Monday, May 21, 2018

This is Ultrarunning: Pacing Cruel Jewel 100

It's been dark for hours. I'm a few steps ahead of a runner straddling a fallen tree aside the trail. His pack lies in front on him, splayed out. I am stopped, scratching the underside of my butt cheek, asking him if he's okay. He tells me he is just going to take a little nap on the tree for an hour. Lauren reaches us and he clicks off his headlamp as we move down the trail. This is ultrarunning. 

Months ago, Lauren asked me in a text if I could pace her during Cruel Jewel 100. She said it was like asking someone to prom. I responded like an over-eager prom date. Pacing an ultra might be my favorite way to run. You get to be a part of the race without the pressures of racing yourself. Any pain or frustration you might feel is almost forcibly shoved away because it is imperative to be strong for your runner. It doesn't matter if I'm tired, sore, hungry, or sleep-deprived. Getting my runner to the finish is the only thing I allow myself to worry about.

In the months leading up to the race, I was concerned I wasn't going to be able to give her many miles (or any) because of the whole boot/stress reaction thing. However, recovery seemed to be going reasonably well and after Boston and a 20 mile trail run, I was confident I could pace a section of the race.

The race started at noon on Friday while I was still at work. Anxious to get on the road before traffic, I ducked out of the office at 4p.m. As I neared Dawsonville, I started to pull over the Publix to grab something for dinner, some fresh fruit (that I forgot in the work fridge), and ice for my cooler. I heard a whipping noise coming from my car as I eased into the parking lot.

You have got to be kidding me!

In the past month I have replaced my driver's side window motor, an AC hose, and the fuel pump. What the hell else can go wrong?

Praying it wasn't a flat, I walked slowly around the passenger side of the car, listening for the hiss of a tire losing air. Then I saw a pile of long skinny rubber pieces on the ground under the hood. Upon inspection, I see that the serpentine belt has shredded and is unraveled. The good news is that there are still 3 grooves worth of the belt, the bad news is that about 5 grooves are gone. I grab my knife (thankful I carry sharp objects) and cut through cabling so it doesn't unravel further. I Google an auto parts store, buy a replacement belt, rent a ratchet set, and replace it in the parking lot. Thankfully it is a repair that I not only know how to do, but super easy.

Feeling frustrated that I've now wasted an hour dealing with this, I forgo grocery shopping and just grab a bag of ice from a gas station and decide I'm going to eat a giant burrito from Moe's for dinner. In the gas station restroom, I realize my period has started. That's cool universe, what else you got?

Aside from not being able to eat half my burrito while I white-knuckled the mountain roads, I found Dani's cabin with ease. Dani is one of Lauren's cool friends who does things like race on a 2 woman team across the US on a bike and competes in ultra triathlons. She also has a cabin near the start of the Cruel Jewel 100 start/finish and is/was gracious enough to let a couple pacer strangers come stay at her place. And oh yeah, she has a book (which I downloaded to my Kindle as we talked about it)!

Dani's friend Ben was also staying there as he was racing the 50 miler which started the following morning. He's done a bunch of ultra events as well, but had to back off a bit while he was in med school (!!!). Sheesh.

Lauren acquired her other pacer, Chantal, after asking a FB trail group if anyone could pace. Chantal is in school for PT and has quite an impressive UltraSignup resume. She'll be in Arizona for her clinicals this fall and plans to do R2R2R.

I'm surrounded by a bunch of humble type A badasses.  

Rudy, Lauren's crew chief and husband, came to the cabin close to midnight and I heard him tell Ben he was going to get an hour of sleep before we left. I had just fallen asleep and felt like he woke us up 5 minutes later. Sleep, smeep....

The 3 of us piled in Rudy's Tahoe which was already pretty packed with gear. I decided to just leave my cooler and camping chair so I didn't take up too much space. My food, clothes, and a pillow made the cut.

On the way to Morganton, the 50 mile aid station and start of Chantal's pacing duties, the skies opened up with water. Lightening flashed across the sky and thunder rumbled slowly as it reverberated across the mountains. This is ultrarunning.

After a pit stop at Waffle House for coffee to go, the 3 of us sat inside the shelter at Morganton, watching soaked runners come in for food, warmth, and for some, the place where they would call it a night. Several runners opted to drop out in the time that we awaited Lauren - cold, exhausted, and defeated. In the middle of the night, in the unforgiving rain, it was understandable that making the return trip was unimaginable.

