"This feels sooooo comfortable," Kate confided to me as she lay on her back, knees bent, staring at the clear, nighttime sky. The smile in her eyes matched the one curled upon her lips. Eucalyptus leaves in the trees around us crinkled against one another in the cool breeze. It sure was the perfect night for kicking back on the forest floor and taking it all in, all right.
Save for the fact that we were 70 Miles into her first 100 Mile race, and Kate had just taken a pretty decent spill on the trail.
Its funny to think what led to that very moment all began when I came across an incredibly beleaguered Leslie at Forest Park, running for dear life to the finish of her first 50k race. But there I was Friday night, in Marin, preparing to run Kate in the last 40 miles at the Headlands Hundred.
Kate , her husband Rodney, Leslie, Kate's sister Karen, and I tooled around the race course Friday afternoon, spotting where the aid stations would be, as Leslie and Karen were planning to meet her at each stop along the way. It was a beautiful course, but a pretty tough one (you know, as opposed to the easy 100 mile races out there), with 17,700 feet of gain slapped on to trails that included heavily rocky singletrack, miles of exposed trail, and ridges that wound you along the ocean front...and into the infamous Bay area fog, so thick you could barely see your own hallucinations in front of your face.
We stuffed ourselves with pasta at a Mill Valley eatery and returned to the motel, teasing Karen the entire ride about the movie she could have SWORN she'd seen about killer baboons. And the teasing continued after we arrived, until she burned us all by pulling it up on the ol' internets. I wondered aloud if we'd have any interaction with killer baboons ourselves during the night as Leslie graciously taped our feet. Then, I was off to my room for a Benadryl allergy tablet: My magic carpet ride to Dreamtown.
Wow, that even felt a little bit gay to type.
I passed on watching the start so I could sleep in, and good thing, as I remained knocked out until the late hour of 8AM. Yes, 8AM. It seems that even when it's not my race, per se, I still get all excited and anxious and can't sleep. Ah well.
Rodney and I grabbed lunch (Thai food - note to self: DO NOT EAT THAI FOOD ON RACE DAY) and talked on and off with Karen about Kate's initial 40 miles. The reports were excellent: She was in fantastic spirits and having a blast, although her pace was far faster than she'd planned. I hoped she'd slow down a bit before the night came, as I didn't want her blowing up at 2AM.
Rodney and I got to the start/finish/50 mile aid station and were soon greeted by Leslie and Karen, who were both adorned with huge, pink foam hats and matching ties. They were most definitely in the spirit of the game and had apparently made a great number of friends over the course of the day. Not hard to believe.
Kate pulled in to the aid stop in 12 hours, 35 mns, and she looked better than I feel on most days upon climbing out of bed and hitting the shower. Shoe changes, some refueling, and she and Karen - who would be pacing her from that point until I picked her up - trotted off into the growing night, so Rodney, Leslie, and I packed up the car and dashed to the next aid station.
After a couple of hours of waiting, making grilled cheese sandwiches, and bullshitting, before we knew it, Kate and Karen popped out of the woods and to the station. Her stomach had been troubling her since the last aid but she was back on the up and up and then off into the dark once again. And again, for us: Car, drive, and pull into the Mile 61 aid station at Tennessee Valley. I prepped my water bottles, headlamp, and gear and readied for a night filled with possibilities.
Miles 61.8-65.9: I got warmed up pretty fast, since the trails climbed pretty relentlessly up the mountain. Kate was drinking and eating well, and her pace was strong. Like, damned strong. She updated me on how the race was going, and she was 100% smiles, even as she warned me that this piece of trail (which she'd already once run and we would one more time before the day and night were through) was intense uphills followed by intense downhills. I will admit here, in front of you all, "intense" is a useful adjective for this report. I also had my first confused/hallucination of the night, only 2 miles in, when another runner's lights were coming down towards us. i thought, "Oh, cool - some guy on a night run." Uh, no, Russ. That's the lead runner coming back from the aid station. Doy.
Kate's longest runs prior to this race topped off at 100k (62 miles), so I alerted her around mile 65 that she had done her longest run ever. After running for another 10 minutes, she turned to me and said, "Guess what? This is the farthest I've ever run!" And this joke continued about every 5-10 miles. We found ourselves quite hilarious. Must have been the endorphins.
We made it down to the aid station at Muir Beach, refilled, gobbled some fresh strawberries and blazing hot soup, and off we dashed. Throughout the night, we kept aid stops to a maximum of 5 minutes, even when something major like a clothing change had to occur. I think it saved a substantial amount of time, and I'm proud of Kate for keeping that always on the forefront of her mind.
Oh, and those intense downhills coming in to the aid station? Yeah, they made for intense uphills on the way out.
Miles 65.9 - 71.3At the top of that insanity, the course took a detour before sending us back to the Tennessee Valley aid station that included about 19,034 stairs up the side of the hill. Okay, I lost count after 5, but it sure as hell felt that high. We crested and continued when Kate gave me an "Uh oh...I think I have to throw up" signal. I told her to go for it and switched off my headlamp. Some small heaves came from the darkness, followed by a, "Dammit! That's it?", but even that little bit soothed her stomach, and we were off to Tennessee Valley.
