Exactly 24 hours after starting the Swiss Alps 100 ultra, I was sitting at an Aid Station 75 miles in. The sun was coming up. I was trying to stuff spaghetti into my mouth. And all of a sudden I started sobbing uncontrollably. Not tears of pain or sadness, but of emotion and exhaustion, as well as feeling the pressure and anxiety of the incredibly difficult task that still lay ahead. I sat there with tears dripping down my nose into my noodles, hardly able to breathe.
I had no thoughts of quitting. That was never on the table. But I did wonder if I would be able to finish. This race had already tested my strength, lungs, joints, agility and capacity to its limits, and I had a marathon still to go. Mentally, it was a rollercoaster between confident highs and negative lows, mimicking the inclines and descents as steep as the terrain I was running. I was in new territory mentally. I had never doubted my ability to actually finish a race.
Luckily, at that point, years of training and experience somehow kicked in. First it was Kelley hugging me and just being there as a strong presence of comfort and strength and confidence – telling me I could do it. The physical contact of her support slowly calmed my breathing and eventually I was able to take full breaths again.
And then I thought about my commitment. A commitment to digging as deep as I needed to, to find the confidence and strength to keep going. Something that I had lived for and trained for the last 8 months. Lastly, I thought about how lucky I was to even be in this predicament. How lucky was I to be able to make it 75 miles, and have the opportunity to keep going for another 25?
So, after stocking up on my hydration and food stores for the next 8 mile section, I wiped away the tears, swallowed the last of the spaghetti and set off again. The immediate 3.5 miles would take me another 3000 feet straight up to the top of yet another gorgeous and majestic peak along this adventure. My heart, mind and body were reset, and I was ready to dig deep again. Another dark hole escaped.
This 100 mile race had a muscle shredding 32,000 vertical feet up AND down throughout. It had seven climbs of over 3000 feet. And as I learned very quickly, it was not your average, runnable dirt-packed mtn bike trail, filled with switchbacks and a few steeps. It was hands over feet, rocky, slick, full of cow poop, lean on your poles, trip constantly, 30 minutes per mile kind of steep. And it introduced itself to you within a mile of the start line, so it wasn’t like it crept up on you. It slapped you in the face within minutes!
When that first slap hits, you have a decision to make. Either whine, complain and fail, or lean into it, acknowledge the pain, smile your biggest smile, and enjoy every step (or try to)!
The saying for a 100 miler is that the first 80 miles is a long “warm-up” run and you can race the last 20 if you have anything left. I had had some success with this approach at my other three 100s and it had felt great passing people over the last 20 miles of the course instead of slogging along at a death march into the finish.
On the other hand, I’m always an overly amped-up Race-Day competitor and apparently have no coherent brain early on in the race. I’m batting almost zero for smart and strategic pacing during the early miles of races. No matter how much I tell myself to slow down, it’s always a struggle. In the first 4 miles of this race, which is a 4000’ climb, I tried my best to stay in the middle of the pack and just relax. I settled into the conga line and just focused on keeping my heart-rate at or below 135. I failed, as it averaged about 140, but the adrenaline was high and I actually felt a low perceived effort through the first 90 minute climb. But with a bit of luck and restraint, I was still able to keep myself somewhat under control and passed the first Aid Station in 31st position.
But immediately after that, I completely lost my mind. I ran sub 12 min miles over the next 5 miles – WAY TOO FAST for this course. But, it was slightly downhill, the views were amazing, I was feeling good, and I knew Kelley was at the next Aid Station waiting for me with hugs and yummy food!
Turns out a lot of us were going too fast as most racers even beat the Organizers to the next Aid Station. Nothing was set up. Luckily for me, Kelley was there with everything I could ever want laid out and waiting. I downed a coke, some rice & chicken, refilled my pack, and grabbed a salami sandwich to eat as I ran off. It pays to have a coach/crew that knows you better than you know yourself.
