the course a challenge to follow. I practiced some team route-finding with the runners near me as we picked our way across snow fields, creeks, and downed trees. Looking at my splits, it’s clear that I lost a lot of time between the Escarpment and Red Star at mile 16, which is where most of the snow ended. Alas, those would not turn out to be the slowest miles of the run for me.
|The high country.|
The climb up to Robinson at mile 30 might have been my favorite part of the day. The bird song rang through the trees and the perfume of wildflowers floated on the wind. I made some of the climb with Tom Wroblewski, and it was during these miles I met Cris Francisco. Cris and I ran together all the way to Last Chance before parting ways. These auspicious meetings and making of new friends are some of the greatest joys of racing.
|Getting the full treatment from the amazing volunteers at Duncan.|
Jamie’s daughter, Clara, ran me through the aid station at Robinson. When I first started running with Jamie, Clara was just a little kid, so it was pretty awesome to see this young woman now a full-fledged, capable part of the team.
|The climb to Robinson.|
|Clara guides me through Robinson. We both have our game faces on! (Photo: Jamie Frink)|
Jamie was there with food and supplies, which I shoveled down so fast that I didn’t realize I had eaten too much until it was too late. I trotted out of the aid station feeling weighed down and bloated, grateful that I was in for a long stretch of mellow downhill.
I blew through the next two aid stations without eating anything while my body worked on digesting the Robinson Flat Buffet. I cruised the downhill with Cris while we traded stories of some interesting training runs we’d each had in the spring. He asked me about what was coming up in the course, and I took pleasure in sharing my knowledge. From that point to the finish line, I’d done countless training runs on the course, so I knew those miles intimately.
Once we hit Last Chance, I was home. The Canyons. My favorite. I felt amazing through this section. Like I was flying. Like sub-24 was definitely going to happen, and maybe even faster. Thus, when I make the comparison to my 2011 splits, it is hilarious because it turns out I was most definitely not flying. I passed a lot of people and did fine, but I was significantly slower than this same section of the course eight years ago. Regardless, I had a blast in the canyons.
Jamie and Clara found me again at Michigan Bluff, and before I knew it, I was at Foresthill (mile 62) with the whole gang. Donald ran me from Bath road into the aid station where John Trent was on the microphone showering me with accolades. I don’t remember what he said exactly, but I do recall that at one point I turned and blew kisses at him. My advice for this race? Have fun, and don’t take yourself too seriously, even if you are serious about the race itself. (Also, did I mention you’re a total rockstar as a Western States runner?)
|Heading into Foresthill (mile 62). (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
|Jamie, Clara, and Jenelle. "Team Gretchen!" (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
Kaycee Green escorted me through the aid station where the rest of the Strider family had everything ticking like a well-oiled machine. It was a blur of smiles and hugs and tutus, until I departed with Donald to find my crew. Now I had Jamie, Clara, Jenelle, Donald, and Sean Flanagan at my service. This race is seriously a 100 mile party, and I love it.
My stomach had turned a little sour, but I dutifully ignored it. My super power during 100-milers is my ability to eat. I once ate a hot dog and a cup of chili at mile 60 of a 100 and never had a problem. So I shoved a few things down my throat and a few more in my pockets, and Donald and I ran the gauntlet of the cheering throngs on our way out of town.
|Heading out of Foresthill with Donald. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
My legs felt great, and the 16 miles to the river have a lot of nice, runnable downhill. I kept a decent pace all the way into Cal 2 as darkness set in, and I was pleased to see that I was still on-track for a sub-24 finish. What didn’t please me was the deteriorating state of my stomach.
“Gretchen’s in the house!” Mike Holmes announced upon my arrival at the aid station. After giving me a much needed hug, he gave essentially the same commentary that John had in Foresthill, but Mike doesn’t need a microphone to hold the attention of the crowd. Another chunk of the Strider family was holding down operations at this aid station, and I was joyous at seeing JoAnn, Andy, Marisa, and the crew.
“What do you need?” JoAnn inquired as I looked over the smorgasboard with distaste.
“My stomach does not want food,” I said, making a face and finally beginning to feel concerned. Sure, it was mile 70, and these things were bound to happen. But 30 miles is way too far to run with no calories.
“Ignore it and eat something anyway,” JoAnn offered, which, frankly, is the same advice I would have given in her place. I popped a few peanut butter banana bites in my mouth and didn’t linger.
“Donald, I’m leaving!” I called over my shoulder as I shuffled down the trail. I knew he would catch up whenever he was ready.
Looking back, I think of Cal 2 as the beginning of the end of sub-24 dreams. The trail to the river crossing continues to be fairly mellow, and as the miles ticked by, my nausea ticked up. It felt like I slowed to a crawl - the only thing that seemed to keep it from getting worse. Voicing my status to Donald just made me feel depressed about it, so I tried my best not to whine. Mentally though, I knew I was entering a dark place that was brand new to me.
