My first 100 mile race
Bighorn – (as per their website) a tough contender in the ultra-world boasting its name on the top 10 most difficult ultras in the nation. We met with Mother Nature to custom design a challenging course: full of steep climbs, difficult down hills, shoe sucking mud, and relentless technical terrain leading you to spectacular views with a possible wildlife encounter here or there. Participants, be prepared to endure extreme ever-changing mountain weather conditions and temperature variations. Mother Nature provides over 20,500 feet of ascent and 20,750 feet of descent testing the most seasoned ultra-runners with 76 miles of technical single-track trail, 16 miles of rugged 2-track jeep trail road, and 8 miles of gravel road.
A lot goes into a planning for a 100 mile race. When you’ve never done one before, it makes it even more challenging as you have to try and pre-empt what you might want or need and how you might feel. It took several iterations but I eventually managed to pull together a detailed list for each aid station, plus the start and the finish line. I then spent some time pulling together an approximate pace sheet, not for myself as I didn’t want to be held accountable to a particular goal time for my first 100 mile race, more so to give the crew an approximate window of when to expect me. I searched for athletes who had previously completed the race and reviewed their strava splits, I looked at the major aid station splits from previous years, I studied the course description, I researched previous race reports and looked at various youtube videos and managed to come up with something. I was fortunate enough to have a stellar crew with me, all travelling up from Flagstaff to be here for me on this special day. I had a team of 4 (plus Finn the racoon dog). Pamela with crew experience, Ted who has run a couple of 100mile races himself, Janel an experienced runner albeit at the shorter distances and Emily, a nurse but with no ultra running experience. I looked at where the aid stations were located and how long it would take for the crew to get to each one, so I could correlate that with my expected arrival. I soon realised that at a couple of the aid stations it would be very tight and it would be a race to see who would get their first..the crew or me. So, we decided that it would be better to take 2 vehicles and split the crew up. Now I had to re-think all my gear as if I decided I didn’t want something at one aid station, it wouldn’t be there for me at the next aid station as that would be a different crew. So, I scraped together, begged and borrowed various pieces so that I had doubles of stuff and hence should be covered for every scenario. The next dilemma I had to face was the weather. The last couple of years had been notorious for mud, but when I sent an email to the race directors, they advised that these were unusual years and in the 27 years of running the race, those were the only 2 years where it had been really bad, but if there was mud, then there would be a couple mile section towards the half way point and a section towards the beginning of the race. Ok, so I was, piece by piece, slowly bringing it all together and formulating a plan and getting comfortable with everything that I had, growing in confidence that I had all bases covered. Then, 2 days before the race we got an email saying that due to gnarly weather conditions, they were now starting the race an hour earlier to extend the cut off times and there was mandatory gear that we had to carry from the mile 30 aid station until it got light again – long sleeves and legs plus enough food to last until mile 48 as there would be limited aid in this section. Just when I thought I could relax, I was stressed again rethinking my plan. Did I need to alter anything with this new intel? In the week leading up to the race suffice to say with my brain working overtime I managed to get very little sleep.
I travelled up with Emily and Finn, we drove about 7 hours on the Tuesday and stopped overnight in Grand Junction and then travelled the remaining 8 hours on the Wednesday. I got my drop bags ready and the remaining 3 members of my crew – Ted, Pamela and Janel flew in on the Thursday and met us at the hotel. I went over my plan with them, my gear, what was in each drop bag, my thoughts and the detailed aid station instructions and then we went to packet pick-up. This was getting real now! I collected my number and gave them my drop bags. We then went to study the course map and there was a very knowledgeable member of the race team there who answered my questions about mud and creek crossings. He had been out on the course marking it. He basically told me that there was a couple of creek crossings in the first 13 miles but nothing too bad. Then the next 8 miles were fairly runnable until you came to mile 24 and the downhill to Sally’s Footbridge aid station. He said this was full of shoe sucking, slippery mud. They had taken a horse through one section and he had gotten stuck in mud up to his chest! So he advised that although there was a creek running down the middle of the mud slide, that was the best course to take and to just get wet and follow the creek down the 3.5 miles to the bottom. EEK!!! He then said, there is no point changing your shoes as the next 18 mile section was also covered with mud and while again they had looked at ways to divert some of the course, they had found rattle snake dens and poison ivy and advised the best route was to go through the mud following the flagging. Once you got to the turnaround point, the 1.5 mile climb up to Jaws aid station was covered in snow, waist height but they had shovelled and made a trail for us. He said there is no point you changing your shoes here as you have to turn around and go through all the mud again back the way you came! When you don’t have a point of reference it is very difficult to imagine what this meant in reality. Well I didn’t know what to expect but thought ok, so its going to be another one of those races where mother nature intervenes and is going to add a touch more challenge to my day. Bring it on that’s what I say. If The Bighorns wanted a fight, they were going to get one!!
