Thursday, April 16, 2015

Taking a Chance - Zion 100 Race Report

I DNFed the Zion 100.  I quit.  I'm a failure.

I've had several days to think about it, and my mind still comes back to those thoughts.  It would almost be easier if I had a broken leg or was puking for 40 miles - in the ultrarunning culture of 'never say die', it's hard to explain how I simply decided to stop running. 

So how did I get myself into this mess?

Brian and I decided about a month ago to head to Zion for an early 100-miler.  I had heard wonderful things about the course, and the photos made the scenery look beautiful!  I knew it was extremely early in the season to hope for a strong 100-mile race, but I felt strong enough to be able to finish.  Of course, this extended winter challenged my training - as the trails remained snow-covered leading up to our trip.  I didn't have any crew or pacers, which was the first time for me in a 100-mile race, but I hoped that I would be smart enough and strong enough to overcome that hurdle - this is how you truly learn about yourself, right?!?

Race morning was chilly, the thermometer in the car read 37 degrees (yay, I'm used to that)!  Before we knew it, the race had begun and we were headed through the valley on a gentle climb towards our first mesa, Flying Monkey.  At 3 miles in, the first mesa climb begun, and we were hiking up about 1,500 feet in a mile.  About halfway up, I looked back down and saw the stream of headlamps across the valley, the first beautiful view of the day. 

(first view across the valley, from Flying Monkey)

Reaching the top of Flying Monkey, we then went on a 6 mile loop around the mesa.  The sun was up now, and I could see the amazing views surrounding me as I looped through the fire roads.  Quickly, I finished my loop and was headed back down the same climb we came up.  This was my first view across the valley - just spectacular!

(trail down Flying Monkey)
After a few flat miles in the valley, we climbed over a power line cut and dropped to the next aid station.  I knew this was where the climb up the next mesa (Guacamole) started.  The climb was mostly gentle to begin with, not nearly as bad as Flying Monkey.  I found I could run up most of it - and I took advantage, as it was still relatively cool. 

At the top of Guacamole, we had another loop around the top of the mesa.  It was sweet single track across slick rock, and I loved it!  The course was a bit confusing in this section, but I was fortunate to have runners near me that could help guide me through the course. 

(Slick rock trails, with views in the background)
As I finished the loop, I was pleased to realize that I was already 26 miles into the course - and it was still feeling comfortable.  It was getting a bit hot, but I was managing the heat.  The course then went back down the same gradual climb we had taken up Guacamole, so I cruised down to mile 30, amazed at the miles ticking off. 

Out of that aid station, I realized I was starting to over heat.  This section was a long run across the valley towards the next mesa (Goosebump) - we were exposed to the full sun, and I felt like I wasn't getting any closer as I kept plugging along forward.  When I finally reached the climb up Goosebump, I knew I was in trouble.  I was barely putting one foot in front of the other, as I stumbled around up the climb.  It was so steep, with loose footing, and I was so tired and overheated already. 

(jeep road through the desert were endless)

Reaching the top of the climb, I was so excited.  I was less than halfway through the race, mileage-wise, but I only had 1 more major climb in the race!  The heat of the day had set it, so I alternated walking and running, doing my best to continue forward progress even though the terrain was flat and I knew I should have been running.  I fell into stride with two other 'northern' folks - one from Minnesota and one from Washington, and we all suffered in the heat together.  As other runners flew past us, we took comfort in each other and the suffering that only a northerner could be feeling in that moment.  We ran together for most of the run on top of Goosebump, reaching the mile 47 aid station fairly close together.

From there, the course ran several miles down a gradual dirt road.  I was cooked, but slowly soldered on.  At the first sign of a building throwing shade, I sat down in the shade to regroup.  I was only about halfway through the race, and I felt terrible.  I was overheated and I kept forgetting to grab what I needed in the chaos of the aid stations.  While I didn't feel like eating much, I also wasn't carrying too many options because I kept forgetting to pick up my fueling. 

(Running through the scrub brush)

Sitting down helped a little, but I still found myself walking down the endless dirt road - I had flashbacks to running (well, walking) down the endless dirt roads at Nueces when I had a pulled hamstring.  I was not doing well.  The only bright spot in this section was seeing Brian on his return trip up the road.  He wasn't in the best of spirits, and we both agreed that this race might have been a really bad idea...but onward we went.

I hit the Grafton Mesa aid station, and was relieved to be off the jeep road.  It was all single track downhill to get to the next aid station - and that helped my spirits a bit.  I did laugh as some folks at the aid station complained about the snow they had in California this year and how they felt not ready for this race...I told them this was my first time seeing dirt trails in months!  I just had to laugh at the winter I had in the lead up to this race. 

(Slick rock trails)

Anyway, I took in the views as we ran down and off the mesa.  I wasn't feeling great, but was able to loose myself in the moment.  I did my best to not think about the climb back up to the mesa (which would be the last significant climb of the day!). 

I reached the Cemetery aid station, and though I should maybe stay there.  Dig me a grave, I was done.  I looked up to the climb I had just run down, and nearly cried as I imagined getting back up that.  I kept telling myself over and over again 'one more climb, just one more major climb'.  I didn't think I could do it.

