A Month of Extremes (Yakima Skyline 50k & 25k; Orcas Island 50 Mile; Sri Chinmoy 13 Hour)
Saturday, May 12, 2018 5:01pm Orcas Island, Washington
You’re okay. You’re okay. It’s okay. You’re okay. The phlegm formed a shallow pool in the back of my throat as I sniffed and wiped my eyes where tears started to form. It’s okay, I said out loud, for a fourth time, my voice breaking with fear. You’re okay. It’s okay.
The final, 1,000 foot climb to the top of Mount Constitution rose before me like a dinosaur’s broad back. I’d spent the last 30 minutes bounding, with as much speed as I could muster after 11 hours of running, down steep switchbacks, searching hopefully for the last, hard right turn at the place where the trail turned upward again. Only if I reached this place by 5:00pm would I have the chance to summit Mount Constitution, Mile 45 of 50, by the 5:45pm aid station cut off. In my head, I’d been alternating between Queen’s Keep Yourself Alive and Fall Out Boy’s Sugar We’re Going Down [Swinging].
Now, I was here.
Saturday, April 20, 2018 12:44pm Ellensburg, Washington
“Welcome to the Aid Station. We’ve got water, Coke, and a car to take you to the finish.” I was 14 minutes late.
I smiled broadly at this guy who I’d seen at races before but whose name I didn’t know. “Thank you,” I said. There were three other runners circling the aid station, their lilting voices indicating they too were not devastated to have been pulled from the course at Mile 15.5 of 31.
“It’s my first DNF,” I told one of them, shrugging. “I did a 100 miler two weeks ago. I guess my legs are still tired.”
After 14 ultra-marathons in two years, it was bound to happen sometime. DNFs for ultra-runners are like cuts and burns to a chef – you rather they wouldn’t happen, but they do. When, at 12:00pm, having completed 5,000 feet of climbing in just over ten miles, I’d looked down at the red dot of an aid station in the distance and realized I had only 30 minutes to get there, I’d stopped to take a selfie. If I was going to DNF, I may as well take a few photos first.
I’m happy that it’s this race I’ve DNF’d, I told myself as made the descent to the aid station where I’d be pulled off course. The Yakima Skyline 50k is difficult and, just two weeks earlier, I’d completed by second ever 100 mile race in brutal conditions, finishing triumphantly as the 8th woman over all. Yakima was a lark. And, besides, I was also registered for the 25k the following day. The sun is shining. I’m having fun. I’ve DNF’d and I don’t care.
Saturday, May 12, 2018 5:02pm Orcas Island, Washington
Forty-three minutes. It should be enough, I knew, to reach the top of Mount Constitution. It’s okay. You have enough time, I told myself. It’s okay.
I dropped my head, leaning forward onto the balls of my feet, and shifted weight onto my hiking poles. The inspirational lyrics in my head gave way to darker voices. You need to do whatever it takes. You cannot get pulled from this race. You. Can. NOT.
I’d told few people of the DNF at Yakima, and those I did tell I was quick to add the race had come on the heels of a 100 miler, justification for my inability to reach the half-way point in the allotted time. DNFs might happen to all ultra-runners, but they don’t happen to me. Yakima may have been arguably justifiable, but I couldn’t justify two DNFs in successive races. I needed to make it to the top of Mount Constitution by 5:45.
Saturday, May 19, 2018 6:36pm Seattle, Washington
I ran into the aid station to the sound of cheering volunteers. To my right, the Race Director stood with his watch, a handful of competitors surrounding him. Doubled over and breathing heavily, I looked at my own watch, trying to make sense of the numbers. “You have 24 minutes,” he said.
“Fuck,” I responded.
Saturday, May 12, 2018 7:39pm Orcas Island, Washington
A group of girls sitting on the lawn stopped their conversation to clap, and provide a polite “Woooo hoooo” as I came down the final embankment, running for the first time in nearly 6 miles. Candice, the Race Director, sat comfortably in a folding chair under the red canopy. “Congratulations,” she said, as a volunteer draped a wood carved Orcas Island 50 Mile medal around my neck.
“Thank you,” I responded, willing myself not to tear up. I sighed. “It was a hard day.”
I’d reached the top of Mount Constitution at 5:36pm, nine minutes before the cut off. During that final climb, I’d struggled to think of the last time I’d worked so hard during a race. I couldn’t recall hurting – and wanting – this badly before. To have made it meant, simply, that I would be permitted to finish. The advertised finish line cutoff was 7:00pm, though the race (quite generously, I’d come to realize), would allow an official finish to anyone reaching the peak of Mount Constitution by 5:45. Smiling weakly at Jeremy, the Aid Station captain at the Peak, I’d departed for the finish line around 5:40, walking slowly.
Two hours and three minutes later, I reached the finish line, 5.5 downhill miles away, the second-to-last finisher by three minutes.
Saturday, May 19, 2018 7:20pm Seattle, Washington
The volunteer struggled with the portable microphone. “Could I have your attention,” she bellowed at the 30 or so racers and family members seated at picnic tables on the shore of Lake Washington. Dinner was served, and most were socializing and eating hungrily. “We need to do these awards because some people need to leave.”
“In first place for the women, is Jenna Powers with 60.06 miles.”
Caroline, the woman finishing in second, and Jared, the winning man, clapped loudly beside me. I stepped forward, collecting my certificate, trophy, and hand-painted winners’ plate.
I’d only signed up for this 13-hour race on Monday, less than 48-hours after completing the Orcas Island 50 Mile. Just 15 minutes from my house, it seemed like a good way to get time on my feet as I continue to train for August’s Bigfoot 200. I thought I could comfortably finish 50 miles in the 13 hours with a mix of running and walking, and had even invited a few of my non-running girl friends to swing by and walk one of the 1.5 mile laps with me.
Despite my laissez faire attitude (and impromptu chit chat walk breaks with other runners), I overtook Caroline for the women’s lead around Mile 39. At 10 hours and 15 minutes, I reached 50 miles, the first woman, and second overall behind Jared. Concerned about overtraining and injury, I decided to walk the remaining 2 hours and 45 minutes. After all, I’d done the 50 miles I set out to do; hitting that milestone at the front of the pack was just icing.
But at 6:20pm, with just 40 minutes left to go in the race, I was still in the lead by what I estimated to be around a quarter mile. While I’d been content to lose my race lead when there were still hours left, it suddenly seemed like a silly sacrifice with just 40 minutes. I’d completed 37 laps and so had Caroline. As long as I stayed in front of her on the course, I would win. Not being able to see her behind me to know how strong she was running, I took off with all I had. I estimated needing just one good lap.
After more than two hours of walking, the achiness in my hips and feet had all but disappeared. I felt good. Still, I was grateful to again see the start/finish line, where competitors who’d decided to go out for no further laps had begun to congregate with the race director, next to the large leaderboard. They clapped and “woo hoooo’d” as I came in, doubled over with exhaustion. I’d covered that last 1.5 miles – miles 57 through 58.5 on the day – in just 16 minutes. “You have 24 minutes left,” the Race Director said.
“Fuck,” I responded, to peels of laughter from the spectators. They seemed to think Caroline was close behind. If I stopped now and she kept going, she would finish victorious with 39 laps to my 38. As long as I stayed ahead of her, I would win.
I took off running for one more lap. As it turns out, Caroline did not.
In the space of 30 days, I’d both DNF’d and won a race outright. I’d cried mid-course. I’d walked in fun and I’d walked in exhaustion. The next 30 will bring the same extremes, I expect. And, God willing, the 30 days after that. And after that.