I could plan and prep no more and the rest would be left up to fate. I thought I would sleep better on this final night after no rest for the previous 5 evenings, but sadly my excitement got the better of me and it eluded me again. Nevertheless I awoke excited and eager to get to the starting line and begin my adventure. A quick group photo and Ted, Emily, Finn and I made our way to Scott Park to catch the shuttle bus. We arrived at the starting line an hour ahead of time and I tried to relax. It was time to get this done.
Running 100 miles
I started off easy as I normally do and got caught up in the bottle neck as expected. I was a little frustrated as the pack was even walking on runnable sections but there was little I could do and I had to remind myself that I had a long day ahead of me and if I was forced to go slower in these early miles it was no bad thing. It was a super hot morning and I went through one of my 20oz flasks in the first 30 minutes. After a couple of miles, we reached the first aid station which I didn’t stop at and then kept on going until the next at the 3.5mile point. I refilled both bottles plus I had a 14oz handheld for the exposed 5 mile climb to the next aid station. Off I went, fast hiking to the top. There were a couple of small creeks and a few muddy patches but nothing to write home about. I refilled my flasks and carried on until I reached Janel & Pamela at Dry Forks 13.5 miles. I was within my original estimation, so all was going ok. I didn’t hang around, just picked up my poles, ready for the muddy creek decline, fuel for the next section and new flasks. Off I went.
This next section was fairly runnable which was nice and it wasn’t too hot as cloud coverage started coming in. I was running smoothly and felt good. I made it to Bear Camp and prepared myself for the mud and scary technical downhill. I had my poles at the ready and started following the runners ahead of me. I took my time as it was so slippery. I nearly lost my shoes a couple of times but managed to hold on to them ok. I gingerly picked my way down the slippery rocks using my poles to steady myself and find safe ground and then as my confidence built and the mud lessened managed to even enjoy some of the downhill sections. I made it to Sally’s still in fairly good spirits, and within my estimated time window, just. My stomach was still holding up well. I didn’t want to hang around, so swapped out my flasks, picked up my mandatory gear and fuel for the next station and went on my way. The first section seemed to go on forever, there weren’t as many aid stations along this route due to difficult access and one aid station even ended up having to hike 9 miles in to setup as the roads were blocked due to snow! That’s some amazing volunteers there. Thankful for the stunning scenery, without which would have made these miles seem even longer. The beautiful yellow and mauve wildflowers in abundance and the lush, green of the mountains made this race worthwhile regardless of the outcome.
The bad weather continues
The clouds started to roll in and I could see lightning strikes ahead. I put on my rain jacket a couple of times but didn’t need to wear it for long as the showers were short and sweet. Dusk started to fall and I continued as long as I could without stopping hoping to get to the next crewed aid station first, but I realized I wasn’t going to make it. I stopped, put on my long sleeve and my headlamp and continued going. The mud was starting to get thick now but I had planned to see my crew at the Devils Canyon Road soon, so was looking forward to that. I was approaching the 12 hour mark, had eaten all my food and was looking forward to seeing a friendly face, these last few miles had been a slog. I crested the hill and was coming up the junction but I couldn’t see Janel or Pamela! There were only about 5 vehicles there, but as they were driving the rental car I couldn’t remember what car they had. Also, the darkness didn’t help. I shouted blindly into the night “Janel?”, “Pamela? no answer. I told myself, its going to be fine. I’m sure they just had a problem parking down here and decided to crew me at the aid station instead. Logically I knew they must be up there, but there was a little seed of doubt planted and a tiny bit of fear crept in. What if I had missed them and they have taken my drop bag and I’ll go to the aid station and I won’t have my food or my bigger light?