I was anxious to arrive at Rucky Chucky because I was in serious need of a bathroom. I had one final hope that emptying my bowels would alleviate all the problems, and I could also tell that I had started my period. I’d known this was imminent, so I was prepared, but it did seem like a less than auspicious moment for it.
It must have been near midnight, and I felt immense gratitude at seeing Jenelle waiting for me at the aid station. She led me through the maze of crews waiting for their runners to the bathrooms. I nearly cried when I saw they were all occupied. Then someone else’s pacer guided me to a hidden, unoccupied bathroom, and I nearly cried again because runners are so awesome. Seriously, I clearly had my own guardian angel showing me an unoccupied bathroom in that moment.
I dealt with my various needs, and made vigorous use of the handwashing station before Jenelle led me back toward our stuff. I took only a few steps before pausing.
“Ooh, I don’t feel good,” I moaned, giving Jenelle a panicked look.
“Here, sit down,” she said, guiding me toward a chair.
“Is this your chair?” I asked her.
“No, but it’s okay.”
I just gave her a wide-eyed look and giggled. With no energy to argue, I plopped down into the anonymous chair.
“Do you want to try eating something?”
“I don’t know,” I whined. I seriously was at a loss. Typically, I can tell my crew and pacer what to do and what I need, but at that moment, I felt like a lost little kid. Take care of me! I wanted to cry. Fix it! Whaaaa!
Jenelle handed me a sea salt & vinegar kettle chip, which is one of this world’s greatest pleasures. I took a tiny mouse-nibble and waited to see what would happen. Immediately I knew it would be nothing good.
I looked at Jenelle in alarm. “I think I’m going to be sick.” My eyes darted fearfully around, taking in the fact that there were people and their belongings everywhere. Where should I go? I didn’t think I would be able to stumble away from the aid station in time. “I don’t want to puke on this person’s chair,” I squeaked.
“It’s fine. It’s okay,” Jenelle assured me, and then she quickly and quietly alerted the people nearby that I was going to be sick. They grabbed their stuff and fled like I had the plague, which was fine by me. Then, I tossed my cookies.
Gross, and not super fun, but it was over with quickly. I felt pathetic, near tears, but when I looked up to see Jenelle snapping photos, I couldn’t help but giggle.
“Yay! Western States!” she said with a tentative laugh.
I knew exactly what she meant. Like, don’t forget to enjoy this. But also, you worked so hard for this race, have been anticipating it for years, and puking is totally not unusual, isn’t ultrarunning a great sport, lol? As well as, you know it could be worse, so don’t complain. But mostly she just meant, isn’t this thing we do beautifully ridiculous?
“Yay! Western States!” I celebrated, returning the laugh. I mean, you have to laugh. You know?
|Immediately post-puke. The low point of the race, for sure. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
|"WTF, Jenelle, are you taking photos??" (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
|Double thumbs up. "Yay! Western Sates!" (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
I spent what felt like forever at Rucky Chucky, but who knows how long it was, really. All my concerns about time were left in the dirt along with the contents of my stomach.
I felt quite good by the time we walked the steps down to the river crossing. Weak, but no longer nauseous for the moment. I was so pleased about this that I was completely giddy and ridiculous, saying all kinds of silly things to the lineup of volunteers who were there to outfit us with life jackets and get us safely loaded into the boat.
If you ever want to witness a precision operation by a fleet of well-trained volunteers, you should check out how they do the river crossing at Rucky Chucky sometime. They have volunteers guiding you down the steps, putting your life jacket on you, snapping the buckles, guiding you into the boat, and unhooking the boat from the anchor. Then, a master oars-person ferries you swiftly to the other side where another volunteer quickly hooks the boat to the anchor, and still more volunteers guide you out of the boat and take off your life jacket. It’s probably faster than doing the river ford.
I bounced happily on my seat as we flew across the water. “Look! We are just sitting here and we’re moving down the trail! This is the best part of the race so far. Do you think you could just head downstream and row us all the way to No Hands Bridge? Please?” Like I said, I was kind of giddy.
|On the raft. Totally delerious. (Photo: Donald Buraglio)|
The remaining 20 or so miles of the race were simply an exercise in moving forward as well as I could and staying positive. The only real calories I took in came in the form of whatever electrolyte drink they were serving, and they only way to keep the nausea from totally taking over was to keep my effort level low.
“You mean you’ve never puked in a race before?” Donald was amazed. (After our Western States cheer, I’d also cheered to Jenelle, “My first puke in an ultra! Yay!”)
“No. Never.” I assured him.
“Wow, I get sick in pretty much every 100,” he said.
“God, then why do you keep doing them?” I absolutely could not imagine doing this again if I thought I would get sick. I guess we just fool ourselves that way. As Mark Twight famously said, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun!
