It was taking everything I had to not throw up. I felt like I was standing in a toaster oven and could almost hear my skin sizzling. My vision was a little fuzzy and I prayed I wouldn't pass out. And I swear I saw vultures circling over me. And then crossed the finish line of the Zion 100.
Now rewind to 35 hours and 100 miles earlier. I was standing at the starting line with 117 fellow lunatics ready to take on a challenge so daunting that you can't let your mind get caught on the details or else you will start crying: run 100 miles in less than 36 hours through the desert, up and down enormous mesas, in the middle of 90+ degree heat, and do your best not to die.
Although there was certainly a part of me that was scared, there was also a huge part of me that was beyond excited. I knew that the course was significantly harder than my first 100 miler, the Javelina Jundred. The first climb of the day starts after only a few miles. The Flying Monkey Trail climbs 1,000 feet in one mile to the top of Smith Mesa.
One of the things I loved most was seeing so many runners on the trails that I call home. I've run countless miles on the course and rarely see another runner so I loved being out with so many crazies. Eventually we neared the top of the Flying Monkey:
One of my favorite things about the whole race was reaching the top of the Flying Monkey Trail and being cheered on by.......A MONKEY!!!!!
I was still feeling good when I got to the top of the hill. My plan for the race was to stay very conservative because I didn't want to explode later in the race. It was already warm in the morning. Seeing the first light of the sun was beautiful, but I dreaded knowing that we would then be battling heat for the rest of the day:
And just a short while later, runners got another surprise. Not just a monkey, but an actual FLYING monkey with wings! This monkey was just so awesome. He was yelling and cheering and giving high fives. I think it's safe to say that this is the only race in the world where you can see a flying monkey:
I planned to run most of the race by myself. I train alone and actually prefer it that way. But within the first mile I seemed to be keeping the exact same pace with a few other guys. I couldn't have imagined at the time that I would end up covering more than 60 miles with them. In those many, many hours I built close friendships with Ben, Travis, and Eric. We were loving the scenery on the top of Smith Mesa:
The scenery in this race really is indescribable. Any runner who was on the course will tell you that pictures don't do justice to how beautiful it was. We were surrounded by it. I looked behind me and saw this image, which became one of my favorites for the day:
At around mile 19 we reached the part of the course I had been dreading. I am petrified of heights and I knew there was a section on a skinny ledge right on the edge of a cliff. If you look closely you can see a few runners getting close to the ledge:
Leading up to the race, I was so nervous that I thought about dropping to the 50 miler so I wouldn't have to do this section. But I was so, so relieved when I got here and realized that it wasn't nearly as bad as I had imagined. In fact, not bad at all. And that's coming from a huge wussie. Definitely nothing to be worried about:
They even had some ropes to hang on to. This is a view looking back on the trail we came across:
It was around noon and the temperature continued to climb. We could see that runners were starting to suffer. We came across one guy curled up under a little bush trying to find some shade and almost out of water. We shared some of ours, but this was still so early in the race and I realized how much of an impact the heat would have. Even though I was really hot, I was thankful I hadn't reached the point of curling up under a bush. After the guy assured us that he'd be okay, we pushed on.
I can't begin to express how valuable it was to cover so many miles with Travis, Ben, and Eric. We all kept a close watch on each other, reminding each other to take Gu and salt tablets, and just giving encouragement if someone was having a low time. Each of our races would have been dramatically different if we didn't have each other. We never exceeded a pace where we couldn't keep up a conversation. It was nice to have a little 4-mile stretch of road to have a short break from the technical trails:
This was the first 100 miler for Ben and Travis, but Eric was the wise master of the group. This was Eric's 30th 100 miler, not to mention a handful of 350 milers. I think each of us was a little bit like a middle school girl around Justin Bieber with Eric. He kept us laughing the whole time and was full of insights and tips.