Facing my fears
Also, I was due to pick up Janel as my pacer a this point and the prospect of having to run back through the 18 miles of mud in the dark on my own wasn’t an appealing prospect! I tried to put my fears to one side and ploughed on but I was feeling anxious nonetheless. This was the 1.5 mile climb up to Jaws, here I had lots of snow where I was post holing and it was coming up to my knees and thick mud that there was no way round coming up to my calves. I trudged on through, slipping and sliding all the while hoping against all hopes that I would be seeing my crew at the top. My neck and shoulders were throbbing from using the poles to anchor myself in the mud to prevent me from not slipping. My arms were so tense alot of the time, gripping the poles for dear life! It was getting colder now as night had set in and I was at the highest elevation of the race 8,800 ft.
I finally made it and the volunteer ushered me into the aid tent, taking my number to look for my drop bag. I must have looked a bit wild eyed as she asked me if I was ok and I started to cry saying I was due to meet my crew at the bottom but they weren’t there. Then, like a miracle in red, Pamela appeared in the doorway. I had never been so happy to see anybody!! I promptly burst into full on snot, chest heaving crying in her arms, my worries falling away at the sight of her as relief flooded in. I took a lot longer at this aid station than I normally like. I think I just needed some TLC after that fright. I ate some real food and changed into my rain pants as we heard torrential rain beating down on the rooftop. I put my Petzl headlamp on my head and my black diamond one around my chest, hand warmers in my gloves any my bra and off we went.
Glad to have someone with me to share in my misery of this next snowy, muddy section down to the road. We gingerly picked our way through and made it down. Janel was wearing the Kogalla lights I had borrowed from my friend Tessa and this worked well with her behind me, lighting the path in front. After the rain, the next 16 miles which hadn’t seems as bad on the way up was now one slick mud trail. This section marked a definite low point for me. The slippery mud had knocked my confidence and even when we were on somewhat runnable sections of the trails, with it being in the dark and not being able to see how truly muddy it was I didn’t feel confident enough to run, so we were doing more fast hiking and hopping than running.
Also, my stomach decided it wasn’t happy and I developed a tummy ache. The kind where you just want to strip off all of your clothes and lie down. Clearly I wasn’t about to do that. But I pulled the waist of my rain pants down low and was doing a lot of heavy breathing to try to warn off the sickness. I don’t know whether it was emotional stress of thinking I had lost my crew, or the fact I ate some real food at that last aid station rather than continuing with my GU products or simply the fact that it just wasn’t happy after 13 hours of running and digesting. Janel was very encouraging and offering me different foods to eat so I could try to stay up with my fuel intake. I managed to eat and drink but I wasn’t consuming anywhere near enough of what I should be. My low energy levels weren’t helping my situation. I ploughed forward.
Misery loves company and I was thankful to have Janel with me through these dark hours. She kept me distracted telling stories and we even sang at one point to scare what may have been a bear away. Janel commented about how lovely it was we could hear the birds singing, the sun must be rising soon. Suddenly a new fear gripped me. Oh my gosh…what if I didn’t make the cut off time to the next aid station?? Races put in cut off times where runners have to reach aid stations by a certain time. They do this both for safety reasons and also so the race doesn’t drag on for days at a time! Well, I have never had to worry about cut off times before, but I knew we had been going slow through this whole section and if we weren’t going to reach the next crewed aid station before sunrise, I would be well off my times. Janel wasn’t sure of the cut off times either. I tried to quell the negative thoughts and the panic rising inside of me and just kept on moving, as best I could over the terrain. I was too scared to look at my watch even. I didn’t want to talk about it out loud in case somehow that made it real. It took all of my willpower to force these negative thoughts away and just focus on keeping moving forward, one step at a time. I came here to run 100 miles, I was going to bloody well run 100 miles! Oh God, please don’t let them drop me, I have to do this! There’s no question here, I am reaching that finishing line, I don’t care how! Finally we reached Sally’s some time before 6am (I discovered the time afterwards).
