Monday, May 20, 2019

Zion 100 Race Report 2019

Dear Zion 100,

Hi. It's me, Cory. I just wanted to write you a little thank you note after this year's race. You're my friend, so I want to be honest with you. I wasn't sure I wanted to hang out with you this year. Because of these pesky infusions I've been doing every week, I haven't been able to run as much as I used to. I wasn't sure how my legs would hold up. But I love you. You are beautiful. And I love sleeping in my own bed the night before a race, with the start line only a few minutes away from home.

Mel has paced and crewed me many times over the years and she knows you are pretty cool, so she decided to run the 100k race the day before packet pickup. 

I don't know if you know this, but once the race started, you made some people cry. It's kind of rude to make people do a 1,500 foot vertical climb right at the beginning of the race. If you look closely, you can see ant-like runners going up the mountain.

On that brutal climb up Goosebump you made my wife say quite a few four letter words. She decided you aren't as cool as she thought.

I'm not trying to be rude, but Mel wasn't the only one spraying out four letter words like water shooting out of a sprinkler. That climb is never ending. And it HURTS.

Mel was cursing both me and you. I said "Whoa! Hey! Don't bring me into this! You're the one who chose to come and hang out with the Zion 100." I didn't say or do anything to encourage her to start a relationship with you. I did tell her that the view at the top was worth the miserable climb. I think once we made it to the top of the mountain she agreed.

Once we made it to the top, then it was time to run. Run. Run. Run. Run. Swear. Run. Run. Cramp. Swear. Run. Run. Run. Run. Walk break. Run. Run. Run. Cramp. Swear. Swear. 

Then grand, sweeping views of Zion National Park opened up on the horizon. It made all the swearing go away. 

With every single mile that passed, I felt so incredibly thankful to be sharing those miles with Mel. Though she's been a runner for many years, she only recently developed an interest in ultrarunning. To be able to share such a horrible and wonderful and painful and rewarding adventure with her is pretty freaking sweet.

I really, really like how you added Wire Mesa to the course this year! I've never been on that trail before, but that trail made me love you even more. 

I had a difficult time running those miles on Wire Mesa because I had to keep stopping to take pictures. I've always told people that you are the most beautiful 100 miler I've run. Thanks for proving me right.

After about 20 miles running together, Mel and I split up. Those first 20 miles with her were my favorite part of the race. We gave each other a hug and kiss, then split up. 

I then spent many, many hours mostly alone surrounded by your amazing scenery. I'd pass or be passed by an occasional runner, but most of the time I enjoyed the miles in solitude. 

Of all the trails I've run in southern Utah, the view from The Point on Gooseberry Mesa is my very favorite place to be. I always feel a connection to home when I'm standing here because I can see Gooseberry Mesa from my driveway.

I can't thank you enough for the amazing weather you treated us to. You've thrown some downright horrific weather at us over the years. I swore I'd never talk to you again after the sweltering inferno of 2012. And you were a royal A hole last year with that ridiculous rain and mud. But you redeemed yourself this year. Thanks for that.

I was starting to sleep walk a little bit when I got to the Virgin Desert aid station around mile 53. I was thankful to see my friend Cherie Santiago who volunteered to meet Mel at that aid station and pace her to the finish line of the 100k. I gave her a big hug. Cherie is a bundle of light, energy, and kindness. 

As I was talking with Cherie, I heard someone behind me say "Hey, I know that voice! Are you Cory Reese?" She introduced herself and told me her name was Cassidy Tinkoff. She said "I was listening to your book Into The Furnace during my flight over to this race!" We then left the aid station and enjoyed some fun miles together wandering through the dark desert talking and laughing. 

It was a LOOOOOOOOOONG night. It got super windy and the cold breeze pierced right through my clothes. And there was some sleep walking. And I nearly ran right into the back side of a cow who was standing right in the middle of the trail. (I was so surprised and scared that I let out a yelp that sounded exactly like a six year old girl screaming.) I was so thankful to make it through the night and see the sun lighting up the horizon.

I started to see runners coming down the road from Guacamole Mesa making their way to the finish line. It would take me many, many hours to make it up the road, run the Guacamole Trail, and then make it back down the road myself. They were many hours ahead of me and they looked horrible.

When I was at the mile 52 aid station, I made a poor life choice and ate a big piece of pizza. From that point on, my stomach threw a gigantic temper tantrum. It was twisting and turning in knots. I thought to myself "You have about 15 more miles to go. Other than your stomach, you're feeling okay. Maybe you should just throw up and let your stomach reset."

