“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') |
Author's Note: I wrote this piece back in May, shortly after the Canyons took place. What follows is the "first draft" of the significantly shorter piece that came out in Ultrarunning this month. To be honest, I don't consider myself a really strong writer, but what I am is a crack editor. I can usually take a horrid first draft, revise it, hack it back by at least 30%, and turn it into something reasonable.
What I learned writing this piece is that the approach to writing something that is 800 words is wholly different than the approach to writing something that is 2,500 words. Like, I already knew this in theory, but oh man. Now I know it in practice. Even a good editor struggles when faced with reducing the word count by 60% while still maintaining the essence of the original piece. Next time, I will limit my "horrid first draft" to 1000 words.
So, it's not that this version is really any better than what you'll see in print. But I spent so much time on it, that I felt compelled to share the director's cut. If you can't get enough of The Canyons, then read on.
The Canyons Endurance Runs take place every spring on the historic Western States Trail out of Foresthill, and I’ll tell you a secret: April is the best time of year to run here.
Part of RD Chaz Sheya’s vision for the event is to provide an opportunity for every runner to experience this storied trail.
“The reality is, it can take a really long time to get an entry into the Western States 100. It took me six years,” he shared. It’s clear from his voice that he’s passionate about offering that access to all runners, especially those from out of the area who might not have the trail knowledge to come run it on their own. “You want to race on the Western States trail? Cool. Here’s a race where you can just sign up and come run it!”
This year, on the last Saturday in April, 400 runners do just that. Like many of the other 100K entrants, my primary goal for the day is simply to finish with a Western States qualifier. Anyone who came here expecting an easy 100K qualifier though will be in for a surprise. The Canyons can dish out suffering and disappointment with the attitude of a much longer race.
The first half of the 100K course heads north out of Foresthill through the namesake iconic canyons of the Western States trail. This half is by far the most difficult part of the race, consisting of an out-and-back across three steep canyons. Preserving any running ability for the second, more runnable half of the race requires a great deal of conservative pacing through the steep descents and climbs of the canyons.
My first worry of the race meets us at mile two in the form of Volcano Creek. All spring, as snow in the high country melted, this creek crossing had grown deeper and more challenging. Two weeks prior, it had been nearly waist deep at the crossing, with immense force from the rushing current.
|Jamie crossing the creek two weeks before race day.|
“It’ll be exciting!” I declare to two women running in front of me as we make haste on the technical downhill of Volcano Canyon.
“There’s some positive spin,” one of them laughs.
One thing we all agree on, there will probably be a bottleneck as runners cross carefully with the aid of a rope stretched across the water.
As it turns out, the race directors added a rope, giving runners two places to cross. They even replaced the usual, flimsy rope that hung there with something sturdier -- a much-needed improvement for race day. With the creek actually running slightly lower than I's last seen it, the crossing turns out to be quick and painless, the current coming only up to about mid-thigh on me.
There are a couple miles of dirt roads after you climb out of Volcano and head into the first aid station at Michigan Bluff. We run in various small groups, enjoying the company of other runners as the sun rises on the still chilly morning. I run much of this part with Jen Hemmen and Whit Rambach.
“The best way to run this course is to negative split,” I tell Jen with authority. Because, you know. I’m an expert.
It's a sentiment I repeat to at least two other runners during the day. And while it’s not an incorrect strategy, it is perhaps harder to do than I recognize. Especially if one’s training happened to consist of running just twice a week.
I do my best to execute the negative split, staying relaxed on the descent down to El Dorado Creek. The shade of evergreens and oaks keep things comfortable, and the four-mile climb up to the aid station at The Pump goes by quickly. The amount of trail work that has been done through this area is only apparent to those of us who have been out here all spring, and I am duly impressed. Winter wrought difficult conditions, with downed trees incessant and entire sections of trail washed away. The Western States trail crew, along with Chaz and his merry band of chainsaws, clearly fought the good fight in recent weeks, and I am grateful.
At The Pump, runners are greeted by the rainbows, unicorns, and energetic smiles of Reno’s Silver State Striders. The genuine love flowing out of this group exemplifies one of the best things about The Canyons Endurance Runs: community. In only its fourth year as an event, Canyons already feels like family.
|Good feels at the Striders' aid station. (Photo: Jill Anderson)|
It is hard to leave the energy of the Striders aid station. I am buoyed by the knowledge that, after a short (though not quick) drop down to the Swinging Bridge, we will see them again on the round trip back to Foresthill.