Donald kept me entertained on the trail, and Jenelle showed up at Pointed Rocks with papaya enzymes for my stomach. The enzymes helped a bit and tasted pretty good, too.
|Sunrise at Pointed Rocks aid station. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
Jenelle and Sean were both there to run me in the last mile from Robie Point. It’s pretty awesome to have your own cheering section following you in.
|Stoked to be arriving at Robie Point. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
|One mile to go! (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
|Crossing The White Bridge with Donald and Sean. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
Just past the white bridge, a woman walking toward us cried out, “There’s butter at the finish line!” I gave her a genuine smile. I’d gotten cheers like that all day. I told you that hat was a brilliant idea.
I was happy to duck across the line in just under 27 hours, and happy to be done.
|Kaycee not only led me through Foresthill, but she was there at the finishline, too! You can't tell from this photo, but she was still wearing her tutu. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
|Full Circle. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
Western States 2019 wasn’t my best race or my fastest race, but it was also far from my hardest race. I picture it in my mind as this experience with a multitude of branches, roots, and curling vines, reaching out to other days and people in my life, connecting me to the many moments that came together to form the adventure of Western States. The friends who were out on the course volunteering, the friends who crewed and paced for me, the friends I trained with, the people at the lottery with me (and the ones who went through years of losing the lottery with me), the family who supported my training, the other runners who inspired me, the non-running friends who were excited for me, the new running friends I met on course. The days of running in the dark, on the ice with my YakTrax, on snowmobile trails, in dumping snow, driving hours to the trailhead for weekend long runs. Those branches reach all the way back to that afternoon sipping lemonade on Shannons porch listening to stories, all the way back to that ridiculous episode of High Mountain Rangers, all the way to a high school girl in Southern California dreaming about a trail race through the Sierra Nevada. It’s a race that permeates an entire year of your life, and for many of us, an entire lifetime of running. A lifetime of following passions and developing a community that surrounds it. This year, I found the love from that community to be the greatest reward I can imagine.
|With my pacer on the best day of the year: at the track in Auburn, CA on the last Sunday morning in June. (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
|Sean and I cannot contain our excitement waiting for the awards ceremony to begin. (Photo: Helen Pelster)|
|They say you're not a true Western States runner until you have BOTH colors of buckles. Okay, I might have made that up, but I love my shiny new bronze buckle as much as I love butter! (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
“I cheer so loudly for my friends who are racing that another spectator asks if I’m for hire, but you can’t put a price on that shit.” -Julia Millon at Western States, 2017
On June 23rd of this year, while most of my running community from far and wide was gathered in my home town for Western States (a.k.a. “Statesmas” a.k.a. “The Big Dance”), I headed to a track in Claremont, CA. An entirely different slice of my running community - teammates and alumni of my college track team (Claremont-Mudd-Scripps) - were gathered at the track, not for a competition, but for a celebration. It was Coach Goldhammer’s 65th birthday.
I’ve talked often about how running connects me with other people, and Coach was the first one to teach me the importance of the running community. It was apparent in the crowd of athletes who showed up for the celebration, as well as in the many words of kindness and love we all had for Coach. So even though it was a bit painful turning down the opportunity to pace Jenelle at States and seeing so many friends go for their dreams that weekend, I knew I wanted to see Coach and reconnect with the track & field kids.
I’m ruminating on these things, I suppose, in that quiet search for the reason why I run. I mean, there are always a lot of reasons to run. But seriously, what’s the reason? Because it’s not to get faster; that clearly isn’t happening at the moment. And it’s not to “push my limits just to see how far I can take them,” which I used to claim as the reason. I’m just not doing a lot of pushing these days. Running can feel so utterly and completely unimportant.
But something keeps pulling me out there, even if less often and at a slower pace.
The idea of community keeps rising up as the reason, which I wrote a bit about last summer. I don’t know that it’s entirely the answer either, but my running friends and the broader running community have lately felt more important than ever.
|Devil's Oven Aid Station crew hauling supplies back down the trail, Castle Peak 100K 2017. It takes a village. (Naomi, Kysenya, Steve, Me.)|
Twenty days before Coach’s birthday bash, I was in the middle of my last high-mileage training block for the Tahoe Rim Trail 100. Given that my spring training had more holes in it that the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, I knew it was a critical three weeks of training before I would begin my taper.
After experiencing a calf strain earlier in the week, I had taken a few days off, and was setting out on a solo 30 mile run from the house which would take me out the Donner Lake Rim Trail and along the PCT before looping home through Coldstream Canyon. About 20 yards down the trail, something snapped in my calf and I collapsed to the ground in pain. I knew it wouldn’t bear weight, and as I sat in the dirt, tears streaming down my face from both pain and fear, I saw my entire future as a runner laid out before me.
Clearly TRT 100 in six weeks was off the table - the injury was too serious. Failing to finish (or even start) both TRT and Miwok, meant I would be without a Western States qualifier this year, and my 5-year-lottery-loser ticket count would return to zero. I would probably be 55 or 60-years-old by the time I got in to the race, and fuck it, I don’t even really want to run States that much anyway. In fact, why even bother with running? There are so many other things I could be doing with my time. I’m totally over it. I hate running. I quit.
