Saturday was fairly normal. I followed directions to a T: up at 4am, stay awake until 1pm and then nap until 5. Once up, take a shower and convince yourself it's a new day. It worked - kind of. The nap never happened. How could it? My mind raced as I laid awake in my bed, staring at the ceiling. I was thinking of pancakes of all things (long story). I'm not even sure I blinked during those four hours. Adrenaline would carry me through the night, and besides, I could crash all day on Sunday. What could possibly go wrong?
Famous last words.
I felt my house at 7:45 amid lots of tears: Scotty inexplicably broke down which caused me to get emotional. Waterproof mascara is a good thing. (Yes, I wore makeup -- and I straightened my hair. I'm tired of looking at race pictures where I look like a drowned rat. I even used a tiny bit of blush shimmer on the cheeks. Maybe aliens like shimmer? Whatever. I had a LOT of time on my hands, mainly because I failed to nap.) Once I extricated the little guy from my arms and dashed to the car, I was tearful all the way to the meet-up. I knew that my brain was going to be the muscle I relied on the most during the race, so it was time to pull it together. Breath. You are stronger than you think.
The bus ride took forever. Kat and I sat next to each other, chatting quietly but very cognizant that we should be conserving energy. I slammed my right knee on this piece of plastic that was jutting out from the seat in front of me. No time to think about it; I rubbed it and hoped it wouldn't be an issue.
The official/unofficial alien pit crew of Nancy, Stesha, Kerry and Michelle had enough enthusiasm for everyone. They were already hard at work, helping people board the right buses since there were multiple races going on that night: 10K, 1/2 marathon, full marathon, and of course, the ultra, which was 51km. Seeing friendly, familiar faces was huge to me; I still couldn't believe they agreed to do this.
The team came prepared: bubbles, glitter, O-faced doughnuts. Stesha even made alien-themed chocolate-covered pretzels for the adventure, causing Michelle to quip, "Stesha just outdid Stesha." Clearly, everyone's favorite overachiever baking goddess brought her A-game.
The Zen Monkeys just sat there quietly, shivering, detached from it all. I commented that we could be anywhere in the world right now...it was Saturday night in the middle of summer. We could be sharing a pizza, like normal people. Kat giggled and said of all days, it's her birthday, yet she's here. We broke into muted laughter, wondering what the hell was wrong with us. How did we ended up sitting in a gravel pit in the middle of Area 51 under a supermoon surrounded by this crazy? We agreed to stop asking why and just go with it. Who wants normal, anyway?
Now my race began.
I will admit, the pacing of this thing confused me from the beginning. I was deathly concerned about going out too fast; this was no half marathon where banking time in the beginning would help. No banking - and no bonking. I wanted to finish strong and not slog through those last 6 miles in utter misery. It was going to be painful (that was a given), so I planned to be as nice to myself as possible. Need to pee? Sure, let's pee. (I've never allowed myself to use the restroom during a race, so this was big). Need to burp, throw up, or stretch out a cramp? No problem. I was prepared to let myself do anything, regardless of the time cost, to get to the finish line. Thirty-one miles is a LONG time to run. I wasn't going to win - that was Kat's job - so let's enjoy the journey, eh?
We had been encouraged to "go" in the desert since the Porta-Potty situation was dubious. But despite the time of night and the outright desolation, it was still remarkably light, in thanks to our friend Super Moon. In those first three miles, as I watched multiple people peel off the road and into the desert to relieve themselves, you could see everything. Um...
Thankfully, I was distracted by my hydration pack. At mile 1, I took a tentative sip of water and got...nothing. I glanced down; yup, this was the hydration pack mouthpiece, not an earbud. (that has happened previously). I sucked harder. A tiny drop. What? Shit. The nozzle was clogged with dirt, thanks to me setting it down multiple times before the race started. I twisted the mouthpiece with my teeth; nothing. I twisted it the other way. Nada. This was going to be a very long race if I had to work this hard for water.
It was time to take stock of the situation. I had several options: keep the pack, keep sucking, and supplement with additional water at the aid stations (they were eight total). However, I was used to having water at my disposal when I wanted it. Option #2? Ditch the pack (and the weight), don't waste precious energy trying to siphon water, and rely on the stations. It was a huge gamble. What to do, what to do...
I opted to run without water. Scott Jurek ran (and won) a 100-miler with a broken ankle; I could do 31 without easy access to water.
So at the first station at mile 3.5, I ripped the pack off and handed it to Kerry. "It's clogged," I told her. "I'm just going to run without water." She took it calmly as I gulped down cups of water. Nancy was also at this station and had a collapsible water bottle with her. Could I pick it up at mile 7?