So off I ran towards the mountains and valleys beyond, which looked like a photo of snowy peaks, grassy fields, lots of cows, mountain huts, and some of the most beautiful terrain in the world including the Aletsch Glacier. At times I ran with a pack of runners, all in sync hopping, jumping and striding over rocks and roots. In this race, with so many different countries represented, it was a chorus of warnings and directions that nobody understood, but everyone understood. When I was with other runners, we instantly became teammates, and one organism moving together, looking out for one another, offering food or hydration, and cheering each other on when we started to drag. Ultras have a special feeling – one of camaraderie instead of competition. Giving, instead of taking. Joy of the pursuit, rather than the anxiety of the result.
But as always with Ultras, for most of the 30 hours on the trail I was alone with my thoughts, which is usually a great place to be. I plan for these hours of alone time. I repeat my mantras (“You are just warming up”, “Focus on your Feet”, and “How lucky am I?”). I think about friends and family and those who are no longer with us. And I always try to take in and memorize every vista and view – of which there were too many to capture in this race!
It is during these alone times where placing, pacing, time, and struggle disappear and you enter the running zone of effortlessness and bliss. Where every step lands perfectly flat on the rocks and you feel light and quick and full of energy. Time seems to stop and all of a sudden you have covered 5 miles without a care in the world. These miles are often hard to find, but they came throughout this race at different times.
– Running through the many little Swiss Villages and it seemed every person you passed started yelling “Hopp, Hopp, Hopp!!!” which is the Swiss equivalent of “GO, GO GO”.
– Running along a field in the middle of nowhere along flat rocks placed there hundreds of years ago, perfectly in step, and you are floating above them.
– Hiking up a mile-long steep through hundreds of cows, all with cowbells that serenade you through some of the toughest vertical in the world.
– Striding in the middle of the night in complete silence and darkness when all you can see is the 8 feet in front of you that is lit up by your headlamp. But then as you look up, out into the night, you see the next reflective marker 200 yards ahead and you smile and head straight for it.
You try to catch and hold onto these moments and make them last forever. But inevitably, they end for one reason or another.
The low spots come out of the blue most times and seem to be for no reason. But there is always a reason, and usually it’s something simple.
– Not enough calories: All of a sudden you start tripping a ton or slight uphills feel like cliffs, or the fact that you can’t find that particular piece of food as you reach back into your pack while trying to continue to run sends you into a rage. These moments can turn ugly so fast. No matter how disciplined I was, this happened a few times as I neared Aid Stations, thinking I could just skip the food at that moment and instead make it up at the Aid. All racers need to learn to recognize this kind of low point and immediately stop and eat. The awareness of this feeling needs to trigger a practiced response of stopping, taking a seat, taking off your pack, and EATING. Then get up and start walking, and believe in the knowledge that in 5-20 min you will feel better once you get those calories into your bloodstream.
– Expectations: Goals are different than expectations. Goals are used for motivation and inspiration. Goals are positive. Expectations, on the other hand, are dangerous. They seem to cement themselves into your mindset and start shooting off negativity bullets. If you are falling short of expectations, as is usually the case, they trigger a wave of bad thoughts. Falling short of expectations turns your brain into the devil and you will make bad decisions. “I expected to be running this section.” “I expected to be in the top ten at this point.” “I fully expected to be able to make it to the next Aid Station without filling up my hydration.” Those are seeds of trouble. I experienced a lot of this from miles 55-65 as I climbed yet another Alp expecting it to end and flatten every step. As soon as you start to feel expectations you need to take control, find your mantras and fight to return to positivity.