We came down the part of the trail where my initial hallucination hit, likely around mile 70, after carefully running down rocky switchbacks, when the trail turned to gentle, soft powder. A perfect place to face-plant, right?
And now you're caught up on where I started this entry.
After checking in, Kate decided the worst of the damage was a scraped knee. We dusted her off as much as we could and trotted on down to the aid stop. She told me to not mention her fall to the crew to see if they noticed, so I told her that, if they pressed me for information, I'd spin a detailed yarn about attack baboons on the trail. We ran it in, whooping ourselves like simians, and got in and out in no time flat.
Miles 71.3 - 75.3: "Diabolical."
This is the word that Kate drummed up to describe the upcoming 4 miles. 4 miles, that's nothin', right? Yeah. And I shave my head because I have too much hair. I suppose in the dark, this course is a bit easier, as you can't see what awaits you, especially for this piece. Holy. Christ. You think you know hills? I'LL show you hills. And my legs had 60 fewer miles on them than Kate's, which you'd find shocking, because her mood, even at it's darkest, was excellent. I think if race workers had heard the amount and the intensity with which we were laughing, she'd have been disqualified for having too good of a time and they would have made me run sweep.
We passed back through Tennessee Valley and like a pit crew, Leslie and Karen were on us. Our bottles filled, we began up towards the start/finish, which also served as the 75 mile marker. But in the dark, the markings leading out from the aid station were a little subtle. The trail took us in between a couple of barns and we figured we'd missed the markers when we wound up back at the aid station. Damn. An incredibly sweet and helpful worker ran us back to the glowstick we'd missed (this was our first missed trail marker of the night - watch the theme and see how I was able to add another 2 miles to my total) and we were again on course. And climbing. And climbing.
THis section is a bit blurry in my memory, but I do remember the word "diabolical" being repeated several times. I managed to have another hallucination (woe was me: 15 miles in) when we stopped to pee: Kate was up ahead and I finished off. I saw her headlamp ahead of me bouncing around, which indicated she was running and done with her break, so I sprinted after her. To my right, I heard the sound of - what I believed to be - someone peeing in a toilet, which made me jump, as I thought Kate was going right beside me. And somehow running ahead of me. It turned out to be a large bucket with constantly flowing water for horses to drink from.
Hey, it was probably 3AM, cut me some slack.
After the 820 feet of climbs came 1,000 feet of downhills, which wound us through the old WW2 Battery, which dates back to 1938. We ran through the concrete tunnels and popped out onto an asphalt road that twisted down, down, down and lo and behold, the 75 mile aid station glowed ahead.
When we got in, Kate crammed the last piece of a homemade cake in her mouth and announced, "This is the best cake I've EVER had!" to the crowd at the aid station. We managed to cut up a little and get some laughs from them, although they may have just been as delirious and punchy as we were. Leslie swapped out my dying batteries for some fresh ones and away we went.
Miles 75.3 - 83.9: Sand sucks. It's a fact. Running in sand at mile 76 of a 100 miler? That sucks more. Or sucks harder. Either way, we were ankle deep in it headed uphill for about a mile, our shoes loaded with grit and dirt until we hit an access road and began more climbing.
A couple of rogue deer sprinted across the road ahead of us, and then we saw headlamps coming towards us, but on a road running parallel to ours. They yelled, "Keep going!" as there was a turn up ahead. Within a mile, we reached the turn and began heading back, spotting feral cats' eyes glowing in the darkness, watching us, wondering why in the hell we would do such a stupid thing, most likely.
Then, another turn faced us, but no trail markings indicated whether we should proceed forward or turn. I told Kate to take a short break and ran about a 1/4 mile ahead, seeing no markings along the way. Either trail bandits had swiped the glowstick or this section was really crappily marked. I returned to find Kate seated on the curb, and we hemmed and hawed for about 10 minutes as to our next move. Then Kate said, "Screw it - let's go straight."
We continued down the road, which took us through a parking area and then, after about a mile, a glowing green stick hanging from a tree appeared! Whew. All right, let's get down to business, I thought, and before we knew it, we were back on trails.
It was at this point - around mile 80 - that I feel like Kate's darkest patch came. We were silent for a great deal of time, running very little (uphills. YES, MORE UPHILLS), and this stretch was 8 miles between aid stations. High ahead, I saw two headlamps bouncing up the switchbacks, maybe only a mile away. While we power-walked, I put it out there very simply:
"Let's run for 30 seconds."
Without looking at me, she replied, "That sounds like a good idea," and Kate began to run. And run. And those 30 seconds came and went and began to grow into minutes, which swelled into more minutes, and before I knew it, I looked at my watch and realized we'd run almost 10 minutes! Her mood lightened a bit, and we hiked more of the hills and ran every flat and down hill stretch we could. The sun began to rise and, as always, our energy came back, as did the jokes ("Baboons!" and "My longest run ever!" being the staple), and then, we turned a corner and spotted the two runners I'd seen nearly an hour before, now only 100 yards ahead.