Suddenly I had a plan. Not the way I expected this to go, but was flexibility at its best. Plan A wasn't working; Plan B was a good compromise. Look at me! I'm growing as a runner!
I set off happily into the night. Legs were great, feet felt fine, and the cool air felt wonderful on my back. I started counting shoot stars (four!), chatted with the moon, and concentrated on my breathing. Let's do this!
Then my tummy started aching. Wait until I stumble across a Porta-Potty or just do the desert thing? This debate waged for solid two miles; I just couldn't, couldn't, couldn't go in the desert. With my luck, a rattlesnake would sink its fangs in my ample, bare rear. Then I would have to run to the next aid station and inform them of my bite, at which point I wouldn't die from the snake bite, but sheer embarrassment. Porta-potty it is.
There was a line.
But wait! No, it was just a guy waiting for his girlfriend. And there were two Porta-potties! Oh heavenly wonders! I popped in, did not fall in, and popped out. That was easy! Barely 23 seconds. Potty breaks are fun!
At the next aid station, I said a cheerful hello to Nancy and Kerry again. They, along with Michelle and Stesha, would be leap-frogging down the course for the duration of the race. The impact of seeing their friendly, excited faces was such an unbelievable lift. And when Kerry very serenely handed me my pack with the words, "I fixed it! Here ya go!" I could barely get the "thank you" out. She fixed it? One sip proved yes, she did! Water flowed easily! Well, that was unexpected! Hooray!
Fresh water and her kindness were exactly the mental boost I needed. The climb started. We'd been going uphill since mile 1, but it really got steep around mile 8. I tried to distract myself by watching the other runners. I watched Jetson-esque dress girl veer into the desert. Since the start of the race, she had sprinted for several minutes, then slowed down. She would zoom in front of me then fall back. Was she running farklets or something? She did know we were in the first 10 miles, right? Maybe she was just doing the full (the full and ultra folks all started together and would be together until mile 23.1). An odd approach to distance running, but maybe it worked for her.
I took the lead as she did whatever she needed to do amid the sage brush, and watched as she charged in front of me again. Then, inexplicably, she stopped dead in her tracks and bent down to fix her shoe.
And while there was a Super Moon out, I saw a full moon. GAH!
Holy bananas. Where the heck was her underwear? I mean, discretion aside, what about chafing?! You are running at least 26 miles...ow!
Gross, gross, gross. I sped up, passed her, and never looked back. That was the last I saw of her, though I fear the image has been seared into my brain.
Green-wig glow lady passed me around mile 12. I had to look down since her lights were making me mildly nauseous. We were really climbing now, but I knew just over the crest would be some sweet downhill. Red Rock has prepared me well for downs. Despite my 11 and 12-minute miles, I could easily make up the time with a few 8 and 9 minute ones. Still on pace.
Except I was never able to shift into a faster gear. Despite the fact I was flying by everyone else on the course (we had now joined with the half-marathoners too), my Garmin informed me the fastest mile I ran was just over ten minutes. What the heck? Was my foolish brain trying to conserve energy, refusing to allow my legs to move faster? I started arguing with myself. The brain and legs would just not get in agreement. While I felt like I was flying, my watch informed me otherwise.
By mile 19, I was mad. Like, seriously mad. I couldn't gain any speed and the downhill ended abruptly at mile 20. Fatigue was setting in. My right ankle seemed to be in my left foot's way and the two kept knocking into each other. My right ankle was starting to throb, making me wonder if I really was going to pull a Scott Jurek and run with a broken or sprained ankle. (In the end, I just ended up a with a gnarly bruise). Everytime I waved my hand in front of my visor, the light appeared dimmer. My headlamp was almost dead.
Things were becoming rather unpleasant.
Then a giant bus, which was supposed to be on the right side of the road (the runners were on the left), came flying down the highway. I watched the runners in front of me leap out of the way and I did the same, landing in the soft dirt on my left side. I raised my arms in protest and screamed, "MOVE OVER!" Someone could get killed. That bus was truckin'.
It took a few minutes to gather my bearings and pick my body up off the ground. I started to walk, shaking various body parts to see what was broken. Nothing. Then - and I'm not proud of this moment - I threw an all-out tantrum. I walked, kicked rocks, huffing and puffing down the road the way my four year old would. The jump startled me, serving to only enraged my totally unhelpful sense of righteous injustice. (Tip: righteous injustice is not helpful when running long distances). Eventually, I convinced myself to start running again, but mile 19 served to be my worst. All fourteen minutes and thirty-five pouty seconds of it.