(Single track in the desert)
Then, I decided to phone a friend...and I turned on my cell phone and called my friend Steph.  It was amazing how much it helped to just have someone to talk to - sharing my stories of the day, complaining about how hard this was, describing the incredible views, whatever - I don't know what we discussed, but I do know that before I knew it I was at the top of the steep climb and jogging the flats back to the Grafton Mesa. 

It was getting dark, so I had to turn on my headlamp at this point - so I pulled my hat low, and chugged back up the climb that I had recently walked down.  My energy was high, the temperatures were dropping, and I was working my way up the last bits of the climb to Goosebump.

(The beauty of the desert)
When I hit Goosebump for the 3rd and final time, I tore through my drop bag.  I needed fueling (which I had been forgetting all day), and I needed to keep moving - it was getting cold.  As I sorted through my stuff, my body temperature dropped and I was shivering...and I triple checked the bag and couldn't find anything other than a short sleeve shirt in there.  I wouldn't make it without clothing, and I didn't have any.  I started shivering harder.  As I walked to the aid station to tell them that I might have to drop because I didn't have anything to keep me warm, the aid station captain handed me her husband's sweatshirt to put on.  It was a size XL, but it did the trick.  In that moment, she was an angel!

(Top of Goosebump Mesa)
I continued on, which meant running (more like sliding) down the super steep trail off the Goosebump Mesa (the climb that I barely made it up earlier in the day).  At the bottom, there were several miles of rolling jeep trails to get to the Virgin Desert aid station.  I was hitting highs and lows in rapid succession at this point - I would feel good and cruise a few rollers thinking 'only just over a marathon to go'; but then my knees would hurt and my Achilles would ache, and I would walk a few rollers as I contemplated why I was in the middle of the desert in the middle of the night and debate if I was doing real damage to my joints with this much pain.  I thought about calling a friend, but it was in the wee hours of night back home, and there wasn't any cell phone reception anyway.

I eventually made it to the Virgin Desert aid station, and immediately sat down.  I was spent and wasn't enjoying this at all.  I asked where Brian was - curious if he would be back to this aid station (to cheer me on) anytime soon.  Turns out, he left this aid station for the finish (6 miles to go) about 30 minutes before I got there - so it would be a while till he returned.  I told the volunteer that I was thinking about quitting the race, and he said 'no' and pushed me out onto the trail (even walking me to the trail head) to be sure I was on my way.

(Sun setting over the desert)

I left Virgin Desert on the first of 3 loops (red, white, and blue loops) through the desert.  I was mostly walking, in some serious pain throughout my body and with low energy levels - but I wouldn't stop until I saw Brian.  I thought about ultrarunning, and why I keep coming back to this sport.  I thought about my training buddies and teammates who were cheering me on...but nothing was helping.

I walked back into the Virgin Desert aid station for the second time, and immediately asked if Brian was there.  The helpful aid station volunteer found him as I collapsed into a chair.  The volunteer changed my wrist band from red to white (to indicate that I was on my second loop) as I sat there and tried to summon the courage to finish.  Brian finally came over (he had been helping another runner), and I immediately lost it.  I told him I was done, I didn't want to do this anymore, I wasn't having fun.  He just said 'fine, let's go back to the tent and sleep'.  I asked him if I was a loser for quitting, and he said he loved me no matter what. 

(The views of Zion)

With that conversation, I turned in my race number and we walked back to the car, having only completed 81 miles.  We slept a few hours, and I woke up feeling guilty for dropping and had enough energy that I could possibly finish.  I looked at my watch and determined that I still had enough time to finish the race - when I told Brian that I still have time to do the last 19 miles he said 'yeah, but do you really want to?', I responded 'no'. 

We headed to the start/finish area later that day to pick up the drop bags.  It was wonderful to see the runners finishing up, watching the joy on their faces as they completed their goals.  On the walk back to the car, I completely lost it - I couldn't hold back my tears anymore.  I was a failure.  I had quit.  I was a loser.  There wasn't anything wrong with me, and I simply walked away.  I flew across the country to come up short.  As irrational as it sounds, I had only completed 81 miles.  I had DNFed my first 100 mile race.  I had added to a statistic.  Nothing Brian could say was stopping the water works as I let out all my disappointment. 

(Beauty along the course)

I wish I could say that this disappointment easily and quickly went away - that I was smart enough to see the whole picture and realize that this one result didn't define me.  However, that wasn't the case.  This DNF would linger for a while, and continue to break my confidence - I had taken a chance, and it didn't work out.  The silver lining was that I felt good enough to run the Boston Marathon a week later - running stride-for-stride with my teammate Karin, and had a wonderful day with her despite the weather conditions.  We both got our BQs for next year - but I would have preferred a Zion buckle.

(Amazing geological features)

Two of my training buddies, Caroline and Howie, have a 3 1/2 year old daughter, Nora.  While I was out at Zion, Nora and Howie had a conversation about my running that Howie relayed to me...
Nora: "can I run with you and mama and Amy?"
Me: "Someday. Guess how far Amy is running this weekend."
Nora: "30"
Me: "more"
Nora: "100"
Me (amazed she got it on the second guess): "Yes!!"
Nora: "I want to run 100 with Amy."
Me: "I'm sure she'd like that. How about you and I run a 3-mile in Northampton on Tuesday?"
Nora: "That's too short. I want to do 100."