I saw Ted and he calmly took my hand and led me into the aid station. Of course I started crying again (just so you know, I am not a crier under normal circumstances!). Through my sobbing, I told him my fears. He calmed me down immediately and assured me that I was still well within the cut off times and I had nothing to worry about. That I should take a minute, sit down and regroup. He asked me if I had had anything to eat and Janel mentioned that I hadn’t eaten in an hour and a half, so he fetched me a cup of broth and this went down well and I felt better immediately. My feet were just one big muddy mess and as I knew we had the famous mud wall coming up in the next section, I saw little point in changing my shoes but thought it might be nice to change my socks. Emily deserves a sainthood for she then took off my shoes and socks caked in mud and proceeded to bathe my feet, cleaning them as best she could with what she had. My feet didn’t look too bad considering I had been on them for 21 hours now. We put new socks on, I de-layered and got back into warm weather clothes and steeled myself for the final 34 miles home. I was going to get this done, hell yeah. I picked up Ted as my pacer for these last miles and off we went.
Running in the mountains
Almost immediately we encountered mud and Ted got a taster of what we had come through in the last section. He was making an effort to keep his shiny luminous shoes clean, where as I was beyond caring and just charged on through (ok charge might be a strong word!). This first section was again slow, all slippery uphill rocky, muddy terrain and I could tell Ted was starting to get worried about our finish time in case the rest of the course was like this. I told him I thought there should be runnable sections ahead. As soon as we got to the single track I increased a gear and started running. Man that felt so good!! We hit a sweet section of smooth trail and my legs felt good. I was back! Of course this was short lived.
The Bighorns were still fighting. Just when you thought you were out of the mud there would be another muddy section. Well if the Bighorns were fighting, I was fighting back. I wasn’t about to let those mountains beat me, no freaking way!! I shouted a taunt up to the mountains, a battle cry. I was coming, they had better watch out. I persevered putting one foot in front of the other. Not once did I even think about how long I had been running, I was focused solely on what I needed to achieve and the miles ahead of me. I never once looked at my watch as I knew that was not going to help my situation at all regardless of time I had to get this done. My feet felt like they were being ripped to shreds, I was sure I was running in a pool of blood and my left hip flexor was now giving me hassle and every time I had to lift my leg up the pain would almost bring a tear to my eye. Not a shooting pain but the type that’s almost sweet that you feel coursing through you. I was actually preferring the uphills to the jarring motion of the downhills. We made it to the last crewed aid station and things were looking good for me to make it to the finish line before the cut off. It was a welcome sight to see Pamela. I sat down and finally after 27 hours of running in the same muddy shoes I thought it was safe enough to swap them, we should be free of mud.
There were some brilliant volunteers who took off my shoes and socks and bathed my feet. In that last section I had managed to get some horrendous blisters. On my heels, under my foot. I had a couple that even had managed to push my cuticles up, pushing my toenails up and off my toes…nice! I knew my feet were hurting but I wasn’t expecting them to be this bad. Maybe I shouldn’t have changed out my socks at the last aid station? Anyway, bless their hearts they managed to bandage them up as best as possible. I ate some more food, grabbed my hat and off we went for the final section.
I started off gingerly with my feet and my hip flexors letting me know they were there. After another short uphill there was a downhill coming up. Normally this is something to look forward to, but the trail was littered with rocks so with each step I was pushing against one blister or another and then having to lift my foot up and over was impacting my hip flexor. So what should have been faster miles ended up being just as slow. I couldn’t think about it. This was about surviving now and getting to that finish line. One foot in front of the other. I started using the poles almost as levers to help hop over the rocks and this helped somewhat. I was looking forward to the next milestone…the last 5 miles where the whole crew could run the last section with me into the finish line.
Finish line approaching
This was no longer a one woman race, this was a team effort. My crew had been awake as long as I had and were competing in their own endurance challenge. I was excited to see them and looking forward to celebrating the important role they had played in helping me to achieve my goal. But man did that seem a long way away!!! I was trying not to think about it but after 30 hours of being on your feet and with no sleep, your body is tired! One foot in front of the other. I’m gonna get you Bighorns!!! Now we are within 2.5 miles of seeing the crew, then its 2, then 1.5, then 1 mile and then 0.5 mile and then, FINALLY I can see them ahead, we’re nearly home!!!!!