Just like that.
Here is the text exchange with Jamie and Jenelle the following morning:
|This is what you call support from friends. Friends who have been there!|
I didn’t even have to send a real cry for help, and my friends filled me back up full of hope. Okay, fine, maybe I won’t quit running just yet. Jenelle gave me a recommendation for a sports medicine doctor and told me about the anti-gravity treadmill at Truckee Physical Therapy that is open to the public. My friend Ann Marie squeezed me in for some massages. I went to physical therapy twice a week for three weeks, and I dusted my road bike off and went for some long rides. My calf has been black-and-blue for a month from all the soft tissue work.
In short: I didn’t run at all, but I didn’t quit running.
On May 29th, a week before the injury, I had two missed calls from Jenelle and a text message that said “Please call me when you have a minute.” I knew it must mean bad news, and I called her immediately. It wasn’t actually bad; it was horrible. I am grateful Jenelle didn’t bother with any pretense at cushioning a blow that could not possibly be cushioned before bursting through her tears, “Julia’s dead!”
We spent the next half-hour crying on the phone together trying to understand what happened to our friend and why, me slumped on the floor in the mudroom and Jenelle on a nighttime run through the woods because sometimes that is the only real option for handling overwhelming pain and grief.
This idea that we will never run with Julia again - never hear her laugh or make a snarky remark, never have her come up behind us on the downhill, hear the increasing volume of her footfalls beat a joyful tattoo on the dirt until she flies past us - it is painful and slow to digest. And that is nothing compared to the knowledge that she won’t get to run with anyone. Ever again. No running, no laughing or crying. No sharing anything. The reality of being 27-years-old and full of life one day, and then suddenly not. Not existing at all. It just feels so fucking unfair.
|Julia, our medical officer, putting a runner's hip back into place at the Devil's Oven aid station during the 2017 Castle Peak 100K. I took this picture because I was so impressed with her ability to take charge of this person's pain, decide what needed to be done, and just do it. At 26-years-old, she projected skill and confidence that I struggle to find in myself at 44.|
The Tahoe Rim Trail 100 is now three days away. In spite of a complete lack of serious training, I’ll be toeing the line. I keep trying to remind myself that I finished Hardrock after five weeks of barely running, so finishing this is definitely possible. The big difference though is that I had been in the best shape of my life just before that five weeks of illness in 2012. This time? Not so much. Not even close.
I’m trying to approach it as an adventure rather than a race. Finishing is a huge question mark, and time is not a factor. Except, of course, those cutoff times. Dr. Andy, who will be at Tunnel Creek all weekend, likened my attempt to the Dread Pirate Roberts, who, after being “mostly dead all day,” still managed to storm the castle successfully. I have no doubt that there will be plenty of “mostly dead” in my story, but I will accept whatever ending plays out, fairy tale or otherwise.
My sister is coming out to crew, and her presence at my hundred-mile races is starting to become mandatory. I’ve got a pacer who has promised to go the entire second half of the race with me, no matter how slow it is nor how poor my company. I’ve been trying to brace them both for the reality that this will be slower and with greater potential for problems than usual, but I think they get it. Because that’s just how this sport can be, and that’s how good friends are.
The excitement I have about seeing friends out on the course is almost silly to explain. For a number of years, I’ve worked the night shift at the Tunnel Creek aid station, sometimes after running the 50M or 55K race during the day. It’s a great crew, and now I have a sense of relief knowing I will see them all out there, hopefully the full six times that 100 mile runners travel through TC.
|A sampling of replies on my Facebook post stating that I would be running Saturday, but with very little training. All these comments are from Tunnel Creek volunteers.|
This being essentially my hometown 100, I know I’ll see friends all over the course, not just at Tunnel Creek. I know that no matter how awful I look or how slow I’m moving, they will tell me I’m a rockstar. And I will totally, absolutely believe them. Ultrarunners are great at lying to each other, and to ourselves, if that’s what it takes to make it happen.
Last summer I paced my friend Donald for nearly 15 hours through the final 30 miles of the Hardrock 100. That may sound like a painfully slow walk, but from my perspective, it was awesome. For one, the mountains were incredible. And when you have told someone nearly a hundred times “yes, we are still on the course,” and “yes, I’m sure”; when you have sat in the dirt with them while they puked all over the wildflowers; when you have heard them wax poetic on the wonders of having an out-of-body experience at 2:00 AM on the trail (also known as sleepwalking, I’m thinking), you know that the whole thing really is just one grand and glorious adventure.
|Chasing Donald through the wildflowers on Oscar's Pass during Hardrock.|
Incidentally, Donald will be returning the favor by pacing me this weekend. While I hope not to be puking on the wildflowers, or on anything else for that matter, I will be delighted if I am upright, moving, and ahead of the cutoffs for the last 30 miles. Here is our text exchange from last week:
So either he does kind of know me, or he knows this is just how ultrarunning is. Probably both.