Stesha and Michelle got the brunt of my anger at mile 20. Lots of f-bombs were dropped. I ripped off my dying head lamp in frustration. Michelle immediately gave me hers. The only thing that sounded remotely edible at this point was a banana, which I did not pack. Miraculously, Stesha produced a one from her bag and then proceeded to peel it for me. (My swollen fingers were not working). She even offered me her sweatshirt. I almost kissed both of them, I was so relieved. Mile 19 was over; I could do this. Mental boost: I got it.
Mile 20 was a bunch of different things, depending on what race you were doing. It was the finish line for the half marathoners as well as the starting line for the 10Kers. The full and ultra folks had to pass it and make it to a turn-around point farther down the road. Seeing the finish was rough, knowing I had another 11.7 to go. It looked like a mini-fiesta in the parking lot of the LilAle Inn (say it fast...you'll get it) and it would have been awesome to turn in...grab a beer...put my feet up...but I had been warned. Don't look it. Don't even consider it. Just keep running. So I did.
I passed a group of people in lawn chairs, clapping and cheering. "You're almost done!! Turn here!" one shouted as I passed. "I have eleven more to go!" I shouted back. I heard their collective gasp; no, I was not running the half. Then one guy yelled, "You're my hero!" Slight pause. "Wanna go out some time?"
That made me smile. A running first.
Okay, time to turn this into a chipper. Twenty miles down, 3.1 to the full marathon turn-around, 5.7 to the ultra. And then, less than six measly miles to the finish! Anyone can run six miles. So again, I pulled a Scott Jurek and told myself to start over. I just woke up, I feel great, and my legs are fresh. You are stronger than you think.
As I cruised through mile 21, I noticed a light in front of me coming down the road at breakneck speed. It could only be one person.
My mile 21 was her mile 30. My watch read 4:08. She was going to finish this thing in less time than most marathoners. As it turned out, she ran the course so fast, not only did she shatter the record, but it was also in question which race she actually ran. Stesha mentioned several people approached her to confirm that Kat had, in fact, run the ultra and not the full marathon. Stesha said she just smiled and said, "Yup, that's Kat. She's that fast." The next female to finish the ultra was almost a full hour behind her, and Kat beat all the female full marathoners save one.
Official finish time: 4:10.
Such a bad ass. Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire.
Meanwhile, I was breaking no course records. I was just plugging along, trying to think happy thoughts. A police car with its light on marked the ultra turn-around. In the clear night, it looked like it was just a few hundred yards away. I put my head down and pushed hard. I picked my head up; yup, almost there. Push, push, dig deep. Head up, almost there. Pant, pant. Hmm, not there yet. Why am I not there yet? It's only 5.7 miles. Anyone can run 5.7 miles. So I pushed, and pushed and pushed...and those damn lights did not move. They were permanently etched in the darkness, flashing away with total indifference. WHY AM I NOT THERE YET? Was the car moving away from me? Was this a joke? Was someone moving the car? With two miles to go (allegedly), I recalled all of the two miles run I've ever done and tried to pretend I was on one of those. No dice. Those lights remained in the distance regardless of how much I pushed. WHY WAS I NOT THERE YET?!
That's when I noticed the couple in front of me. It was the same one I ran into at the Porta-potty, way back in the beginning. They were clearly hurting - or I should say, she was. They'd run and then walk for a little bit and I could tell he was pushing her. Then I noticed he would look back at me, then say something to her and they'd run faster. Was he using me as a motivator? As in, let's beat that sad girl running all by herself?
My competitive juices instantly started flowing. Oh, you want to use me? ME? Bring it.
Then - it happened.
I saw her take a swig of water from her paper cup and throw it on the side of the road. Like nothing at all.
The anger blossomed in my chest like a volcano. Litterbugs! LITTERBUGS!
If I was the Hulk, I would have turned green. Hulk mad! Hulk SMASH! Anger, unlike righteous injustice, was extremely helpful as it made me forget about the police car and all the mental calculations in my head. At that point, my singular goal became beating the Litterbugs.
I was pissed. I wanted them to hurt more than me.
So I ran hard. They ran harder. We leap-frogged down the course until we all finally, finally, finally reached that ridiculous police car at exactly the same moment. We hit the turn-around, shouted our numbers to the volunteer, and took off. I was so out of it I shouted, "Number 262! No wait, I'm 282. No, I'm...I have no idea. Can you just read it please?"
He did. Nice volunteer. (I was #286)
And we took off again. Mr. Litterbug definitely wanted to win but Ms. Litterbug was in serious pain (for whatever reason, I knew they weren't married. My MFT-Spidey skills could sense it). I saw her pain and capitalized on it. (god, this makes me sound like a horrible person). I knew if I fell behind, I would simply wait until they started walking so I could pounce. I never walked, but just slowed my pace when I got tired or my feet screamed.