A quick embrace… playlist loaded, Bluetooth speaker activated and off we go. Now the party has started. Eye of the Tiger. A few of my closest friends who had wanted to be here but couldn’t, sent me songs for my playlist so that it felt like they were there running with me. I sped on for some minutes then soon retreated back to a shuffle. This was going to be tough. Normally 5 miles would indicate a walk in the park, a breeze. Another hour though??? Everything inside of me was screaming stop. Just lie down here, take off your shoes and socks, abandon your pack. Its going to feel so great, you have done enough. I was also starting to feel light headed at this point. I pushed those thoughts away trying not to think about the miles ahead. I focused on the dirt road. I focused on the music. I focused on the chatter coming from my friends. One foot in front of the other, you’re nearly there. If I stopped to rest now I wasn’t going to get there any quicker and I needed to get this done. So I kept on moving. People were passing me again. I didn’t care about them. This was Me vs The Bighorns and no one else. I was determined to win.
After what seemed like hours, up ahead I could see a volunteer. My team told me this is it. This is where we turn and the finish line is around the corner. I am near to hysterics. Steadfast Ted is still by my side, he’s not leaving me. Giving me the feeling of much needed security. Where is it? I can’t see it? Paranoid I was going to run the wrong way at the last minute, not wanting any bonus miles at this point!! “It’s just there, you’ve got this”. Now the crowd of volunteers and well wishers who are at the finish line are cheering and clapping. Tears are streaming down my face (thankfully I was wearing sunglasses), I can hardly breathe I am choking up with emotions and tears. I’m on the grass, the final few meters and the finish line is ahead. I cruise on through. I’ve made it! My first 100 mile race. I beat those bally Bighorns!! “How do you feel?” Honestly, I feel numb, like it was a dream. 33 hours of running through some gnarly conditions and technical trails with no sleep does that to you, I guess.
I sit here now reflecting on my journey so far. While I can always be hard on myself for not doing more and those demons are whispering to me even as I type, I am determined to push them to one side and focus on the positives. On where I have come from and what I have achieved. 4 years ago I was sitting in an office in a sky rise in Hong Kong city. A Corporate executive, working 12 hour days, sleeping on average 6 hours a night, eating out and drinking most evenings with very little time for exercise. I quit that life, moved to Greece found road running and completed my first marathon a year later. Now sleeping on average 9 hours every night, eating nothing processed, hardly drinking and keeping healthy.
From road running to trail running
After 2 years of road running I was ready for a new challenge and went to Rob Krar’s Ultra and Trail Running camp in Flagstaff, Arizona and ran on trails for the first time. I decided I wanted to be a trail runner and run ultra distances (any distance longer than a marathon 26.2 miles). I ended up moving to Flagstaff to train at elevation and be close to my coach. It wasn’t easy, I had to fight to stay here, to secure the appropriate visas. Thankfully I have been fully embraced by the local community and have made dear close friends who have supported me throughout. I have donated much of my free time to support local businesses and non profits as my way of giving back. These last 2 years I have tried to cram in as much as possible race wise, to gain experience that other athletes have had the advantage of building over a lifetime. The experience is what I do this for. The opportunity to keep learning, to better myself and see what I am capable of. I feel so damned lucky. I never in a million years would have thought I would be capable of running 26 miles, let alone a 100 miles.
I may have chosen one of the top 10 hardest 100 mile races as my first (unbeknownst to me at the time!), but I am ever so grateful I did. So many learning opportunities that no amount of pre-planning would have given me the answers to. I was well out of my comfort zone but my mind and my body came through for me. I’m all about getting the most bang for my buck and by choosing this race as my first I sure have filled up arsenal with a lot more tools, ready and armed for the next challenge. One of the best organised races I have had the pleasure of running, The volunteers were platinum standard, the course was extremely well flagged and marked and those mountains, dang they were worth every step.
Value of Crews and Pacers
I have to say, I was feeling vulnerable going into the race, relying on a crew and not sure how I would feel about having a pacer or even what I would need. I would not have made it to the finish line without my crew. Their support and faith in me was unswerving and their strength and love gave me boosts when I needed it. I wasn’t crossing the finish line alone, they had my back to the end. I was very fortunate enough to have this motley crew on my side… Ted “steadfast” MacMahon, Pamela “I’ve got you” MacMahon, Emily “mother theresa” Coleman, Finn “I’ll lick your salt clean” Coleman and Janel “I’ll sing away the bears” Lanphere. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Like with any race, whenever I have it completed I am already thinking of and looking forward to the next challenge where I get the opportunity to put into practice what I have learned. Luckily I don’t have to wait too long, as I am attempting to set the Fastest Known Time to run the 850 miles of the Arizona Trail in October 🙂