Dead Horse 50K: In the thick of it
(Psst, start here! Dead Horse 50K: Before the startline)
The gun went off, almost anticlimactically, and we were off, and up, into the wild desert rock.
The first 10 miles of the 50K were quite lovely. The three of us — Jasmine, Don, and I — were chatting and laughing, keeping both the mood and our foot strike light. I felt more or less really good; it’s crazy how distance-traveled changes when you’re in a race. Never before had I run 10 miles and felt fresh, felt springy.
It was also great to be with Don and Jasmine, seasoned ultra runners, who reminded me to consume calories and take salt pills every hour. I sipped Skratch, slurped gels, and swallowed salt on their demand, giving me one less thing to worry about. We gave ourselves a minute at each aid station, where we filled up our bladders and grabbed bananas and quesadillas before continuing on our way.
At mile six, the course started to climb itself up into a thick canyon wall. My breathing immediately picked up. “Calm yourself,” Don told me. I realized my mind reacted to the ascent and my body followed suit; I actually wasn’t that fatigued. I calmed my heart rate and hiked up the hill with poise. Every now and then Don would remind us “this should be effortless!” and “look around at those canyons to your left.” I told him I wanted his calming voice in an earbud on every run I went on from now on. He did help me feel more relaxed, and I often forgot to look around. The views, in fact, were quite stunning: craggy canyons, soaring sandstone buttresses, and mind-bending rock formations made the quiet ache of my legs surprise me a few miles later down the trail.
I led our small pack through a section of single track from mile 7-10. It felt nice to get off the slick rock, which does some sneaky damage to your legs. We kept our pace at around a 10-minute mile. While this might feel super slow on the roads, it was perfect for trail. We all itched to run at least a minute faster, but wise Don told us saving energy now would keep us from walking later — and a walking pace could be up to 18-minute miles. In the end, we were saving time.
And then came mile 11. Something weird happened — something shifted. My energy levels still felt fine and my heart rate was low, but my left hip flexor started to nag me. The pain was sharp. It seemed too early in the race to be that tender from fatigue, so I was hopeful it was just some weird knot. I planned to stretch it out at the turnaround aid station (mile 15), meaning I had four miles to go.
Ironically enough, Don was just musing about his last trail ultra, and how lonely it was running by himself on the course. Within minutes, that was now me, the hip pain searing down my IT band, making it impossible to keep up with him and Jasmine. They weren’t far ahead; I could usually see Jasmine’s peach-colored UD pack a handful of steps ahead of me. But the zig-zagging trail through slick rock meant their bobbing heads would appear and disappear into the canyon every few strides. When I would lose sight of them, an ache appeared in my chest that was almost as uncomfortable as the one down my left side.
I hobbled into the 15-mile aid station, probably 15 seconds behind them. I didn’t know exactly what I needed so I tried a little bit of everything. I sat in a deep squat to tend to my (now screaming) hip. I ate some pickles, half a pancake, and sprite. I was eager to keep going — the second part of the race is downhill — but Jasmine’s pack had a bladder malfunction and we waited about five extra minutes to fix it. In hindsight, I should have left without them. They would have caught up.
We all left together, yet immediately I was dropped. Those next lonesome miles, 15-20, were probably the most brutal (does any of this sound fun yet?) in the entire race. Physically, I was tired. Mentally, I still had double-digit miles to go. No end was really in sight. All I could do it put one foot in front of the other and hold on for dear life. My leg was in a lot of pain and I couldn’t extend my stride. I basically succumbed to a shuffle.
This is when my mantra, “sustainable suffering,” came into play. I told myself my hip wasn’t going to get any better, but it wasn’t going to get any worse, either. I tried to bring out some inner-yogi wisdom and simply notice the pain, and not react to it. (Spoiler alert: This works way better in Warrior II than it does 18 miles into an ultra.) However, I convinced myself that I could sustain the discomfort for a little while longer; there was indeed no other option. In the back of my mind, I knew that “a little while longer” was still at least two hours, yet I couldn’t admit that to myself. One mile at a time felt easier to face. I told myself to just get to 20 miles. Then I’d be in countdown mode. From there, I could do anything.