Adding to the challenge of this steep and technical section is the fact that runners travel in both directions. Only 15 miles in, we are all still smiling, and it’s an opportunity to say a quick hello-and-good-job to a lot of friends. In spite of this, the constant dance to pass becomes tiresome after a while.
|Happy at the Pump. (Photo: Jill Anderson)|
The day warms enough for me to shed my arm warmers, and I share a few miles on the return to Foresthill with my friend Miriam Smith. Eventually though, I realize that staying with Miriam means I am probably running too fast. I let her go ahead. Although I feel comfortable, my watch indicates that I will get to the halfway point at Foresthill with about seven hours on the clock. That is exactly the same pace I ran last year, and I’d followed it up with a six-hour second-half. Thus making me the negative split expert.
In the past three years, as my motivation and enthusiasm for consistent running has waned, I have continuously revised my definition of what it means to go into a race undertrained. Now, as I arrive at Foresthill on pace with my 13-hour finish from last year. I quite honestly think to myself, “Maybe training is just a waste of time.”
Thirty years as a competitive runner, and sometimes I am still dumber than the most ignorant rookie.
The aid station at Foresthill has the familiar feel of race day at Western States. A cheering swarm of family and friends mingle with volunteers. Someone brings me my drop bag, while friend and Aid Station Director Sean Flanagan helps me get fueled up for the second half of the race.
The day has warmed considerably, and I fill my bra with ice before heading out in the opposite direction toward the Middle Fork American River. It will be 15 miles of somewhat rolling, but overall gradually downhill, terrain to the turnaround at Rucky Chucky.
The trail makes a long traverse across the sloping canyon, with views of the snowy Sierra above and the sparkling river below. When I tell people that if they only run here on race day at Western States, they are missing the trail in its best season, this is the scene that comes to mind. The 70 degree temps are mild, even if it doesn’t feel like it to this mountain girl. The slopes are lush and green, and wildflowers abound. California poppies, lupine, paintbrush, shooting stars. They attract butterflies who put on their own dancing display of color. Small waterfalls and creeks cross the trail as it winds in and out of pocket watersheds, and they are unusually swollen for this time of year.
I can feel my right hip tightening in a way that is worrisome, and eventually my left ankle also gets cranky. I find myself questioning if six hours for this 50K is really a possibility. I splash off in the creeks to keep cool, and finally find my way to the Cal 2 aid station and the loving arms of the ladies of my own Donner Party Mountain Runners. Here is another infusion of love and energy, and at this point, I am sorely in need of it. The trail is exposed, the sun hot, and I know the seven miles to the turnaround are not going to pass quickly.
Bob Shebest cruises past me in the opposite direction on his way to the men’s win. Sharing the trail with runners on their return trip is less tedious this time since there are no 50K runners, and we are more spread out. Apparently a fair number of 100K runners dropped at Foresthill, which would also account for the thinner traffic.
I approach a beautiful creek crossing to be surprised by Kelly Barber popping up from full submersion in a deep pool.
“Oh my God, you are brilliant!” I tell him, as I take off my hat and sunglasses in preparation for the same treatment. He is clearly having a good race and throws words of encouragement over his shoulder at me as he tears off down the trail. The soaking is delicious, and I swear my body temperature drops by two full degrees while my spirit climbs in proportion.
Cat Bradley heads by looking incredibly casual and with what looks to be a sizeable lead in the women’s race.
“I love your pigtails!” she calls to me. This makes me smile, and I thank her. I love it when the top athletes have the spirit to cheer and support the other runners.
As the miles slowly tick by, the trail maintains its beauty, and fellow runners trade greetings, I recognize the state that is setting in: survival and acceptance. The return to Foresthill isn’t going to be especially pretty. There will be more walking than I’d like and increased pain in my hip and ankle. But it will get done. I’ll get there. And it’s that confidence that allows me to appreciate the struggle of the remaining miles, if not quite enjoy them.
Somewhere in the last five miles, I’m climbing another endless hill that god-dammit-I-should-be-able-to-run-but-can’t, when I see my friend Michelle Edmonson heading toward me.
“Yeah, Michelle!” I give her a cheer. “How are you?”
“Oh, man.” She shakes her head, and I can see she’s deep in the thick of this thing. “I’m fighting, Gretchen.” Her voice shakes slightly through her smile.
I want to stop. Give her a hug. Tell her she’s got this, she’s badass. Tell her I totally get it.
Neither of us has time for that shit.
“That’s what it takes,” is all I’ve got for her. “Keep fighting!”
And I hike on, engaged in my own fight toward the finish.