There is little left to do now but pack my drop bags and check the race-day forecast 20 or 30 more times. Jamie texted this morning with the news that she signed up for Javelina, and Jenelle and I both replied within a minute that we wanted to come. I’m already planning our theme costumes for the event. Maybe my sister will want to come out and help crew.
Ultimately I know that whether I finish TRT or not, if I never get into Western States, if I quit running and come back to it a hundred more times in my life, it is all precious. Trail running, like life, requires embracing the fear, the joy, the struggles, the teamwork. The feelings of failure and the feelings of triumph. The devastation and loss.
It makes sense, then, that we make some of our strongest connections with the people with whom we share these experiences. Without these friends and this community, I wouldn’t even be showing up on Saturday, and you sure as hell can’t put a price on that.
|This is Julia crossing Volcano Creek on March 31, the last day Jenelle and I ever saw her. I love this photo because even though it is missing the broad Julia smile, she looks strong and determined. Those two words sum up a big piece of who she was and who we can all aspire to be. |
"Because when you keep showing up, at some point you'll see something you never considered to be possible. And you automatically beat anyone who didn't show up, including the version of yourself who could have tapped out."
- Julia Millon
The last few years of my ultrarunning “career” have seen slowing times and fewer races on my schedule. I could chalk this diminishing display up to age and let that take the full burden of excuse. However, not only are ultrarunners themselves evidence that being 44 doesn’t necessarily mean you get slower, I also know that if age plays any role at all, it’s a minor one. The truth is that I just haven’t been as motivated to train in the last couple of years.
So it does not surprise me that, while I was not terribly excited about running a 100k race, I do have a lot to say about the joys I found at Marin’s Miwok trail race this Saturday. Spoiler alert: They do not include running 100K.
I had spent the week leading up to race day on a field trip to Washington D.C. with 22 middle school students. (This is where people generally interrupt me to say, “God bless you!”) Our schedule was packed, and I arrived home at 2:00 AM Friday morning exhausted and with the beginnings of a cold. When I awoke nine hours later, my head felt like the size of a hot air balloon and I had a raging headache. I gamely packed up my running gear and drove to Pt. Reyes to crash with my friends Heidi and Kerry before the race.
When the alarm went off at 3:15, I was kind of dreading my day. I loaded up on cold medicine and coffee though, and by the time I was in the car heading south on highway one, I felt pretty reasonable. Maybe the day would not turn out to be an unending sufferfest after all?
Just two miles out from Stinson Beach and the start of the race, I learned that my day would indeed not turn out as expected.
The sight of several cars pulled over and flares burning across the road greeted me. I wondered if this was overflow parking for the race, and I pulled over into the first available space. When I approached the flares, I could see that the road was blocked off.
|Roadblock! If you look closely, you can actually see the downed line that zapped our day.|
“What’s going on?” I asked a woman in a down jacket, who turned out to be Laura Richard. Laura and I both had Cool, Sonoma, and Miwok on our schedules, so we’d been seeing each other all spring.
“The road’s blocked off because of an accident,” she said.
There was a handful of other runners there trying to figure out what to do. When the police said they didn’t know when the road would reopen because there was a downed power line across it, I ran back to my car and got onto my phone to try mapping an alternate route to the start. I knew going back through Olema and all the way to Mill Valley would mean missing the start of the race, but maybe there was another way?
“Hi! Can we jump in with you?” The woman knocking on my car window startled me. After explaining that she and her grandpa had been taking a Lyft ride from their campground to the start, I encouraged her to get in but to hurry! A small sense of panic was beginning to overtake me. I knew we would make the start, but I hated being late.
The woman’s name turned out to be Heidi, and she navigated while I drove. The first option was to take Fairfax-Bolinas Road - an unpleasantly windy affair - up to Ridgecrest Boulevard. I chewed up the one-lane roller coaster as fast as I could, vainly hoping Grandpa Dan wasn’t getting carsick in the back. When we spotted headlights coming back toward us, I had a sinking feeling. I pulled over and rolled down my window to get the news.
“There’s a gate at the top, and it’s locked.” It was Laura again.
“Shit!” came my reply. I’m not supper witty at four AM in a state of duress. “What are you guys going to do?”
“Go back down to the roadblock to see if it’s open yet,” she replied. “Going all the way around would take well over an hour.”
I agreed that there was no point to that. It was already nearing the 5:00 AM start time of the race. So, I turned my car around and followed her.
And that’s how, when the 2018 Miwok 100K runners took off into the dark of the morning, I found myself with ten or fifteen other runners standing at a roadblock on highway one. Trapped.
We tried hard to negotiate with the officer at the barricade. We could literally see the downed line right there, and we could see that anyone could easily drive, or even walk, around it.
