Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Miwok 100k. Conquering the Unexpected.

I was huddled in an emotional fetal position. The sun was bright and my water was warm, and at approxiamately mile 28 I started to feel like walking the rest of the race might be ok. The worst part is that this wasn't even my my first emotional crash.

  Headed down a 2 mile hill into an aid station at mile 12, my fingers had gotten so cold and red I couldn't open my s-caps. Why didn't I pack thin gloves? I've battled cold fingers all my life. In my first career as a violinist, I would hog the hand dryers, bring hot hands, rub, swing - really anything to get the circulation from my subconcious where it was feeding whatever performance anxiety I was experiencing to the tips of my fingers where it could assist in the making of music.

Running is not playing the violin so you wouldn't expect cold fingers could make or break a race- but it triggered something deep inside me. Fumbling with my zip lock of s-caps, I was clearly distraught.

"What's wrong? What can I get you?" A volunteer was trying to help. I continued my exasperated and useless attempt to get an S-cap.
"My hands are just so cold. They are so cold." I was shaking my head. No one else seemed at all bothered by cold fingers. Just me. Alone in my unique pain. Alone at the race. Alone.

"Would you like my gloves?"
I would say, I couldn't believe it-except the week before my friend Kurt and I had given out the batteries in our headlamps to the final runner and his pacer at Free State 100k. The runner had sat down and wanted to quit- and without the batteries he would have had no choice. So, I knew that volunteers exhibit generous acts of kindness.


Payback or not- the next part was unexpected. He pulled out Mizuno  Breath Thermo windshell gloves. The lightest, and warmest gloves Mizuno makes. Many of you know, I am a rep for Mizuno but this man did not. I am certain he did know replacing the gloves would cost $24.99.

"Sir , what is your name? Do you know Tia the race director? "
"Yes, my name is Jeanott."
"You have just leant gloves to the right person."

(Race Director, Tia Bodington) I turned, choked up at the kindness and started to cry.  Yes, real tears and while in real life I'll cry at anything from a tide commercial to my grandfather's funeral, somehow I've managed to complete two hundred milers, a handful of 50's and dozens of 50k's without a single tear. I wiped the tears with the glove and headed up the 2 mile ascent.

I wore those gloves a long time, my own little emotional security blankie. By mile 28 they were safely tucked in the back compartment of my pack. The emotional simmer, started to rumble in the sun.

I wish I'd asked for ice at the Stinson Beach aid station.

"Hello Sophia, it's Leslie."
Leslie and I had met on climb number one where she recognized my voice from a Trail Nerds video she'd seen online. That was cool.

Much has been said of this new course. It had 3 more miles of elevation gain. It was 2 miles longer than a 100k, which I believe makes it a 103.5k, and runner's times were off by 1 to 4 hours.
There are 8 climbs according to some, 9 according to others. For perspective, here's the profile.

For  further reference, Leadville has 6 climbs over 100 MILES. Squashed into 64 miles this new course was gloriously brutal. Each time I arrived exhausted to the peaks and would see the spectacular views I'd say "Kumba-fucking -ya." Although I've been working on my trail singing- I never belted out the whole song.
There are spectacular views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
Also, I managed to do such poor research on this race, I didn't realize the Dipsea trail has a series of about 1,000 steps built into the side of a mountain.

It was those steps that really cracked my rhythm. I have a specific and effective way of getting up hills and mountains which involves taking very small steps and high turnover. Having some man-made wooden railroad tie dictate my steppage, was frustrating. I allowed myself to get frustrated.

Back to that first career in music, I had a voice teacher (yes, I actually got some legit training in the singing you runners hear on the trail) David Greedy told me "Frustration serves no purpose. It is a luxury we cannot afford ourselves."

I have carried that advice on many successful ultras, but this time frustration snuck up on me. Between the warm water, steps and the fact that I was having trouble eliminating the food from the prior night's carbo load, frustration snuck up on me like a quiet, nasty competitor you arrogantly underestimated.

I needed help and it came in the form of Leslie. She was willing to share her race with me and we really managed to help each other through ups and downs for the next 22 miles. The other great thing, was Leslie knew the trail which took out some of the unexpecteds.

"Will there be more steps? Please say no."
Her yes answer and prep for them even if it was a teasing-- "Oh look Sophia, your favorite-- more steps," really helped ease my anxiety. I still called her a bitch everytime we saw steps.