– Didn’t Do Your Homework: For me, this one hit me hard on this race in the second half. I had studied and planned for this race, but mostly for the first half which was going to be in the daylight. Plus it was the most beautiful and scenic part of the course. I neglected the second half which had the tougher climbs and it would mostly be in the dark. On mile 90 I thought I had 10 miles of flat or downhill into the finish. I was hurting and looking forward to cruising. Well, mile 90-95 was nothing but flat. It went up and down, but mostly up and I lost my mind. Add in the fact that the course was minimally marked and it was a recipe for negativity. I struggled hard. Then the stressed-filled thoughts of being passed with only miles to go entered the fray. And lastly, it was really, really hot. This concoction of errors hit me hard. For those of you who know me, you would have not recognized this negative child who was swearing, yelling and complaining. Luckily, no one was around except Kelley to absorb it. All because I did not know the course.
My final five miles were incredible though, filled with friendship and magic. It started with seeing Kelley at mile 95 at the last Aid Station. She again gave me the unconditional support and positivity that always fills me up. Secondly, I ate a ton and refueled for the final 5 miles. Plus, Kelley had an ice-cold cloth and just doused my head until my temps lowered.
But the real magic happened with three miles to go. I had resigned myself to take it easy into the finish, as I was toast. But along came another runner named Frederic (it was printed on his Bib) and he passed me like I was standing still. I was a bit bummed, but was OK with it. But just moments later, he sparked something inside me and I decided that I owed it to myself and everyone who supported me to hammer it in as best I could.
So I started following Frederic and was able to match his fast pace, following 20 seconds behind. But then Frederic missed a turn and so I yelled as loud as I could to him that we had to take a right. He was 100 yards in front of me and headed the wrong way, but upon hearing my voice, immediately stopped and turned around to get back on track. I took the turn and kept running, fully expecting Frederic to pass me within a few seconds. But Frederic took forever to catch back up. At this point, I was starting to lose my energy and focus, and began to slow my pace. Without my rabbit Frederic, I was again resigned to just make it to the finish line.
But then, along comes Frederic, and he started talking to me in French which I did not understand at all. But I could tell he was saying that he wanted me to run with him into the finish, which was still two miles away. I pleaded for him to just run without me. But he refused to let me walk. And once again, he sparked something within me and I started to run with him. For the next 22 minutes we ran without talking, covering that the last two miles into the finish. Not a word was spoken, but everything was said between us. He wanted me to push my limits into the finish. He was not going to let me walk. I decided that I needed to dig deep not only for myself, but for this runner who was willing to give up precious minutes of his own race time to help me finish.
We ran side by side, step for step, as fast as I could the final miles of this brutal and beautiful race. I was red-lining the final 400 yards, but desperately needed to cross the finish line running, not walking. We grasped hands and crossed the line with our arms up, hearts at max, with smiles on our faces. We patted each other on the shoulder and then separated, and I never saw him again. Mostly because I was completely overheated and totally spent, ready to collapse. The medics took me to the first aid tent and treated me for heat stroke. (After cooling down with ice packs all over and some liquid, I was fine!) Turns out Frederic was running the 50K race and took it upon himself to help and coach and carry me across the line. Wherever you are, Thank you Frederic! I will forever remember that moment.
This race was the hardest I have ever pushed my body. It was the toughest thing I have ever done physically and mentally. I spent time in a myriad of mental states during the 30+ hours; from full on race-mode to survival mode and everything in between.
-I sat on a bench at 5:30am and watched the sun peak over the Swiss alps totally alone in the world in a state of gratitude.
-I was surrounded by a herd of horses for about 5 minutes who seemingly did not want me to pass into their territory, scared out of my mind.
-Running through one village I was cheered on by about 40 swiss folks having a party at a restaurant. So I stopped, bowed, grabbed a beer off one of the tables and chugged it to their applause and continued running into the night – more calories!
-At mile 40, my legs cramped so bad I could not move for 10 minutes and just lay on the rocks alone, praying for the cramping to subside.
-I ran miles upon miles in awe of the terrain and beauty surrounding me.
-And I was able to reach a goal that seemed impossible through a strong and unwavering commitment to training, unconditional love and support from Kelley, along with the combined, positive energy of my family and friends.
Thank you everyone.