“If you can get by on foot some way that is not on the highway, that’s fine by me,” he even told us. It was only a little over two miles to the start, and seriously, what the hell is the difference between running 62 miles and 64 miles, right? But I swear you have never seen such a tangle of blackberry brambles and swampland. We tried bushwacking. We tried fording the lagoon. We tried begging the officer a little more. As the sky brightened, our hopes faded, and we knew our race day dreams were dashed.
Laura finally got a phone call through to Tia, the race director, to at least let her know what had happened. After that, we quit trying to pretend that we could somehow negotiate a late start, and instead started making plans for our day.
Laura called her pacer, and they decided to run a double Dipsea. Several other men made plans for a trail run on the south end of the course. I hooked up with three other runners, including Heidi, and decided to start from the Randall aid station (which was just down the road, on OUR side of the barrier) and run to the start at Stinson and back. We hoped we could talk to Tia and see if there was anything she could do for us.
|Four thwarted Miwok runners and two of their crew.|
I’ll be totally honest. Given the fact that I was a little undertrained and definitely sick, I was not completely devastated about the turn of events. I will admit that I had really wanted to check the box on getting my States qualifier, but I knew I had TRT 100 in July where I could make that happen. Other runners were not so lucky. Also, of the four runners in my group, I had traveled the shortest distance to get there. And I had already run Miwok twice before! I knew I really had nothing to complain about.
So, no States qualifier on this Saturday in May. But what I did get was a wonderful 28 mile trail run with three new friends whom I will definitely be seeing again.
As we began the hike up Randall Trail to Bolinas Ridge, we traded names and the usual pleasantries of first time trail running. We learned Heidi, from San Clemente and mother of two young boys, is a “Disnerd” and has two prominent Disney tattoos - one of the hitchhiking ghost from Haunted Mansion, and the other of Dumbo. They were hard to see while running, but they were loud and proud on the front of her thighs, and I loved it. David, a doctor from Dallas (or sometimes Couer D’Alene), gave us a solid lesson on racing nutrition. This was of great interest to Bryant, from Bozeman, who had been planning on running his first 100K that day.
|Making our way up Randall Trail|
I felt heartbroken for them all. I mean, flying all the way in from Bozeman or Dallas? Missing your first 100K? Driving the entire family in an RV the full nine hours from Orange County? I recognized how much each of them had invested in this day - from training, to travel plans, to taking the time off from a bartending job on Cinco de Mayo. These are not small things. And there was not a bitter word among them. Disappointment, of course. But as we made frequent stops to “ooh and ah” at the landscape and take photos, I watched with appreciation as they still found incredible pleasure in their experiences. Damn if ultrarunners aren’t the most resilient people.
|David, Heidi, and Bryant on the Bolinas Ridge.|
|Heidi and Bryant. Check out those awesome Disnerd tats!|
|Bryant enjoys the sunshine on the grassy hills of Bolinas Ridge.|
|David leads Heidi across the sunny ridge.|
|Enjoying the morning views.|
|This was NOT the wreck that blocked the road. (Photo: Bryant Schwartz)|
After negotiating the steep beauty of the Matt Davis Trail, we arrived in Stinson to see the finish line already set up, and I took pleasure in running through hooting and hollering, arms overhead in triumph, as the volunteers clapped and cheered. I even had my “fake finish line photo” taken.
Tia graciously told us we would get free entries into next year’s race, and I think that gave us all great relief. Given that the roadblock was no one’s fault, least of all hers, I knew that was generous of her. The volunteers said we were officially known as the “Live Wire Runners” because of the downed power line thing. I kind of felt cool that we had our own nickname. We discussed screening “Live Wire Runners” onto the back of our race shirts.
I am incredibly grateful to be given another chance at this race, and excited that Bryant, Heidi, and David all said they would also return to run next year. Reunion!
|My official fake finish line photo. First woman! (Actually, that's fake too. Heidi was first.)|
The run back was entertaining because we got to run with a lot of the top men for a while. We spread out a bit, and Heidi sent a message that she was returning to Stinson to meet up with her husband. When we arrived at the Bolinas aid station (which hadn’t been there our first time through), they were confused about who we were until we told them we were Live Wire Runners.