Now the race shifted from a pity party to more of a giant Mudbabe Monday. We also leap frogged along with another Californian named Rohanna whose husband was crewing her. It was her first 100k and she really had a plan including her elixir of life, Carbo-Pro which her husband replenished at each aid station.
"Hey Rohanna!" we'd caught up to her after the Muir beach aid station, where Dave Mackey came through for a second time. Yes, I was at mile 34 and Mr. Mackey was at about 56. Not bad for a girl from Kansas?! Groan.

She had one of the funniest interactions at an aid station of the day. When she couldn't find her husband (for the Carbo Pro) the aid worker looked at her and said "We have a lot of other husbands here, can they help you?"  She eventually found him. Meanwhile, I'd been on a quest for ice. They had very little, but gave me a few pieces. One I put in my mouth and the cold, beautiful sensation was energizing.

Next funny piece: I have a new move. On my second elimination, I used every corner of my last babe wipe. (that's not the move.) When I caught up to Rohanna, I mentioned the worry that there might be toxic residue in my clevage. She handed me her zip back of babe wipes. At this point, I didn't want to lose her and wanted to return the unused ones, so I dropped my Meridian skirt to my knees and ran along behind her laughing, lower birthday suit to the sky and wind while getting the good wipe. Go ahead . Try it. You better have a good base in technical running, because the arm twist can throw you way off. I kind of felt like the guys in the Tour de France with their crews treating their saddle sores, except I was ULTRAPHIA from Kansas, climbing the mountains with the natives and being the one woman crew.

Met up with Leslie at the next aid station where they LOADED us with ice and I broke a new record of snarfing melon. It was in such small pieces. The kind that indicate, they may be running low-- I could also tell by the look in the volunteers eyes, as I've been there. I was glad when there was still melon at the end of the day at the final aid station. Tia- if you ran out of melon- it's probably my fault. Sorry. So now I owe Miwok one pair of gloves and a couple cantaloupes.

Mile 50: I call this "the pacerless aid station." Everyone got a pacer but me. Rohanna had peppy little firecracker in a pink half zip. Leslie got her dashingly handsome friend, Jeff.
"Bitches. That's what I'm calling the blog on this race. You Leslie and Tia Bodington with those darn steps."
Jeff: "Can I please be dashingly handsome in your blog."
As you can see, I've given Jeff his wish. Honestly the truth is more flattering. Jeff is one of those guys where you instantly feel a generous spirit and honesty. I found out after the race that he gave his headlamp to Lisa Henson who works for Ultrarunning magazine for the end of her Miwok journey. When I saw this, I recalled hearing Lisa talking about her astigmatism and that it was hard to see the trail. I can only imagine how she suffered until he gave her the headlamp. You see, Lisa, like many had no idea how long this race would take. She's completed it in 12:30 before- well before dark.

I learned this from Lisa at mile 13- here we are: Sorry about the fist pump. I tend to block runners on my right.

We were climbing away and I complimented her on her skirt.
"I love your sunflower print skirt. I am from Kansas."
"Are you Sophia Wharton? I'm Lisa Henson."
Until that moment Lisa and I had only chatted on the phone and emailed. I truly can't tell you how amazing it felt at a race I went to alone to have someone know who I was. I asked her what to expect for a time at the race.
"I have no idea. I've done it in 12:30 , but 13:30 would be great."

At that point I put 13:30 in my head. By mile 40, the number slipped to 14. At some point, I just wished the race was a 50 miler.  At mile 50 I forgot to pick up Powerbar Gels from my drop bag. There were 8 brutal miles to the next aid station and all I had was water and S-caps.

A third emotional curl. I see Jeff and Leslie getting further and further away, and uphill.

Rohanna and her Pink Pacer came along. Rohanna was concentrating.
"Hey how are you? Need anything? " Pink Pacer.
"I have no nutrition. I forgot to grab it at the aid station."
"Here, do you like Honey Stingers? "
I'd never had the honey stinger gels which are just straight honey with caffiene. They taste sickly sweet and slightly medicinal. The effect on my body was like crack. In addition, the sun was setting and the cooler temperature was refreshing.