So for two and a half miles, we duked it out in some ridiculous, slow-motion competition. We logged sad, sad 12 minutes miles but it felt like sprinting. This was no Ali-Frazier, no Nadal-Federer showdown. We were not the US and the Soviets and this was not 1980. There was nothing elite or significant about us, nothing noteworthy about our skill level. We were just a trio of exhausted runners, two of whom that may not have even been aware they were engaged in a fight to the death, sluggishly running down a desolate highway as the sun rose.
Aside from my newfound and completely inappropriate hatred of them as well as our death-match status, they also didn't know I had a secret weapon waiting for me at the last aid station: Nancy. I had asked her prior to the race to come in her running shoes…just in case. She did, and there had never been a stronger case than now. As I slogged over, I asked her if she was ready. She was. Let's put this thing to bed.
Those last few miles…how to describe them. They were painful. They were long. It felt like despite my best efforts, I just wasn’t going nearly as fast as I wanted. But unlike the full marathon, I had no cramping, no hot spots on my feet, nothing. Fatigue, both from the race and the time of day, were setting in. I had been running for well over six hours at this point and been up for nearly 26 straight hours. I told Nancy about the Litterbugs and she shuddered too. She gave a few backward glances and assured me they were far back. I wasn’t sure my neck moved in that direction at this point and wasn’t going to find out. Having a pacer is such a beautiful thing.
I willed myself forward. Watching Nancy pick up cups and other garbage ("Leave no trace!" she chirped happily) gave me a boost. My friends are good, good people. We waved to other runners, gave lots of thumbs up, and I kept promising my legs that this would be over soon enough. A few runner commented how strong Nancy looked, and she giggled. "I should! I just started running!" That made me smile.
And together, we ran into the sunrise.
I crossed over the line as the clock read 6:22.
For a brief moment, I contemplated waiting a full minute so I could cross at 6:23, my dad’s birthday. But competitiveness replaced sentimentality (Dad would have been proud) and I finished strong, just as I had hoped. The Litterbugs finished a full four minutes behind me.
Reinier once told us about an African saying that came to mind in that moment, despite my fog and severely depleted glycogen levels. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. It was a beautiful message, profound and true. These four people had made my race. Each of them contributed in their own way, and as a result, I was able to go farther than ever before.
And ten minutes later, just as I powered my phone back up, all of those feelings evaporated instantly.
Text from Uncle Jim (not really an uncle, just one of our closest friends in town): Kim, call my cell as soon as you get this. Brian had me pick up Scotty because he had to go the hospital.
It took me several moments to figure out it was Brian in the hospital, not Scotty. Jim's text actually mentioned possible appendicitis, but my brain was not functioning correctly and I immediately jumped to a stroke or heart attack. Where was Scott? Which hospital? When did this happen?
Thankfully, we had a serendipitous few minutes of cell service. I was able to talk with Jim, who informed me Scotty was safe and sound at our house. Brian had been admitted and was being kept under observation. Possible appendicitis. I immediately called Kate, our fabulous neighbor, who not only cheerfully answered her phone at 6:45 in the morning, but opened with, "How was your race, friend?" I skipped over the race details and got to the heart of the matter: could she take Scotty until I was back in Vegas? She agreed without hesitation. Ah, good neighbors indeed.
My next call was Brian. All I got was a croaky voice, "Kidney stones, anemia, and I need a blood transfu-" when we lost service.
Blood transfusion? What the hell was going on?
And thus commenced the longest bus ride of my life.
Two and a half hours later, I drove directly to the hospital, still wearing my medal and compression socks. There may have been sweaty salt crusted on my face. I didn't care; all I cared about what finding out what was going on with my family and solving it. Had my running been irresponsible? Did my absence put my family at risk? When was the last time I had even been away at night? What are the odds something like this would happen the same night of my race? As long as Scotty was okay...as long as Brian was in good hands...
It was a bit of a shock to see Brian hooked up to all kinds of wires and bags. He looked...awful. Two bags of blood, an IV drip and a copious amount of morphine. Despite his drugs and my lack of sleep, he was able to piece the previous night's events together for me.