“Oh! Live Wires!” the radio operator declared. “Oh yeah, come on into the aid station and get what you need.” Needless to say, the volunteers were incredibly nice. I even got a homemade lemon square that I’m pretty sure was part of the “volunteers only food.” Delicious!
|Bolinas aid station|
The scene at the Randall aid station was much different this time around. It was absolutely hopping! As I approached, I first ran into Jenelle hiking up the trail. It was so great to see a friend, and I felt like I was getting cheering and support just as if I were actually running the race myself. At the aid station, I got hugs from Kacey Greene and Louis Secreto, and since this was the official end to my run, I had another finish line photo taken. Because why not.
|My actual finish line photo from the Miwok Live Wire Fun Run (Photo: Jenelle Potvin)|
I hung around Randall long enough to see friends Curt, Chris, and Kelly come through. My cold medicine was wearing off though, and my head was throbbing again. My down jacket also wasn’t quite enough to keep me from feeling the icy wind, and I decided to grab my race swag and head back to Pt. Reyes.
|Kelly Barber kicking ass and handing out smiles.|
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the beautiful sunshine of Tomales Bay drinking wine with good friends. Another bonus of running 28 miles instead of 62.
|Coastal stroll with Heidi (Pt. Reyes Heidi, not runner Heidi).|
|Tully, living the dream on Tomales Bay.|
As I said to Jenelle while we ran down Randall Trail together, it’s definitely a blow to the ego these days returning to races where I used to run fast. (10:43 at Miwok 2011 - Who the hell was that chick??) But I also think it’s kind of good for me. It forces me to recognize the other things I love about running and racing besides just being competitive and pushing my limits. I love being outside in the beauty of nature, and more than anything, I love, adore, absolutely cherish this community. From the support of friends like Kacey and Jenelle, to the opportunity to share the trail with three strangers-turned-friends with amazing attitudes, the trail running community never fails to rekindle my spirit.
Congratulations to all the runners - official and Live Wires alike. I am already looking forward to seeing everyone at Miwok 2019. Hopefully for 100K this time around, but I’ll take what I can get.
I’ve met God across his long walnut desk with his diplomas hanging on the wall behind him, and God asks me, … Didn’t I realize that each of us is a sacred, unique snowflake of special unique specialness? Can’t I see how we’re all manifestations of love?
I look at God behind his desk, taking notes on a pad, but God’s got this all wrong.
We are not special.
We are not crap or trash, either.
We just are.
We just are, and what happens just happens.
And God says, “No, that’s not right.”
Yeah. Well. Whatever. You can’t teach God anything.
― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
My favorite local coffee shop in town does that thing where they have two tip jars, and wherever you put your tip is answering a question. For example, this morning’s question was “Which Harrison Ford?” The two tip jars were labeled “Han Solo” and “Indiana Jones.” I’ll confess, I paused a long moment deciding in which jar to drop my coins. (I mean, seriously, could there be a more difficult frivolous question? They are both my #1 answer!)
I have a pretty good time checking out what categories they come up with every day, and studies show that these “category” tip jars actually garner more tips than unlabeled jars. This is because it’s the very nature of our brains to want to put things into categories.
Categories, and their corresponding labels, help our brains make sense of large amounts of information quickly. I’ll skip the cognitive psychology lecture for you though. What’s important to know is that the labels our brains create (aka schema) work really well for most things in this world, but they create a lot of problems when we apply them to human beings. It is much more difficult to imagine and see people for the complex individuals that we are, and our brain actively fights this by wanting to categorize everyone. This, of course, is how we end up with ugly things like racism, sexism, classism, etc.
Lately, I’ve been pondering not only how we put others into categories, but ourselves as well. We see ourselves in very specific ways, and sometimes I wonder which came first - the labels we have for ourselves, or the behaviors that give us those labels. And what happens when those things change, but no one wants to change their label for you?
When I was 22, I was nearing the end of a six-month road trip with my friend Charlie, and her biggest stress in those final days of traveling was what she called “ having an identity crisis.”
“Who am I,” she asked fretfully, “if I’m not a nomadic adventurer living out of a van?”
It was a label she was about to lose - one that she liked very much.
Here’s a good test of the labels people have for you. When people introduce you at a party, what’s the tidbit of info they share about you? Mine, without fail, is always exactly the same.
“This is Gretchen. She runs hundred-mile marathons.”
Although I completely, 100% identify as a Runner with a capital “R,” I still cringe lately when I hear this introduction. It’s not just that I have to bite my tongue and politely refrain from informing people that there is no such thing as a hundred-mile marathon, that a marathon is a specific distance of 26.2 miles (okay, unless you’re in South Africa, but I digress). It’s mostly the fact that then I have to talk about myself. Specifically, I am obligated to talk about running “hundred-mile marathons.”
But lately, I feel completely talked-out on the subject. I’ve written thousands of words on it. Like, what else could I possibly have to say about it? I didn’t even write a race report for my last hundred-miler because meh. I didn’t care to.
When I run into people around town, or see friends I haven’t seen in a long time, the conversation inevitably starts with, “How’s the running going?” And lately, the answer is always, “Oh, I’m not doing much running lately.” (And invariably, no one believes me.)
Like I said, I completely identify as a runner, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. When something has been such an ingrained part of your life for so long, it doesn't just disappear. I also don’t think you need to be actively doing it to still see it as a part of you. But here’s the thing: I’m starting to realize that might be the only thing people see me as. A runner.