Around mile 30 Eric found an old tennis ball on the side of the road with a slit in it. We all laughed at him throwing it around, almost oblivious to the fact that he was in the middle of a grueling 100 mile ultramarathon:
We joked that the slit in the ball looked like a mouth. Someone said "I wish we had a Sharpie marker so we could draw a face on it!" I am not lying - about 2 miles later we were cruising down the trail and guess what Ben saw sitting there.....A SHARPIE MARKER! When was the last time you found a marker on your trail run? Never? Me neither. This was a good omen. Our wish was granted:
We all rolled into mile 35 which was my first opportunity to see the family. They were so happy and encouraging, and this gave me a huge emotional boost. Jackson said "Dad, your eyes are really red. You have dark rings under your eyes. You look like you would pay lots of money to take a nap for one hour." Very perceptive (and accurate!). I will always cherish this picture with them from mile 35:
While we were there, Mel also took a picture of the running posse. This is Travis, Ben, myself, and Eric (who happens to be holding the tennis ball):
At mile 35, a switch flipped for my entire race. It was at that moment that I entered a time warp. My legs were moving and it felt like I was running, but it felt like I was going nowhere. We would run/hike for hours and it felt like landmarks up ahead weren't getting any closer. Mile 35-42 were agonizingly long. It was the hottest part of the day and temps said 92 degrees, but out on the desert floor the heat radiated up at us and it felt much hotter. We were truly running inside an Easy Bake Oven (even though it was an incredibly beautiful Easy Bake Oven):
My stomach had gone into outright rebellion by this point. The possibility of throwing up seemed inevitable. I desperately didn't want to get regurgitated Gatorade on my shoes. The aid station at mile 42 was not a pretty sight. One lady looked like she was barfing up a lung. People were laying down trying to cool off and get their stomachs back. In general I try to smile and stay positive even if things are going sucky. This was one of those points where I felt horrid, but in ultras you have to figure out how to suck it up and just keep going.
I think a lot of people dropped at this aid station. Right afterward, around mile 45, we hit the hardest climb of the entire race - a death march up Gooseberry Mesa climbing around 1,500 feet in less than a mile. My brother-in-law Matt joined me as we began the ascent:
It's hard to grasp just how challenging this climb is. Here is a shot of some people ahead of us:
About half way up, I decided that I didn't really love the feeling that bricks were tied to my shoes and burning lava was filling my lungs:
This was our view of some people coming behind us. Look closely, inside that circle there really are people:
Ben, Eric, and I finally, FINALLY reached the top of the death climb. We earned bonus points for not dying. But we had a problem......Travis wasn't there. We figured he fell behind a little so we sat and waited. After 20-25 minutes of waiting there was still no sign of him. We were very worried and didn't know if we should wait or keep going. We came to the hard decision to keep going, assuming that he dropped at the last aid station. Later we found out that this was the case. I felt sad that he wasn't able to finish. We reached the top of the mesa just in time to see a stunning sunset that gave me goosebumps:
The miles on top of Gooseberry are technical and very difficult in the daylight, but exceedingly more challenging in the dark. We reached the aid station at mile 51 and there were three guys sitting there who looked like very capable runners. They were waiting for a ride back to the finish because they had dropped.
I was so incredibly thankful to do those 18 miles on Gooseberry in the dark with Ben and Eric. Sometimes we got off track and it took all three of us to find our way back to the trail. We met other runners who were alone and got off track and we got them going the right direction.
Around mile 65 I was out of juice. My body was spent, and I couldn't hold with Eric and Ben anymore. I would have loved to keep with them, but I wasn't too worried because I knew I'd meet my first pacer at mile 70. Jess Jensen has been a friend of ours for many years and I was honored that she wanted to spend mile 70-90 with me. This was around 3:30am.
Jess is always happy and positive and encouraging and funny. I was so grateful to have her with me. Exhaustion had fully kicked in and I was feeling weary. At mile 82 the sun was up again. It was so discouraging to come to the realization that I would have another full day of heat. The family came out to meet me at this aid station but truthfully I don't remember much about this visit.