Brian put Scotty to bed as soon as I left. He then proceeded to eat a pizza, sit on the couch, and watch SportsCenter. His side began to ache and he just couldn't get comfortable. The pain got worse and worse until he was doubled-over. He threw up the whole pizza, but didn't call me because he didn't want to ruin my race. (::insert collective "aww"::) Instead, he made a few phone calls, no one answered, so he heaved Scotty out of bed and tossed him in the car. He threw up twice on the way to the hospital, once on the side of the road and once on his shirt (::insert collective "eww" here::). He dragged both himself and Scott into the ER. Apparently, it was already full, and a man screaming obsencities and bleeding from the head upset Scott. Brian threatened him with physical violence. This is my husband in a nutshell: dying from phantom pain, but drop the f-bomb in front of our kid? He'll kill you.
Uncle Jim arrived around midnight, just as they were telling Brian it was kidney stones. Uncle Jim took Scott back to our house, put the Bear to bed with a few chapters from the Yoda Chronicles, and slept in his clothes. Best. Uncle. Ever.
The kidney stones were fairly routine but it was the anemia they were most concerned about. When he mentioned he hadn't seen a doctor since the ER, I stormed out of the room determined to find one. The nurse informed me it was still early, the doctor was just starting his rounds. I glanced at my watch: 10:15. I had been up for almost 30 hours. Oh.
I stayed at the hospital until after the doc rounded and we had a solid plan. Then, cars had to be moved, Scotty needed to be picked up, and more trips to the hospital followed. I tried my best to respond to texts and phone calls from worried family and loved ones. When Scotty requested a movie, I happily obligated and promptly passed out on the couch for a blessed twenty minutes. We went to visit Dad at the hospital for the last time that day and learned he had developed a fever and not yet passed the stones. Another bag of blood was given.
I put Scott to bed without a shower on Sunday night. By the time my head hit the pillow, I had been up for almost 39 hours. I knew it was time to get some rest when I thought I was watching heat lightening in the distance when I realized it was my mind playing tricks on me.
Thankfully, the potential delirium was short-lived. Monday and Tuesday were a whirl-wind of securing childcare for Scotty, then spending the day bedside with Brian. If I felt thankful for my friends on Saturday night, I felt like I won the urban family lottery on Monday and Tuesday. People couldn't offer to do enough; Courtney took Scotty to his favorite place in the world (Target) and let him pick out a new set of Legos. Jeff and Kate introduced Scotty to the wonder that is Islands Restaurant while Barb and Dave treated Scotty to some fro-yo. Tanya answered every single question I had about anemia (she's an oncologist) and then essentially gave me a step-by-step plan to use with the doctors, which resulted in our successful discharge Tuesday afternoon. Gabi and her daughter Vivi took Scotty for an afternoon and Viv consented to play Monster Bug while she was a princess-mermaid-fairy-butterfly. This is a HUGE concession for little Viv, but even she seemed to grasp the importance of the situation. Thank you, Princess Vivian.
So while the adrenaline may finally be wearing off, I'm left with a lot of warm feelings. Who knew the ultra was just the beginning of an ultra-crazy experience? And in terms of recovery, I had almost none. Aside from a nasty case of the hiccups, I felt fine by Monday morning. No soreness, no pain, no toe issues. Part of me wishes I had gone faster, while another part of me wonders if I knew I had to conserve strength for other reasons. I consider myself fairly intuitive, so maybe I sensed something amiss at home. My tearful send-off was certainly an indication that all was not well. I never expected to be up for close to forty hours, but am thankful my body - and my mind - was able to handle it. But I certainly couldn't have done it alone.
I wrote a lot of this while Brian was in his procedure on Monday afternoon, and I'm thankful for that too. Someone asked me about the race Tuesday afternoon, and by then, I had actually forgotten I had run a race. This blog has served a lot of purposes, and in recent weeks, I'd be feeling a little...overexposed. Was I sharing too much? What was the point of sharing this stuff anyways? I now have a completely different view: not only does the blog help me log events (more) accurately in my head, it also opens my world to others, so when help is needed...people are there. I don't know how we got so lucky. Thank you for reading, and thank you for such amazing support.
I'm looking forward to returning to normal life quickly; Brian is already planning to go back to work tomorrow, and according to Scotty, these Legos aren't going to build themselves. The Chicago Marathon is eight weeks from Sunday. I have a five-year old birthday party to plan, get ready for Grandma's visit, and most exciting of all, we have to pick out a new family member (details coming soon!)
In closing, the only thing I have to offer is this: you don't know how strong you are until being strong is the only option you have. I think we sell ourselves short much of the time. I know I do. You don't know how far you can go until you try. Maybe a half marathon is your ultra. Maybe it's a marathon. Whatever it may be, don't be afraid to push yourself; you may end up pleasantly surprised. Personally, I don't think I've gone far enough yet. This 51km was secretly a litmus test to see if I would consider a 50-mile run...
...and I definitely am.
(Brian just slammed his head against the desk)
Happy trails, friend!