Kate's pace picked up, and I say this with all sincerity: I had to keep up with her. They kindly moved over to allow us by and we all bade one another a "Good job!" as Kate TORE down the singletrack. And this maddening pace continued for about 15 minutes, the sun now struggling to cut through the early morning fog above.
We figured we were closing in on the station at Rodeo Valley and began to fantasize about breakfast. Kate dreamed of pancakes as my stomach begged for a breakfast burrito, but alas, after we pulled in and sat down, Twizzlers, brownies, and potato chips would have to suffice.
Miles 83.9 - 87: Okay, our brains were pretty baked from sleep deprivation, I'll admit that. We kept pushing though, and Kate's periodic stops to stretch her lower back were met with her own response of, "Well, Kate, we aren't gonna get there any faster by standing still." This is one tough cookie.
We crested at an intersection where ribbons dictated we take a left and head downhill, but straight ahead, a staggering uphill stared us in the face. No markings were on the uphill, but we were out of it and confused, so I hightailed it uphill about 5 minutes to find no trail markings. When I returned, we saw 2 runners come out from the turn we could have taken. We shouted to them, "Is that the way to Tennessee Valley?", and when their response was a slow, tired, confused, "Yes?", we took it as total truth.
Once we realized where we were (things look massively different in the daylight), we began our descent to the aid station, passing the horse bucket I'd mistaken for Kate-on-the-toilet-hours earlier. Cruising in, Kate headed for the port-o-potty and I dumped a bunch of Fritos and pretzels into a baggie, refilled my water, handed my stinking night gear to Leslie and Karen, and BOOM! We were off yet again.
Miles 87 - 91.1: DO YOU REMEMBER THOSE CLIMBS FROM EARLIER? Yeah, here we were again. We were both hazy on the distance and length of the hills, but dammit, they hadn't installed an escalator since we last visited. With periodic breaks, we jammed up those bad boys and cruised down the descents. I was highly impressed how much strength Kate had in her because I know her feet were bothering her at this point, and the constant slamming downhill couldn't have felt very pleasant. Once we reached the bottom, it was about 1/10 of a mile to the aid, which we jogged in. Kate took a seat on an ice chest as we consumed and refilled and, as per usual, she was ready to roll in less than 3 minutes. Which meant those downhills were now uphills, but, as I reminded her, we were single-digit-miles from the finish!
Miles 91.1 - 96.5: We banged out the climbs in the growing daytime heat and headed for those bastardly steps for the final crawl. We crested and began to hightail it down to the last aid station when we started to come across runners still going to the stop we'd left an hour before, the first of which being a pacer I'd spoken with long before I'd started running the day prior. He was pacing a new runner, named Scott, and was a liberal amount of distance ahead of him. About 30 seconds later, we came across Scott, who seemed to be in an upward mood, and I high fived him, screaming his name before Kate embraced him in a powerful hug. Say what you want about ultra runners being nuts, but we're all on the same team. Instantly, I felt our own energy pick up. And a good thing, because "diabolical" was about to re-enter our vocabulary...
Miles 96.5 - DONE!: Needless to say, spirits were high at the final aid stop. I dropped my (soaking wet) windbreaker and tore off my gaiters (I can't explain why I hate wearing them, but I do) and literally had to *chase* Kate out of the stop. She had left a full 20 seconds ahead of me(!!). Then began the climbing, but now we had adrenaline on our side, so we powered up those suckers like we'd not run in a week, and every rocky, twisting down hill was greeted by our light, sprinting feet. Now we were joking and laughing out loud (Kate, on what place she'd finish: "You know what they call the person with the lowest GPA in medical school?" Me: "No." Kate: "'Doctor'."), and once we hit the battery, the barn door was just around the corner. So what does someone who's been running 28 hours + do in this situation?
They run HARDER.
Our pace must have been 8 mn/mile for the last mile or two, and we hooted and hollered when we saw the finish below us as we wound down, down, down the switchbacks, encountering day-hikers with dogs who apologized profusely upon seeing Kate's bib number. Her response?
"What pretty doggies!"
Now we popped off the trail and hit the road, another 200 yards and we were done. I began to well up and tears streamed from my eyes as I was overtaken by what I'd witnessed: A dream, come to fruition, right there beside me. Kate turned and said, "We're crossing the finish together, so get ready to hold my hand!" and I smiled, as I'd wondered hours earlier if I should let her take this victory alone, but I then I realized: We were a team and now bonded for life by this single experience.
I don't recall the precise moment we crossed the finish, but I can still feel the embrace we shared. For someone who'd pounded out a truly difficult first 100 mile run, the strength in the hug I received was that of a champion, of a warrior. Someone who'd battled not merely a trail, not some random mountain range, but who looked in the mirror and said I can.
There's a saying that goes, "There is no glory without struggle." I repeat this in times of hardship to remind myself that in arriving beaten, battered, and bloodied at the mountain's peak, I will have learned much more than if I were dropped off to simply enjoy the view. And standing at the finish of Kate's first 100 Mile run, I was lucky enough to see living proof of it.
Congratulations, Kate. I'll forever cherish those hours. Thank you for sharing them with me.
Now, about this 100 I've been looking at for next year...