I rounded down the mountain and saw Leslie and Jeff.
"She'll be comin' round the Mountain..." I was singing. It was cheesy and quite silly, but who cares? I was high on life, running, beauty, new friends and Honey stingers.

Unfortunately, Leslie would have stomache issues and I wouldn't see her until the end of the race.

8 miles to go, and all I did was pass people. Flatish for 2 miles and I felt like I was flying.
"Hey- she's running! Good job" A volunteer was directing traffic at a road crossing.
"Thanks- I feel like I'm a good runner, but my time is NOT going to reflect that."
"Everyone is 2 to 3 hours slower this year. One more climb and it's easy from there out!"
Thanks for the gusto!
I started climbing faster than I had all day. A runner and his pacer offered that I could run with them, if I'd like.
"You look like you may not need it, though."
"Thanks, but I am feeling great now. I have a plan. I'm from Kansas and that's where I train." Our rolling hills will never boast 2 mile climbs, but if you put your mind to it, you can get some solid training here in the plains.
(Special note: Thank you to Glenn Tachiyama for this beautiful photo)

A final crest to the downhill boasted a shimmering sunset before the moon took over. Tonight was the night the moon would be closest to the earth. "Buffalo Gals won't you come out tonight.. and dance by the light of the moon."

I continued to pass all the way down the steps and steps. Even one person as we got to the last 2 tenths of road. I put 36 seconds between our finishes. It was a final wind I have only dreamed of (and dreamed of often.) Something I wanted so bad for Rocky Racoon 100. But it didn't happen there, it happened here at Miwok, where it was completely unexpected.

Mastering ultrarunning depends on eliminating as many of the unexpected elements as possible through experience and training. But, reacting to the unexpected and enjoying it is aslo part of the journey- and it is always the unexpected elements that make a race memorable.
Finish time: 15 hours 14 minutes.

Thank you to my unexpecteds:
Pink Pacer
Tia and your unexpectedly powerful and life altering course
The steps

Things to note:
1. I am stupid if an aid station is at the bottom of a hill. Think ahead next time and prepare for where you are going instead of just being in the present.
2. Average climb time: 40 to 45 minutes
3. Powerbar energy blasts melt in a drop bag that sits in the sun
4. Get shirt with printed on it "Runner wants ICE in pack." It is the single most effective difference maker for me in a race. (even on a cold day.)
5. Add some stair climbing in the middle of long runs, if I'm fortunate enough to get in next year.
6. I have run races where I knew the course and my plan was so tight, I didn't meet or chat much with other runners. I am grateful that I went into this race with a more flexible plan or I wouldn't have made it through as successfully. And yes, sometimes success does not come in 12 or 13 hour increments. Sometimes success is 15:14 by the light of the supermoon.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Land's End, New Beginnings.

Lined up they look  like Pan Am sterwardesses-back when you had to be gorgeous, smart and efficient to get the job. Megan, Amanda, Heather, Sophia (me), Allison, Faith, Donna and later another Megan and Theresa.

Free State's Land's End aide station.
I noticed as I sent a photo I snapped on my phone that on one side of the aid station photos were labelled by GPS as Kanwaka and on the other Lawrence. This crux between the two, an oasis at mile 8 and 18 of a 21 mile loop, where on this day every runner flew first class.

"Would you like an S-cap?" Megan Jones, whose husband was running the 100k. It was her first time volunteering and she proved a very quick study, and able to dish out S-caps like a phameceutical phenom.

"Coke or Sprite?" Amanda.
"Baby wipe for you face?" Allison.
"Let me fill that pack." Donna.
(without taking off the pack, we filled- FAST.)
"Stomache issues? Here's a ginger chew." And so the day went. We grabbed, filled, dished and repaired.
"Thanks ladies. You all are incredible." Over and over.

It must be pointed out that there were at times 3 men around, but everyone just loved the beautiful ladies. My long time Saturday running buddy Kurt was the brains and brawn behind the operation hauling supplies in his 4x4 pick up truck and making sure everyone was headed in the right direction. Not his usual fare, on this day he indulges in an affinity for Pringles and PBR.

4 different races. 2 different start times.  The epicenter of the race was Land's End, with two passes per loop. An  added bonus this year, the half marathoners turned around at Land's End.

