Very few runners rave about taper. It’s something folks either gripe about, or deny the merits of. But I actually want to like taper. During taper, suddenly, weekends are back, and there’s a little more space for the rest of life. (There actually is more to life than running.) Sadly, my body disagrees. In tapering for the Miwok 100K (my first shot at the distance), I felt great at first. The “short long” runs felt…short. I could feel the energy bank building up in my body. Then, with only a few days to go, I came down with a bad cold and my legs started to stiffen and ache. I almost never get soreness in my legs. Not after long runs, not after races. I suddenly felt like not-myself going into the longest race of my life. I did what every good ultrarunner does with negative, but non-threatening information: I let go of it, and waited for things to change. I did what I could to take care of myself, to rest and hydrate, but beyond that, what can you do but smile and keep going?
On Miwok morning, the cold was still there, but I felt slightly better than I had in previous days. I picked up Flora Krivak-Tetley in Berkeley and we cruised toward Marin, ahead of traffic. We snagged my friend Guy Herr from the carpool lot. He’d been thinking about not starting, because he got into the race unexpectedly off the waitlist a few weeks prior. I’d convinced him that was nonsense earlier in the week, so here he was, about to start (and, spoiler alert – finish!!!) his first 100K.
Once at the race, I sat in the back of my Forester (the way-back of an SUV makes a great dressing room), making my final preparations (i.e. putting on shoes). I heard a call from the darkness: “Whose sexy legs are those?!?” Ah, good morning, Rick Gaston! What a way to start the day! Sassy compliments perk me up faster than coffee. I spent a few minutes greeting fellow runners in the dark, and then before I knew it we were headed to the beach. After standing around for a few minutes I could feel the group moving forward and just like that, the Miwok 100K had begun! Friend and training buddy Leigh Moser and I started off across the beach, at the far back of the pack. Nearly last. No worries. We had plenty of time to find our race.
For the next 22 miles, my body jangled awkwardly. I still didn’t feel like myself. My heart rate felt too high for the effort, and my hips were stiffening in the cold that turned to colder, pouring rain. Again, I let go. There was nothing truly wrong, and I wasn’t hurting myself. It wasn’t very fun, but embracing that feeling wasn’t going to get me anywhere. So, I smiled, chatted up my fellow runners, put one foot in front of the other, and waited for things to change.
On the climb up to Pantoll, I came across B.A.R.F. friend Dave Denison. (Bob And Rick’s Fun runs are terrific, friendly group runs that explore trails around the East Bay and Marin every Saturday.) Dave pressured me into taking an ibuprofen for my stiff hips. I’d never taken drugs on the run, but he was a real pusher, and I took one.
As I approached the aid station, I kept thinking that I needed to do three things: grab chocolate milk from my drop bag, hit the bathroom, and reapply sunscreen. When I got there, my good friend and fellow tart of the trails Victoria Folks screamed my name. Hi, V!!! She asked me how I was feeling, and I cheerfully reported in NSFW terms that it was not a great day. I hugged her, introduced her to Leigh’s fiancé Stephen so that she could hitch a ride, and ate a salted potato. Three things. The wrong three things. But off I went.
As the course emerged onto the Coastal Trail, and the weather became more dramatically horrible, I came to life. I don’t know if it was the ibuprofen or the fact that the terrain was more runnable, but my day turned around. I ran strongly to Bolinas Ridge, steadily passing other runners and laughing out loud at the absurdity of being out in cold and pouring rain, with whipping wind. I was glad I had explored the course with Leigh throughout the spring, because in some places the fog was so thick it was difficult to see course markers in advance. Shortly before the Bolinas-Fairfax aid station, I came upon Mike Bohi. A tough runner, who was brave to toe the line that day, Mike had been battling injury all spring. Between lack of training due to the injury and the hairy weather, he was having a rough day. I slowed to check in and he asked me for Gu, which I happily gave him, along with a quinoa cookie. (Southern hospitality dictates that you always give more than someone asks for, and if I’d had a mint julep, it would have been his as well.) I told him the aid station was near and headed on my way.
At Bolinas, I was no longer trying to smile; I just was. I was soaked and cold, but genuinely happy. I munched bananas (peeled for us by the aid station volunteers!) Will Gotthardt, who was there crewing and pacing Bay Area ultrarunning phenom Caitlin Smith, reminded me that I was “on the clock” and should be moving along. Will knows what he’s talking about, so I headed off down the trail. Until then I had seen only a few frontrunners coming back toward me, but it wasn’t long before the friends started flowing. That’s the great thing about out-and-backs – runners cheer on other runners. And it isn’t just slowpokes worshiping the speedsters. The top runners also tell us “good job!” It’s a great scene. Runner after runner, strangers and friends, made this section sail by.