I've never thrown up during a race before. I've thrown up many times after a race, but never during. It seemed like a good time to end my vomit-free streak. I knew that throwing up couldn't make my stomach hurt any worse than it was already hurting. I grabbed my camera hoping to get a sweet mid-eruption photo. Then I gave my stomach permission to exercise the demons out of my body.

My stomach started spasming. Then dry heaving. More dry heaving. But no eruption! Alas, much to my surprise, my vomit-free streak continues, and all I have to show for it is a picture of my dry heaving while a vein nearly pops out of my neck.

I made it up to Guacamole, ran the Guacamole Trail, then back down. I was at the point I had seen those runners hours earlier. I figured I probably looked as terrible as they did. I crossed the Virgin River and the cold water helped revive me a bit.

I got a text from Mel during the night that she dropped at mile 53. Thankfully when I was at mile 99 I found a special award to give her since she didn't get a medal. She is basically amazing.

After 32 hours and 25 minutes I crossed the finish line. If you're willing to grant me a finish for 2016 when I ran the Zion 100 solo a few days before the official race, I've finished the Zion 100 eight years straight since the race first started.

I guess what I'm trying to tell you Zion 100 is that I love you. I mean, sure. There have been times during our relationship when I've hated you. I've wanted to break up and see other races. But when it comes right down to it, you complete me. (Said in my cheesiest Jerry Maguire voice.) Iiiiieeeeeiiiii will always love you. (Said in my cheesiest Whitney Houston voice.) I am crazy in love. (Said in my cheesiest Beyonce voice.) Everything I do, I do it for you. (Said in my cheesiest Bryan Adams voice.)

Thank you for another beautiful chapter in our love story together Zion 100.

Thank you Vacation Races for another stellar race. Thank you Altra, St. George Running Center, Tailwind Nutrition, UltrAspire, and Injinji for supporting my running adventures. Thank you Mel, Jackson, Dani, and Ky for being the coolest family a guy could ever hope for. Thank you Jerry Maguire, Whitney Houston, Beyonce, and Bryan Adams for your cheesy sayings about love. 

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Jackpot Ultra Running Festival Race Report - 2019

My wife Mel has seen me run 100 milers. She has seen me barf on my feet. She has seen me sleepwalking from absolute exhaustion. She has seen my legs look like they need an exorcism as they twist into knots with cramps. She has seen me give birth to blisters the size of a Toyota Prius.

My wife is a smart person.

So I have no idea why, after everything she has seen me go through, she would willingly choose to register for a 100 miler. And then she suggested I could run it with her. The only logical explanation I have is that she must have been high on LSD or something when she came up with this idea. But I agreed that this could be a fun adventure, so we registered for the Jackpot Ultra Running Festival in Las Vegas.

We ran hundreds of miles together over the past few months to train for the race. Then this past weekend was time to race. The Jackpot course is a 2.5 mile loop around a wildlife preserve and we signed up for the 48 hour race hoping to complete 100 miles within that time frame. Our daughter Kylee came along to run the 48 hour race also.

From the very start of the race, the wind was kind of like that scene in Wizard of Oz where Dorothy's house gets picked up by a tornado. Thankfully no Terriers were on the course. Otherwise they would have been carried to a different time zone.

Around mile 20 I started to feel discouraged and frustrated. This is the first time I've tried racing since being diagnosed with Common Variable Immunodeficieny Disorder. (HERE is a blog post I wrote this little adventure.) A few days before the race, I had an immunoglobulin infusion in my leg and it was already acting up early in the race. I'll admit my eyes may have had a little moisture and I started feeling sorry for myself.

Thankfully my leg mellowed out after a few hours and wasn't quite as sore. I really wanted to be able to run every step of Mel's first 100 miler with her.

The course goes around a lake full of ducks and geese that honk incessantly. All day and night it sounds like someone is riding behind you on a bike repeatedly squeezing a bike horn. You can't help but laugh.

The wind advisory continued all day and into the night. It was windy as hell. I used to think of Hell as more of a fire and brimstone kind of place. But after this experience I'm convinced that in Hell, wind just howls relentlessly (while Celine Dion music plays over the loud speakers 24/7).

As the sun set, I could hear Mel humming some music. I asked what she was listening to. She said "I'm listening to a book on Audible, but I really need some music, so I'm humming 'Maneater'."

During the first night we decided to take a little break and sleep for an hour or so. We did end up laying down but neither of us were able to sleep. Why? Two reasons. 1) Our legs felt like they were being squeezed in vice grips. And 2) The hellish wind. I remember going to Universal Studios as a kid. On the studio tour, the bus went into a large building, then the lights went out and King Kong showed up and shook the tour bus back and forth. That's kind of how our camper felt as we tried to catch a bit of sleep.