" Alright everybody, listen up! We now have runner's with all four races coming and going in each direction. Awesome." Kurt.
(Kurt's back is to you in the black and blue shirt- he's yelling directions.)
The strategy: Make sure the half marathoners make a hairpin turn. Make sure the marathoners, 40's and 100 k's go straight, meanwhile  watch for the frontrunners in the 40 and 100k as they head into the aid station for a second pass and make sure they head out the correct direction.  Once this begins, it never stops, but the focus does shift.

The buffet style aid work shifts to an atmosphere of an army MASH unit.

40 miles and 100k are a long way. It can mean a lot of mistakes, especially in a race that attracts many first timers. But it also gives the runner a lot of miles to fix their mistakes with the correct instruction.

My friend Danny who is a nurse and affectionately called "Mr. Mudbabe," due to his affinity for the weekly Mudbabe Monday runs was another of the 3 fellows and joined us after running the half.
"Sophia- come over here- this guy wants to quit."
I headed over to assess.
A firing of questions results in learning the runner needs salt. "Take two S-caps, head to the next aid station- take two more and we'll see you back here in 10 miles." It worked- he left and was back stronger for an even stronger finish. This constant re-grouping and evaluating of runners was exhausting but fullfilling. It pushed my skill as an extreme extrovert to the limit. And it was fun. "Do you want to touch the buckle?" I'd worn the Free State 100k buckle, just in case we had a runner who wanted to quit. However, this ended up being just a fun interaction with Lloyd Lantz one of my favorite local runners.
Actually what he needed more and we provided was a tight ankle wrap for a twisted ankle. The twisted humor, an added bonus. "Why is HE telling me I look good?" One of the male runners was sitting and re-grouping. "I want HER to tell me I look good." "YOU LOOK GREAT!" Squeeled the girls. "Massage?" Allison. Yes, today in a sport still dominated by men, the women ruled. br />
During a lull in the craziness, I noticed we were getting low on Pringles and decided to send Megan for more from the finish line, so Kurt could continue his love affair with the red tube of Pringles that was now sporting a fake mustache.

"I brought fake mustaches for everyone." Danny. I put one on and found it a bit hot, eventually it found a home on my signature cowboy hat. Danny's ended up on the Pringles after posing for this photo with  my bearded Armenian friend Seroj. Man #3. Holding the package of fake stashes, I looked over skeptically.
"I guess you don't need a fake mustache?"
"I don't need a fake nose either, Sophia."

Later I jumped in and paced my friend Erin for 23 miles on her first 100k. She ran a smart, planned race and didn't need much help. Still the friendship and commaraderie of a pacer is always a welcome lift. After her finish I went back to Land's End.
The scene was reduced to one table with cold quesedillas, soda, a few oranges and Kurt's empty can of Pringles. Kurt and Heather greeted me warmly and I sent Heather off to cheer in our friend Amanda (also on her first 100k- Heather had also done double duty, pacing Amanda in her second loop.) <> For three years I helped Race Direct Free State along with about 20 other races per year. Last year's Free State was the last race I co-race directed with my now friend and former fiancee Ben Holmes. Just one look at this blog exemplifies the struggle I've had to put any emotion into words. The void was vast as I stumbled in a community I had worked to grow. I focussed on group runs instead of volunteers. Without the race directing I felt small. Each time I got a call about races and had to explain my new status, it stung. Over and over again. I ran. I hurt. I gave. I grew. I used to joke when I race directed and delegated tasks that I must not be good at anything, because everyone had a job but me. I often felt I wasn't a very good volunteer. But now things are different. In the past year, to fill the emotional void, I raced, paced, planned and thought. I evolved and became complete as a runner, friend and volunteer. With each group headed into the aid station there were people I knew and shouts of happy hellos. Many close friends and friends of friends. The void diminished and I felt a warm sense of belonging that only comes when energy is exchanged on several different levels. I travel a lot for my work with Mizuno running. In that travel, I have developed many nurturing "home away from homes." One of those is Wichita which was well represented not just by runners, but by Megan Jones my little volunteer protege who had contacted me personally about volunteering. My new experiences, the foundation. My constant friends, Kurt, Mark, Erica, Allison, Danny, Heather and Erin add another layer of goodness. So now here at the cornerstone of Clinton Lake, a place very dear to my heart, I realized my world was not smaller, but larger.
Mud Hugs, Sophia