Mile 20 came, as did another aid station. Jasmine and Don were there, but were about to leave. I ate a peanut butter quesadilla, sipped some coke, and dragged myself behind them. Again, I was only able to stay with them for a few strides before their bodies disappeared into the crag.
It’s a bit nuts to think what flows through a runner’s mind during a time like this. I went through all the pep talks, all the grumpy moods, all the hopelessness, and all the gratitude. I told myself there was nothing stopping me from finishing, and I should be proud to be on my way to finishing an ultra. Then I’d flip to “you’re better than this,” feeling disappointed — and a bit embarrassed — by how slow I was moving. In a somewhat delirious state I apologized to my body for what I was putting it through, while in other moments I fantasized about massages and beer.
By the time I reached the mile 25 aid station, Jasmine and Don were gone. I knew I had slowed down significantly, even walking in a few sections that hurt my hip too much. I sat in my squat position while a lovely aid station volunteer filled my pack with Heed. Five more miles. Five more miles. I knew I was going to do it, no matter how slowly.
At this point in the race, us mid-pack 50K runners were passing the 30K’ers who started an hour after us. Everyone was (oddly) walking, looking like they were simply out on a Saturday afternoon stroll and just happened to be wearing a bib. One guy was in a lime green jumpsuit wearing a Safari hat. Another person — I kid you not — chit-chatting on the phone. While I’m sure they all ran at least part of the course, I had no idea why anyone would pay to stroll 18 miles around the desert when you could do that for free. Perhaps for the free pancakes and peanut butter quesadillas.
Anyhow, I had my own personal cheer squad every time I passed a walking 30K’er, who would always, so kindly, say “good job!” My response seemed less genuine. “You too!” (Great walking!) Whatever I did said, it was probably a whisper. I was really low on energy.
At mile 26.2, I made a conceded effort to celebrate finishing the marathon distance. I was all alone, next to a towering canyon wall, so nobody could see my sad effort to pretend I was crossing an invisible finishing line. In my head I screamed out “woohoo,” though it was most definitely said in a hush. A few seconds later I was done celebrating. Ahead of me was a big climb. After that, it was a downhill dirt road to the finish.
The climb sucked. I ran/hobbled what I could, but I mainly power hiked. Actually, it was probably a crawl. I hadn’t taken any pictures the whole race, so decided if I was walking, now was the time to do so. In my sheer exhaustion, I took a picture … but the camera was accidentally flipped. So here I am instead. Tired.
At long last, I made it to the top of the hill. (It had about five false summits.) Going down, I finally felt like I was going a bit faster. At one point, I thought I might even be in the 9-minute mile territory! Jokes: I was still running 11-min mile splits. These definitely humble you: when that’s all you can muster. Downhill. On a dirt trail. My ego was thrown off the canyon, though perhaps gracefully.
Finally, I got off the hill. It’s about a half mile on a flat dirt road and I could see the finish in the distance. I noticed that I wasn’t breathing heavy; aerobically, I wasn’t working that hard. I grew frustrated — did I actually push myself? Would I had be able to go faster if my hip wasn’t so tight? Or is it more that tight? Is something wrong?
It’s tricky to know the difference between extreme discomfort via running for hours straight, versus something actually heading into injury territory. If this is the pain all ultra runners experience, and is simply the norm, then I’m not sure I’m cut out for the job of long distance running.
In the last mile, I finally found an 8-minute spilt. My legs opened up on the flat and even surface, no longer navigating patchy slick rock. As I rounded the corner, I heard someone cheer my name. I saw Alfredo with his phone, to which I shook my head to signal how I was feeling — not great. He followed me as I ran to the finish; again, I thought I was sprinting yet when I watched the video, I was definitely jogging. Jasmine was there at the finish line, having finished five or six minutes before me. Don was probably eating enchiladas in the finisher’s tent.
I buried myself in her chest, overcome with emotion. Was I upset? Ecstatic? Hurt? Relieved? It was probably a mix of that, plus a hundred other things. A nice lady clipped my timing chip off my shoe and then Alfredo let me crawl into his arms. After a few breaths I hobbled off to meet the rest of our friends who ran the 30K. I sipped a beer and looked for the nearest chair.
I hadn’t sat in over five hours. It felt good.