Unfortunately Kylee was starting to develop some Toyota Prius blisters. We helped her take care of them the best we could, but it was clearly making the miles more challenging for her.

Sometime in the middle of the night we decided to get a picture together and try to make it look like we were having fun.

A few miles later Mel sat down to dump some rocks out of her shoes. Kylee immediately turned the cement into a bed and took advantage of the 1 minute of rest.

We hit mile 50 and Mel felt like she was in a boxing match with Mike Tyson. I tried to raise her spirits by doing a celebratory victory dance. You'll be shocked to learn that I have never had a single dance lesson in my entire life!

The night of ultramarathons is always so difficult. The exhaustion and fatigue always catch up to you. But if you can keep going until the sun comes up, you almost always start feeling better. Thankfully that was the case for us.

I couldn't help but stop to take a jumping picture at the 24 hour mark.

One of the things I love most about races is the people who I get to share miles with. I am particularly inspired by people who don't fit the stereotypical runner mold. I'm inspired by people who have to fight because the miles don't come easy. I love when people who are a little older, or a little heavier, or a little slower still take on the challenge to race. Take for example my friend Gene Defronzo. Gene is 83 YEARS OLD and ran his 745th LIFETIME MARATHON at Jackpot! The guy is a true legend. Who says age has to be a limitation in running!

On the other side of the spectrum, Jackpot also hosted the USATF 100 Mile National Championship so we got to see elite runners speeding around the loop. Altra runner (and one of the nicest humans on the planet) Mark Hammond won the USATF 100 miler in 12 hours 58 minutes, averaging 7:46 per mile. I can't run one mile at that pace. Simply, simply incredible.

Meanwhile, Mel and I kept plugging along. Mel was going through a low point when my friend Robert Manon passed by. He talked to us for a bit and told Mel "It's crazy, you'll feel horrible, and then you'll get a second wind, and later a third wind, and later a fourth wind. Just keep going and you'll start feeling better." Once Robert left, Mel told me she thought he was psychotic. "A fourth wind? Yeah right." Sure enough, about a half hour later I was sprinting to keep up with Mel.

But what goes up must go down. Eventually another bonk came. Mel was stuck in a bonk for hours. This is the side of ultramarathons you don't see as often. For more than an hour quiet tears streamed down Melanie's face. We were around mile 70 and she said "I'm not sure I can do this." Around mile 70 is always the hardest part of a 100 miler for me. You've come so far, but you're so tired and spent that another 30 miles feels insurmountable. Emotions get fragile. Mel apologized for crying and said "You never cry during your races." I smiled and said "I wouldn't be so sure." This is the point when the race gets real. You dig deep and keep moving. And you discover that you're capable of more than you imagined.

For me the biggest challenge was keeping myself steady physically and mentally. I didn't want my low points to get in the way of Mel's progress. I didn't want to let her know when I was feeling good and when I was feeling bad because I didn't want to distract her focus. I tried to maintain a positive, encouraging, optimistic outlook the whole time. I think it was helpful to focus on helping someone else because I didn't have time to wallow in my low points.

The following picture has absolutely nothing to do with the flow of the story. Honestly I could take it out and it wouldn't matter one bit. But this duck looked so peaceful on the water that I told Mel "You keep running. I'm going to stop for a picture and I'll catch up to you." So here's the picture I took of the peaceful duck that has absolutely nothing to do with the flow of the store and that, honestly, I could take out and it wouldn't matter one bit.

Mel had the usual highs and lows. During one of her low points she said my favorite line of the race. "Your pep talks aren't working right now." There were a few more tears, but I knew she was pulling out of it when I heard her start humming. Maybe it was the song "Maneater" again.

Around mile 80, Mel came alive. She could smell the finish line and she started to push. And then at mile 90 she got that 4th (or 14th) life that Robert Manon had mentioned. She ran as hard as she did at the beginning of the race. It was such a beautiful thing to watch. I was both inspired, and panting from trying to keep up with her. And then a miracle happened. We reached mile 99! Mile 99!!!

And then....we made it to the finish line! MEL FINISHED A 100 MILER! We were overcome with happiness. I was so proud of Mel, not just for the accomplishment, but for everything she pushed through to get there. I truly can't fathom that this actually happened. I ran a 100 miler with my wife. It doesn't seem real.

At the finish line, RD Ken Rubeli handed me a belt buckle and said "Here. I think you should present this to her." I got down on one knee and gave her the medal. She said yes! Ken took these photos:

But that's not all. Kylee finished a remarkable 50 miles! Considering the challenges she had with blisters, I have no doubt that her miles toward the end were harder than ours. She is so determined and has learned early in life the strength that comes from overcoming adversity.