Before training for ultras sucked all of my time away, I was many things. A rock climber, a painter, a knitter, a skier, a photographer. I think it’s fine that I don’t have as much time for those things; it’s all a choice. But I still see them as part of who I am. Labels that fit me.
You know what I’m getting off on these days? Teaching. No joke. This is what’s taking up all of my time.
It’s not because I’ve become some crazy workaholic. Ha! Never. It’s because I’ve somehow reached this magical little place in my career where things are interesting and exciting, where I am supported professionally and creatively, where I have confidence in my skills but a drive to learn moremoremore every day. It is quite possible, in fact, that it is learning that I love more than teaching.
I struggle to explain it all adequately, but somehow, the passion and creativity that used to go into writing, that used to fuel me through 80-mile training weeks, is all going into my classroom. And it’s FUN.
It seems ironic to me that “teacher” is a label that most of my friends do not ascribe to me. Or maybe they do, but it just doesn’t sound as exciting as “runs hundred-mile marathons.”
I don’t know that this joyride through my career will last forever, but I’m onboard until the tracks run out. And since summer vacation began in mid-June, I’ve been dipping my toes back into some of those other identities. Rock climber, guitar player, maybe even writer.
In the past, my training has been fueled by my love of racing. For some reason, it’s not fashionable for non-elite runners to admit to competitiveness. This is especially true, I think, for women. But I’ll go ahead and own it. I have always loved racing. Even when I’ve had less-than-optimal fitness, I’ve nearly always toed the line at races with an intention to throw down my best performance. I mean, otherwise, what’s the point, right?
I love running, but signing up for a race has always been what gets me out the door to train. I am religious about writing out a season-long training plan for myself, and meticulous about recording the results of each day’s workout.
Or at least, I used to be.
At the moment, racing just isn't as sacred as it once was, and the daily prayer of going for a run is most often left unsaid.
So I guess it’s not surprising that a waning interest in racing over the last few years has led to a dramatic drop in my running mileage. That’s okay. I have other labels to embody.
Since the Broken Arrow Skyrace in mid-June, my racing calendar has been completely blank. It’s something of a disconcerting feeling, but there’s also something new and exciting about it. It’s as though, with no specific goals to train for, I am rediscovering other reasons I love to run.
Community appears to be a big reason. At least half of my runs in the past month have been with friends and/or group runs with the Donner Party Mountain Runners. These people give me a reason to get out the door, and they are completely awesome to boot.
Meditative alone time is clearly my other motivation. I’ve written many times before about the relationship between running and writing, so it comes as no surprise to me that when my running mileage drops so too does my inspiration to write. Most of my writing is an act of reflection, a processing of my experience or that of others, and that reflection nearly always begins when I am out on the trails. Without that uninterrupted time for my mind to wander, to give my thoughts the freedom to follow any path and see where it leads, I find it nearly impossible to squeeze my enormous emotions and jumbled ideas into the inadequate packages of words, sentences, and paragraphs.
We all take on roles and identities throughout the course of our lives - ones that evolve and change. Child, student, athlete, nerd, musician, parent, teacher, artist, lover. The ones that stay with us the longest may have the most impact on shaping how others see us and how we see ourselves. Girl, daughter, runner, friend.
While it’s not so easy to shed these various identities like dirty clothes at the end of the day, maybe we can still claim them even if it’s not who we are every day. When I am injured, I am a runner. When I am uninspired and write nothing, I am a writer. When I only lace up my shoes one day a week (or month), I am a runner. When I write horrifically bad poetry that no one will ever see, I am a writer. When I run three miles instead of ten (or 30, or 100), I am a runner. When the only writing I do is writing comments and feedback for revision on student papers, I am a writer.
What I find somewhat surprising is that, of those two identities - runner and writer - the one I miss the most right now is writer.
The more labels I pin to myself, the more I feel I am defying any single one of them. Of course, we all defy our labels, in spite of our brains’ need to have them. Is this because we are all “unique snowflakes of special unique specialness”? Not exactly. I think we just are who we are, and human beings can be a difficult puzzle to solve.
I think that for people to understand and connect with one another, we must, as author John Green encourages in many of his writings, imagine others complexly. This includes how we imagine and see ourselves. Snowflakes are unique, but puzzles are complex.
This summer, I have embarked on a quest to rekindle the fire of my various passions. No teaching - it’s time for EVERYTHING ELSE!
This includes running, which, I’m not kidding, I feel like I’m completely rediscovering. In a very low-mileage way, that is. I returned from an early morning track workout with DPMR one day this week and declared, wide-eyed, to Andrew, “God, I feel so good!” Like, what a wondrous thing! Who knew?
It also includes writing. Even if all I manage to cobble together is a collection of confusing and somewhat unrelated thoughts about labels and identity and running.
Running and writing: the Han Solo and Indiana Jones of my identities. They are both my #1 answer.
|New identity: Ski Mountaineer. (Mt. Shasta summit, 14,180') |
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