Lauren came in on schedule and Rudy went to work. He helped her change out her shoes, doctored her feet, refilled her pack with nutrition, forced her to eat, and was every bit the definition of tough love. I stood back, watching and learning. It would be 19 miles before we would see them again so it was critical she was prepared to battle the next section.

Luckily, she had Chantal with her who left the warm and dry shelter to go pace a stranger at 3a.m. in the rain.

Rudy and I packed everything back up, gave them a final cheer as we passed them on the road out, and headed to Waffle House for a very late dinner or really early breakfast. I hadn't planned on needing my wallet, but Rudy was kind enough to buy me a waffle and hash browns.

We arrived at the next aid station after 5a.m. and got ourselves situated to take a short nap. Rudy set his alarm for 8:30 a.m. though both of us likely knew we'd wake up well before then. I got a solid 2 hours of sleep in the reclined chair of the backseat while he nodded off in the driver's seat. Once I heard him moving about, I woke up feeling relatively refreshed. I brushed my teeth and spit my minty froth into the woods.

It was time to hurry up and wait at Stanley Gap, mile 69.1. We hauled some gear up to the aid station and spent the next couple of hours talking to other crew. I decided to finally change out of my jammies at one point and put in my contacts - I submitted to the fact that I was not going to be getting any more sleep.

Lauren and Chantal came into the aid station within the time expected. Rudy once again went to work and this time, I acted as sous chef. I went back and forth to the car a few times and dug through various bags to find nutrition and Rock Tape. Rudy attempted to drain a blister under the ball of Lauren's foot, but she grabbed the needle and took matters into her own hands. I took Chantal's jacket, headlamp, and buff and suggested that Lauren grab her hat and ditch her rain gear.

Rudy and I packed everything back up and set out to repeat the same thing at Old Dial, mile 75.0. We found a spot in the shade and drank a beer with one of their friends, Travis, while waiting. The day was warming up, but both Lauren and Chantal seemed to be in pretty good spirits when they came into the aid station. They didn't stay too long so we knew that everything was going as well as it could given the mileage.

Travis, Rudy, and I made our way to Wilscot and I began to prepare myself for pacing. I loaded up my pack with water, rubbed Vaseline everywhere on my body (repeatedly, for good measure), and watched as runners came into mile 80.5. The fresher looking ones were running the 50 mile race and only at mile 30. The ones that looked like dumpster zombies were the 100 milers.

Men hid their tears as they sat in the shade, shoving food in their mouths and ice in their packs. One runner asked if he could just have ice in his hydration pack as he knew it would be melted quickly against his back. They received pep talks from their crew and from the aid station volunteers and looked forlornly back as they headed into the next section.

Keith kept the energy high and the smiles going and I tried to channel some of his positive energy as I awaited Lauren. She came in with low spirits and sank into one of the chairs. Within seconds, tears turned to sobs. A low point had arrived and we all set to work to get her food, hydration, and pump her back up for the next section. As soon as she was smiling again, another female runner sat down and had the exact same reaction. I would later see this same runner pass us in the night with a huge grin on her face. This is ultrarunning.

Chantal passed off her phone/food timer which was set to go off every 42 minutes to remind her to eat. Rudy handed me the baggie of elevation maps and an aid station mileage chart plus a bottle of electrolyte tabs that I was instructed to give to her when she started to look fatigued.

It was time to battle.

I clicked on my Garmin at 3:10 p.m. on Saturday afternoon, 28 hours after she had started. The first hour was a bit warm, but under the shade of the trees and moving between 15-25 minute miles, I was actually very comfortable.

The scenery was beautiful. I know Lauren had stopped looking long ago, but forest had greened up and looked particularly lush after the rain. Mountain laurels and wild azaleas popped color in the landscape. Ferns brushed along my ankles as the single track narrowed towards the peaks. I just started reading North by Scott Jurek and thought about how he heard the AT being described as the Green Tunnel. It was a strange chasm of her suffering and the beauty of the earth that would wind its' way through my 15 hours of pacing.

She asked me how much further we had and I described our distance in number of peaks as I heard her looking before we left. Later we would all laugh as she took back the baggie of elevation maps not trusting my explanation of peaks during that section.
We arrived at Skeenah Gap about 2.5 hours later and got our final taste of crew at mile 85.4. It was probably closer to 6p.m. when we left as we had our last major change of everything. Rain was falling closer to Vogel so we made sure to grab rain jackets and packed our headlamps for our now inevitable darkness. I ate a bunch of food while Rudy and Chantal tended to her needs and repacked my bag with snacks.

The climb out of Fish Gap is a 1,000' climb in 1.5 miles that tops out on Rhodes Mountain. We then headed for the aptly named Dragon's Spine which is a series of summits and gaps all over the course of 3.5 miles that ends in Fish Gap, mile 90.3.

