If suffering is part of training, I did plenty of training at Leona Divide 50.
I probably ran too fast the first miles keeping up with my buddy Eric, who always takes off like a banshee at the start of every ultra, and that might have hurt me later on in the race. At Western States, the Robinson Curse says that the top 10 runners into Robison Flats (mile 30) are seldom the top 10 runners at the stadium (finish line). At one point during the first few miles someone said that we were doing sub-8 minute miles going uphill; that’s just not smart ultra-running.
By mile 13, I was feeling a small twinge on my left knee that was not letting me run with even cadence. Still, I was running strong.
Eric and I arrived to the third aid station at mile 16 within a few seconds apart. I picked up a knee strap from my drop bag. Eric replaced his black shirt with a lighter color shirt because of the heat and off we went. The 3rd and 8th aid stations at miles 16 and 42, respectively, are at the same location because of the out and back nature of the course. These were the only aid stations where would see Eric’s wife, Denise, who was crewing for Eric (but somehow always finds time to take care of me as well).
I decided to listen to some tunes (a first for me in any ultra) to test if I may want to do the same at Western States. Perhaps the music gave my legs a nice pep since I left Eric behind on the first hill after the third aid station. I was running well until my left knee suddenly gave out on me on a downhill. I literally could not take a step without feeling as if my left knee was about to collapse. I walked for a few yards thinking that I would probably have to drop from the race at the next aid station. But after adjusting my knee strap and running tentatively for a mile, the problem somehow fixed itself, and I was able to continue.
It was a hot day, and I was no longer feeling well. My legs were tired (maybe from last week’s 50 miler), I had some nausea, and the relentless hills were beginning to take a toll on me. I arrived at the fourth aid-station, which was also the turn-around for the 50km race, and thought of dropping down to the 50km race but that would have been like quitting and quitting races can become a habit so I put the thought out of my mind. I remember reading the story from Brian Morrison who arrived first to the stadium at Western States 2007 about how often he thought of quitting during the entire race. If a front runner thinks about quitting yet manages to arrive first to the finish, then it’s just a matter of willpower. The body is constantly seeking to quit, and the mind knows that quitting is the smarter thing to do (after all, you are not being chased by a tiger). Willpower must overtake both mind and body. My strongest motivation to not quit is the bad example that my quitting would give to my son.
After running uphill for miles and miles, I finally arrived to an aid station that had beautiful, cheerful girls in tight shorts and tutus. They would run to greet runners and would take our water bottles so these would be refilled by the time we officially arrived to the aid station table. I almost fell down looking at one of the girls instead of the trail.
The cheerfulness of the girls was not able to overcome my demoralized state when I learned that I was only at mile 23. My God, I was not even done with ½ the race. I still had a full marathon to go, and I had absolutely no idea how I was going to be able to do it. I left the aid station demoralized by the task ahead of me, not knowing how long it would be or how many runners would pass me before I saw the tutu girls again at mile 35 on my way back.
Because the course didn’t quite cover exactly the same path out and back, the turn-around for the race was at mile 29. I barely avoided a collision with the front runners as they passed me on their return at about my mile 25 which would be their mile 33. I removed my headphones so I could listen for more runners and avoid problems in the narrow single track trail carved at the edge of the mountain.
The last 2 ½ miles prior to the turn-around was a fire road with a 1,000 foot drop. I barely remember what was going on with me by then. I was not able to run well. I was not thinking straight. I was tired. I had nausea. I was dizzy. I was hot. The altitude was only 5,000 feet, but it felt as if I were running at 10,000 feet. My buddy Eric caught up with me at the turn-around, and I simply followed him on the way back so I didn’t have to think. Neither of us must have looked well as a woman runner just starting her 2 ½ mile descent to the turn-around told us that we looked as if we were on a death march. Still, we were five miles ahead of her, and my buddy felt like giving her a piece of his mind but was too much of a gentlemen to do so.
Always a few steps behind Eric in my auto-stupid mode, we arrived to the aid station with the tutu girls where two cute ones just a few yards before it were slapping the butts of the runners as they would run by (can’t complain with that). I asked one of the tutu girls at the aid station to scratch my back, “I’m a runner,” she says, “it’s the salt that is making you itch.” She proceeds not only to scratch me but to hug me. “I must stink by now,” I said. She said, “that doesn’t matter, I’m also a runner.” This was a peace and love aid station from the 60’s, only the pot was missing.
I had not peed since mile 16 so I forced myself to pee just a few yards after the aid station to see if my problem was dehydration. OMG, my urine was dark orange in color and scant. I was severely dehydrated.
I drink two bottles of water and take two more salt tables (I always take one Succeed salt tablet with every 20 oz of water) before the next aid station three miles ahead. Still, my nausea persists – I’m constantly at the verge of throwing up. I even have stitches on my side - a first ever for me on an ultra. I continue to follow Eric who is doing a great job pacing us, but my legs are now beginning to cramp. I don’t understand what’s going on with me. I have maintained my salt intake, the usual cause of cramping.
Eric pushes it hard downhill to mile 42, probably bolstered by the prospects of seeing his wife there. I keep following him until we finally arrive to the aid station. I must have not looked well, as Denise is trying to take care of me instead of Eric. The aid station volunteers were wonderful. They put ice on my neck and refilled my bottles with ice-cold water. I changed my socks while Denise would bring me Gatorade and ice water. As an excellent crew, she knew she had to push us out of the aid-station and so she did.
We walked much of the 1,000 foot climb from that aid station. My nausea persisted, and I had to force myself to swallow a GU every so often though I was at the verge of puking. The walking respite, however, helped me as I was much stronger by the time we reached the top of the mountain. With four miles to go and all downhill, I was in much better shape, and now it was me pushing Eric to the finish. We passed a number of runners on their death marches during the last 4 miles and we finished quite strong in 9 hours and 40 minutes. That was about ½ hour faster than my 2007 finish.
I tested my blood when I got back at the hotel and discovered that the culprit of my troubles was severe dehydration. I was probably down a couple of liters of water, the result of the heat without proper heat training. My glucose was high but the reason for this was also dehydration. I simply didn’t have enough plasma to dilute it. This is why I was having such a difficult time swallowing GU’s. My body’s glucose level was already high enough, and it didn’t want any more. My sodium was low (hence the cramping), but this was also a byproduct of not taking enough water (as I would have taken more salt with every additional bottle of water). I knew this during the race, but didn’t want to take too much water just in case I was wrong. Overyhydration is much more dangerous that underhydration, particularly when the overhydration is from lack of sodium. But without a scale to measure one's weight (as they have at Western States) it’s not always possible to make the right call just on the symptoms, which are often similar. I erred on the side of safety just in case I was wrong and that’s ok, after all, it was just another training run.