Those 20 miles with her were gut-wrenchingly slow. My nausea kept coming and going, my rear end felt like it was getting kicked by a donkey with every single step, and my feet....oh, sweet mercy, my feet. I told Jess that every step felt like I was walking on nails. But she was patient with my slow trudging. I can't thank her enough.
At mile 90 I met up with Mel to pace me the last 10 miles. Back to 90+ degree weather = no bueno. I was getting a little foggy and hoped that I wouldn't pass out because that would be rather embarrassing. In those fuzzy hours I thought about how complex it is to run 100 miles.
During a marathon, you eat a Gu every once in a while, get some water every other mile, and keep going until you're done in 3-6 hours. I thought about how during the 100 miler you have to:
1) Monitor pace so you have enough energy to get you to the finish.
2) Be diligent about eating around 200-300 calories per hour.
3) Closely monitor hydration. Too little water can cause very big problems. Too much water can cause very big problems. Hydration has to be exact.
4) Monitor bodily functioning. Peeing too much? Too little? Too light? Too dark? (Sorry, too much information?)
5) Take varying amounts of salt/electrolytes depending on temperature, sweat, and exertion level.
6) Closely scan the trail ahead and know where every rock is so you don't fall or sprain an ankle.
7) Pay attention to your feet and handle hot spots/blisters immediately.
8) Figure out how to handle your stomach when you want to barf your guts out.
9) Figure out how to deal with exhaustion when you feel like you can't take one more step but you still have 20 miles to go.
10) Try to ignore your brain when it is begging you stop and yelling excuses for why it's okay to quit.
But here's the kicker: YOU HAVE TO DO EACH OF THESE THINGS SIMULTANEOUSLY. If you screw up on any of these, you may not see the finish line. And even if you do them all perfectly, something else may come up. This constant monitoring is extremely exhausting both physically and mentally. Thankfully Mel was there to keep me on track. There is nobody I'd rather spend those last 10 miles with.
The last 5 miles were indescribably hot and indescribably beautiful:
I used some walking sticks for the last 15 miles which helped, but my feet still took the brunt of the pounding. Each step was agonizing. I didn't feel like I had caused an injury or something. My feet just felt shredded and done for the day. I think I gave myself a pep talk in between every single step.
With what little emotion and energy I had left, I was so thankful and excited to make it to the finish line. After 34 hours, 59 minutes, and 59 seconds (we'll just say 35 hours), I jumped across the finish line of the Zion 100. And then I jumped across it a few more times so the fam could get a picture:
Most 100 milers give you a belt buckle at the finish line. Sometimes I think it would be way smarter to buy a belt buckle at Walmart for $10 than to move my feet down a trail for 100 miles. The positively awesome thing at the Zion 100 was that each buckle was unique and custom made from materials gathered on the trail. We got to pick our own buckle at the finish line! How cool is that? Here is mine:
I am so thankful for my Heavenly Father, and the body he gave me. I am so thankful for Jess and her company for many, many hours. I am so thankful for my kids and their love and encouragement. I am so thankful for Mel. She never once questioned me doing this. She was always 100% supportive. I'm so lucky to have her. Thanks to the stellar volunteers, and a huge thanks to race director Matt Gunn who put roughly nine bajillion hours into organizing this incredible event. And seriously, seriously....thank you to you guys for your encouragement and kind words. I wish I could give each of you a hug and a pack of Twinkies.
So finally I ended up standing in the same exact spot I was 35 hours and 100 miles ago. I can't tell you how happy I was to be there. Do you know what I have loved about the finish lines of ultramarathons that I have run: there is hardly anybody there! There isn't thousands of cheering spectators. There isn't a marching band. There is a small group of people walking around like Frankenstein with huge smiles on their faces. And you finish and people give you a high five and say good job. That's it. And it seems so appropriate and fitting because the reward for doing something like this is completely intrinsic. It hurts way to much for somebody to do this for an extrinsic reward. I'll value my belt buckle and the knowledge that I pushed myself WAY, WAY, WAY farther than I ever imagined possible.