We played leap frog with a ton of runners in this section as some runners were dying on the descents and others, the ascents. Lauren seemed to be moving along both at about the same speed. I am a much better climber so I'd have to watch myself when ascending, but she'd stay right on my tail while descending.

I could tell that she was in desperate need of calories as we got to Fish Gap and I was actually hungry myself despite grazing all day. Plus, I knew that the next section was going to be over 7 miles until the next aid station. So I made her eat some solid food (grilled cheese) and drink some soup while at Fish Gap. We got some instant coffee and traded the cup back and forth as we started the next section.

This was one of my favorite parts. Sharing a cup on coffee in the middle of the race as the sun began to drop behind the horizon. I looked up across the horizon as we climbed up and atop Fish Knob and smiled to myself. It was a stunning May night to be on the trail. The sun lingered in the sky for a long time before stars began to pop.

I felt bad that I wasn't conversing very much at this point because I was just kind of enjoying being out in nature, moving my body through the night, wrapped up in my own thoughts. I had been calling out downed trees and Lauren noticed that I missed one - I confessed I was daydreaming.

The trod after Akin Gap was noticeably worse. Whatever pep in calories that had helped after Fish Gap was now gone. Lauren was going into zombie mode and I had to watch carefully as her pace dropped that I didn't get too far ahead. I wanted her to pursue so I was pushing beyond what she wanted to do. I told her that I got nervous when I didn't hear her like a kid playing that suddenly gets quiet. Something was potentially wrong.

Our 20-25 minute pace slowly dropped to 30-35 and climbed upwards of 45 minute miles on the ascents. I could feel my own quads burning, my feet aching, and the lack of sleep taking it's toll. But I pushed my own pain aside and acknowledged that any hurt I had could not be compared to hers with an additional 80 miles on her body.

I didn't see anyone running in this section. There were a lot of people that passed us hiking faster, but no one had two feet off the ground at any one point. Everyone would say "good job" as they passed and there was some sort of misery loves company vibe that we all exuded when around each other. The laughs were hollow and self-deprecating. We couldn't decide if it was inspiring or absolutely stupid that we were out here paying for this pain.Well, the runners were paying. At least I was doing it for free.

The runner about to take a nap on a tree was in this section - other runners would later tell us he had woken up and was moving again.

The section to Firepit was supposed to be 7.3 miles and I looked as my watch went from 7.3 miles to 8 miles to over 9 miles. Each of these miles now upwards of 40 minutes. Lauren was moving at this point, but it was incredibly slow going. The few times that I did burst out into random conversation, I would look back to make sure she was still there because she no longer could even give single word responses.

At Firepit (mile 97.6 - give or take), the interaction with different humans made her slightly perkier and she even seemed to jolt awake for a few seconds when bacon was mentioned. I was almost out of food at this point because I wasn't prepared to be out for so long. I asked the aid station volunteers if they had any plastic bags that I could stick some food in to take with me. They only had gallon sized bags so I ended up taking a bread bag with a few pieces of bread in it and stuffing it with cookies, Fig Newtons, and gummy worms. I then ate a boatload of grilled cheese squares, chugged a cup of Mountain Dew, and hoped that my heart would continue to work after ingesting this concoction.

We shared another cup of coffee as we exited the aid station and I actually felt really good for the next mile or so. Lauren went the opposite direction. It was 4.7 miles to Wolf Creek, but there was only water at the next stop so I knew this was really the push for the finish and we ultimately had 8.4 miles to go. Even if we picked up the pace, we were still 4 hours away. It was probably going to be 5+ hours from Firepit.

Within a mile, Lauren started to have a case of the ultra crazies. There were moths that would pop up on occasion in her headlamp light and she started to freak out. She would wave her trekking poles wildly around and scream as she batted them long after they went away. This was coupled with intermittent stops of resting her head on her poles or leaning against a tree, falling asleep for mere seconds at a time. For every 30 steps I took forward, I backtracked 10 to prod her along.

At one point she leaned against a tree and would not budge. I told her she could sit down and sleep for 5 minutes. I tried to push her body against the tree as much as possible so other people could pass by. They would ask if she was okay and I told them she was just taking a nap for a few minutes.

5 minutes is a long time to stand in the dark doing nothing while waiting for 5 minutes to pass.

I had to kind of shake her awake the first time, but she got up and continued on her way. We got about 3/10ths of a mile when she leaned against her poles and wobbled wildly next to the dropoff. The shear of the mountain to her left, the shear of the dropoff to her right. I sprinted back to catch her wobble and planted her on the trail again. Another 5 minute nap.