At the turnaround aid station at the bottom of Randall Trail, I found not only watermelon (yay!), but also trail buddies Chuck Wilson and Bob Agazzi (the “Bob” of the B.A.R.F. runs) manning the table (more yay!). But soon my perpetual trail nag and friend Barbara Ashe emerged to remind me not to lollygag with the guys. (This is her frequent refrain to me.) She was right, and I headed back up the trail. Bolinas Ridge, which had been wet and sloppy going out, was now marked by pond-sized puddles. Some of them came nearly to my knees. More laughing at the absolute absurdity of it all, as I waded through.
When I got back to Bolinas, my friend Victoria cheered for me again and said she couldn’t believe I was ahead of Mike, her runner. I hadn’t seen Mike on the out-and-back, and was concerned he’d dropped since he was having trouble earlier. While I fueled up, she checked with officials and learned that he had in fact called it a day. I didn’t have a pacer arranged and Victoria was geared up and looking for a long run. Sounded like a win-win, so I took her with me.
Victoria was an exemplary pacer, flattering me with raves about my blistering pace. I was a star and she was my biggest fan. Our mutual love fest was such that it distracted from the fact that the Coastal Trail was a mess on the return trip. Some sections had to be walked, just to avoid the risk of sliding down the hillside. When we got back to Pantoll, my friend and original training buddy Lauren Vigliotti was there. What a treat! I didn’t think I’d see Lauren until the finish, and it was so neat to share some of these late-in-the-race miles with her. She is a super-strong, relentless runner, and can destroy me on any climb, a talent she would still have the opportunity to display in the final miles.
We bombed down the hill out of Pantoll, setting the trend for what would become my running style in the final 8+ miles. Walking (still with purpose) or sprinting downhill. I did not have a middle speed.
As we approached Tennessee Valley for the second time, we were coming in under the four-miles-to-go mark. For months I’d known that when I got back to Tennessee Valley for the second time, I was there. Sure, the trail still had some climbs in store, but at that point, you know you’re going to make it. And knowing that, I got punchy. I told Victoria that we’d gone almost 59 miles and she corrected me that I had, but she’d gone only 17. I told her indignantly that I was tired and could not be expected to pick a pronoun, and that “we” would be used from here on out. She laughed and joked and I told her to stop being funny because I was too tired to laugh.
This is how ultras are mental. I became exhausted when I reached the point that I’d identified months as the “home-free” point. It can’t be coincidence. I firmly believe that I didn’t allow myself to acknowledge and melt into my fatigue until I was “safe.” The power of the mind in shaping our experience is incredible.
At Tennessee Valley, perpetually cheerful trail cutie Jo Lynn McCabe shouted, “Victoria, you have the wrong runner!” Too funny. I reported that since Mike had dropped, I’d inherited a fabulous pacer. My friends Roger and Christina were there to cheer me on. They had tried to see me at Pantoll, but I was way ahead of the already overly ambitious estimates I’d given them. Luckily I’d underestimated the climbs between Pantoll and TV, so I was back on my imaginary and overly ambitious schedule.
For the final few miles, I became fascinated by my fatigue. I kept saying that I knew the terrain wasn’t that hard, but I couldn’t catch my breath. Why not? Fatigue. How intriguing. (I’m sure it wasn’t intriguing at all for Victoria to hear about it, again and again, but she was a wonderful and patient pacer.) As the fatigue grew, the sore throat I’d had all week came back, and my punchiness increased exponentially. I began to quote my online yoga instructor: “This position can be very therapeutic for the body if you have awareness; honor where you are, today.”
On the final downhill stretch toward Rodeo Beach, my eyes started to blur with tears. But, it’s a really technical section, and I gathered myself, for my own safety. It’s a superb downhill finish, and even in the fog, spectators could see the runners and cheer for them during the final few minutes of their approach. I hear it’s even more epic in clear weather. I saw Roger and his camera on the final stretch and turned to smile and wave.
And then I was finished. I crossed the line in 13:15:58, when I thought it would take a perfect day to get in under 14 hours. It really wasn’t the time that made me happy, although that was certainly a pleasant surprise. It was the fact that on this day, in this weather, on this tough terrain, over this “crazy” distance, I did not suffer. It was a challenge, but mentally and physically I was strong enough to smile through the entire day. And that’s always been the goal.
Suzanne Carrier runs trail in the San Francisco Bay Area. The 2009 Miwok 100 was her first 100K. Say hello when you see her on the trail.