After 40 hours and 17 minutes, Mel became a 100 mile ultramarathon runner. I finished my 33rd 100 miler. And we became the proud owners of some belt buckles.

Ken and Stephanie Rubeli put on great races. Go check out their website HERE and run one of them. They are good people, and a huge asset to the running community. I'm so thankful for my sponsors St. George Running CenterAltra, Tailwind Nutrition, Injinji, and UltrAspire.

T.S. Eliot summarized our race - and running - perfectly: "Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."

Will it be easy? No. Will it suck sometimes? You betcha. Will you pray for a visit from the merciful angel of death? Probably. Will it be worth it? Without a doubt.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Life Got A Little Messy

Our local grocery store sells some amazing homemade salsa. It’s so delicious that gas stations could sell it as a fountain drink. One night I was eating some tortilla chips with that amazing salsa, when suddenly I could feel a hair in my mouth. I fished it out of my mouth, and then did what any red-blooded American male would do: I pretended that never happened, and continued eating my salsa. 

Much to my dismay, a few bites later I strung another long hair through my teeth. Okay, this is starting to get a little ridiculous. Two long hairs in one container of salsa?!? It was frustrating. But being an ultra runner has taught me to be determined. I don’t give up when things get hard. So I set that second hair aside and continued eating. Just because it’s hairy salsa doesn’t make it any less delicious. And then catastrophy struck. A third hair.

A four letter word probably popped out of my mouth. I grabbed the container of salsa and threw it in the garbage. I was livid. I mentioned this frustration to my wife later that night. While I was relating my story, my daughter piped up with a confession. She had been eating salsa earlier in the day and accidentally dropped the container of salsa onto the carpet. Not wanting to waste the salsa, she scooped it off the carpet and back into the container, then put it back in the fridge.

Needless to say, I didn’t need to floss my teeth that night.

Right now, my life is like that container of furry salsa. It is really great. Really great. But there are a few unexpected hairs in the mix. Those hairs are called Common Variable Immunodeficiency Disorder. A few months ago I found out that my body has a glitch. Basically my immune system works as well as a Close Door button in an elevator…which is to say: not at all.

This isn’t great news. My primary care doctor seemed genuinely concerned and sympathetic when these results showed up in my blood work. Apparently this sets me up for some potentially serious health issues including pneumonia, bronchitis, and pulmonary infections. Since then there has been more blood work. More doctor appointments. And a few visits with an immunologist. I don’t dig the kind of diagnosis that shows up on the National Institutes of Health list of Rare Diseases.

The only option for treatment is immunoglobulin infusions. The immunoglobulin is from people who have donated plasma, and this is supposed to help build up my immune system. The doctor said that these infusions will be needed for the rest of my life. The options I was given were to 1) Do subcutaneous infusions once a week at home, or 2) Do IV infusions at an infusion center once a month.

I selected option #1. Here’s the problem with all this nonsense: I’m terrified of needles. To me, needles are scarier than snakes, truck stop bathrooms, and Celine Dion music…combined! I have a bad reputation of passing out when I get my blood drawn. So the idea of needle sticks weekly for the rest of my life is super unawesome.

I had my first infusion two weeks ago. A nurse showed up, put three needles in my stomach, then an hour and a half later the infusion was done. The next day I tried to jog a mile, but couldn’t because my stomach hurt too bad. The day after that I tried to jog again. No go.

Last week Mel did the infusion. Three needles in my upper thigh. Ugh. 70 minutes later it was done. As Mel was taking the needles out, my world started getting fuzzy. As darkness started clouding my vision, I slapped my cheek trying to keep from passing out. Mel said “Hurry, let’s walk to the couch so you can lay down.” I knew I couldn’t make it that far. I was suddenly dripping sweat and ripped my shirt off. I barely made it to the dining room floor, clammy and sweating. But I didn’t completely pass out. WIN!

I tell you all this because I’ve been thinking about how life isn’t always 100% awesome. (Duh!) I tell you this because you can’t have a story of triumph without overcoming something. Here’s the thing: I don’t know if there even WILL be any overcoming! I want to run the Jackpot Ultra Marathon in two weeks with Mel who is going for her first 100 miler. I want to run every mile with her. I want to run the Zion 100 in April. I want to run the Vol State 500k in July. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have any doubts. These hairs in the salsa are making things a little trickier.

Of course the priority is to take care of myself. Don’t worry. I’ll do that. Health is more important than a buckle. Maybe ultra running has prepared me for this point in my life. Ultramarathons have taught me to be strong and brave and determined. And now I’m at this moment where I can utilize those tools in a real life setting. I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. Now is the time to fight.