She was even worse when I managed to get her up again, but she moved for another few tenths of a mile. We started to descend into a less steep area and fortunately the trail was a little wider on each side. The freaking out with the moths continued and then she starting asking me where she was. She panicked about where she was. The wobble was getting to the point that I seriously was worried she was going to be airlifted out of the trail. She was feeling nauseous and stooped over to dry heave without it being productive.

At one point she told me her water was making her feel thirsty. I asked her if she thought there was something in her water and had her try mine. She said that my water also made her thirsty. If you've ever tried to reason with a drunk person, this is a very similar feeling.

I helped her fall onto a bed of leaves and she immediately fell into a deep sleep. Her arms were splayed in one direction, her legs in the other, and her head and trunk faced upright. It looked like a crime scene, minus the blood. I left her headlamp on and clicked my own off and sat down next to her.

My phone battery was dead and her phone was locked. I tried in vain to wake her up to get her code, shaking her shoulders and telling her I needed to call Rudy. Luckily, she had her emergency medical contact as Rudy and I called him to update him about the situation. I didn't get him the first time and left a message.

Sitting in the woods at God-knows-what-time with a hallucinating runner who had covered 95 miles with a dead phone, a locked phone, and minimal food & water. This is ultrarunning.

I thought about taking a nap myself and even went so far as to set an alarm. But then I worried that I wasn't going to wake up quickly and despite Lauren's current situation, I didn't want her to lose any more time than necessary. So I just sat next to her and waited. It was actually a stunning night to be sitting outside. I had thought earlier in the evening how nice it would have been to camp. I chuckled to myself thinking I kind of got my wish.

Rudy called me back and I gave him the update that she was okay, but sleeping. We were moving really slow, but nothing was inherently wrong. She was just reaching the limits of exhaustion. I explained I was letting her sleep a little and hoped she would feel a little better even after 20-30 minutes of resting. I can only imagine how worried he was at this point, but I was hoping he would feel at least a little better knowing that one of us was coherent in our party of 2.

Since she was so nauseous before she passed out, I was worried she was going to vomit all over me as I yanked her by the arms into a sitting position. Also, I feared I was testing the limits of our friendship by basically forcing her to get up. I knew she wanted to just sleep in that pile of leaves, but I also knew she really want to get to that finish line.

I truly had no idea how far we were from the finish at this point. I thought I knew, but it was twice as long as I thought. She was not moving fast, but she was moving and no longer fighting me to go to sleep. However, for the next 5-6 miles, I was like every single poster in the Successories store. I was telling her she was amazing, she was strong, she inspired me, she was a crushing it, and then I was giving her visions of the finish line - telling her how proud Rudy was of her doing this and how she was going to get to see him and take a nap. I know I was sleep-deprived myself and repeating myself ad nauseum. In some ways though it selfishly helped me. It gave me purpose in that final section.

Ben caught us at one point and then took a breather at the Wolf Creek hydration stop. I appreciated seeing someone else I knew out there at this late in the race. Even though we were deliriously tired and likely having a nonsensical conversation, it lifted me up a bit.

The plod on Coosa went on and on and on and on. I never thought we would see highway 180. I have run on Coosa before, but don't know the scenic markers and I kept thinking I'd see the trail head with every curve. The sun came up just as slowly as it dropped the night before and I was happy to finally ditch the light of my head lamp.

Over the highway, there was enough space to finally run side by side and there was something resolute about the fact that the only way to even get to the car was to get to the finish line. I spoke to Rudy one more time and then got ready to run it in for the finish. At the pavement, we started jogging and stopped/started until the arch came into view. I peeled off to the left and watched as she ran the last 100 meter stretch to the finish, collapsing into Rudy's arms.

I may or may not have had a little something in my eye at that point.

I was exhausted, dirty, had slept just over 2 hours in the past 48 hours, hungry, and covered 15 hours on the trails when I've only ever run longer than that (time-wise) twice in my life. I would do it again in a second. If someone had told me two months ago (when I was in the boot) that I was going to be doing this, I never would have believed them.

Proud to call Lauren my friend. She is inspiring, she is strong, and she does it with smile on her face. Appreciative of Rudy's kindness, patience, and ability to make being crew chief look easy (newsflash: it is ridiculously not). Happy to make new friends of Chantal (I smell many future adventures together!), Dani, and Ben.

I don't know where I'm at with my own running right now, but I'm happy to always find joy in the journey!