I manage to get there before truly needing to turn on my headlamp, and I take a morsel of pride in this. There’s a reasonable crowd cheering for me, and five seconds after I cross the line, I am sitting in a chair while Sean once again fetches my bag for me. Thank God because I am certain I could not have walked the 20 yards to get it myself.
Even in darkness, the finish line at Canyons is essentially a ten hour party. Friends, family, and exhausted runners sit in scattered chairs sharing stories. Chaz grills tri tip and wild duck next to the beer keg and a buffet of hot soups. Music from the speakers is punctuated by the periodic sounds of cowbells and cheering, signaling the approach of another runner.
Well after midnight, the same crowd of friends who had been manning The Pump aid station are gathered around the finish area bringing the same effusive energy to cheer every late night runner across the line. They wait for their friend and Striders teammate Michelle, who is still fighting it out on the course.
She is the final runner across the line, and the Striders have champagne, sleeping bag, and flip flops all ready for her.
“It’s a great feeling,” said Chaz, “to have so many people out for that late-night support, cheering on every finish.” This includes the 14 finishers who won’t make the 18-hour cut off to get a States qualifier.
It’s exactly that feeling that I love about this race. It doesn’t matter that I had a fairly ho-hum performance. It feels good to have tired, aching legs and be surrounded by friends. Providing an opportunity for you to push yourself while also giving you incredible support is what makes The Canyons Endurance Runs truly magical.
I know some of you deny it – you call it the “Way Too Crowded” and turn up your noses. You say, “I just can’t deal with the conga line,” but you still show up to spectate. You train on the course with your buddies, who are all registered to race, and discuss the prospects of Max or Varner or this-years-new-thang. You pretend otherwise, but just like the rest of us, you totally love the Way Too Cool.
|Frog cupcakes! Who doesn't love frog cupcakes!?|
|Jenelle, Jamie, and Sarah keep warm before the start of the 2013 Way Too Cool.|
Cool is many things to many different people. For some, it serves as an early season benchmark. Where do I stand after a winter of semi-slothdom? For others, its friendly terrain makes for perfect first-time ultra racing. Because I run Cool year after year, it works well as a measurement of my own progress as a runner over the years. For those of us from the Tahoe and Reno areas, heading down the hill the first week of March is also a springtime ritual that beckons us with warm sunshine to break from the winter chill. Because it seems that the entire NorCal ultra community turns out for this race, it is also the pinnacle of socializing this time of year, second only to summertime's Western States.
What were some of my best Cool experiences? Back in 2011, going sub-5:00 was a big deal, and I was pretty stoked to get there. Let’s not forget the shit-storm outhouse-search of 2012. Most hilarious race report ever, I’m pretty sure. There were the quivering quads of 2014 which resulted in both my course PR (4:44) and the most painful post-race leg cramping I’ve ever experienced. That’s what happens when you run hard while under-trained, friends! Last year was the I’ve-barely-trained-so-I’m-running-without-a-watch-and-pretending-I-don’t-care year. It was a pretty good strategy that garnered me a 4:50 without too much trouble.
This will be my sixth year running this iconic trail test. With that in mind, I have some highlights and tips for those of you who will be toeing the line with me on Saturday. Here are some things to enjoy and things to watch out for:
- Newbies: Don’t go out too fast! That first paved mile gets sub-looney really easily. Take the 8-mile loop to get your legs and warm up.
- Veterans: Go out fast! No kidding. It’s easy to get caught behind the mob. When I ran a 12 minute PR to go 4:44, I shaved 8 of those minutes off in that first 8-mile loop. Apparently I’d been taking it too conservatively.
- Use caution on that downhill between the first aid station and the Quarry Road aid. It’s a good place to use your refined downhill technique, but it’s also a good place to blow out your quads if you hammer it too hard. I always feel like people hammer this part, and I clean them up later after mile 20.
- Drink-up at Maine Bar. They say it’s only 4.3 miles from there to the ALT aid station, but I swear to God it’s more like 8. I can never make that distance on one bottle without running dry and cramping as a result. That stretch is the sole reason I carry two water bottles at Cool. It takes FOREVER to get to ALT.
- After ALT though, it’s all gravy. You can spend this long, smooth, slightly downhill stretch of trail passing people like mad because you paced yourself well. Right?
- Always run that last 1.4. It’s uphill, yes. You hurt, I know. Suck it up. The finishline will get there so much faster if you run it. It’s only 1.4 miles! Don’t stop at the aid station – just go. At the end, friends await.
Get a good night's sleep, a good parking place, and I’ll see you all bright and early on Saturday!
|Cupcakes and beer with Jenelle at a Way Too Cool finish celebration|
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