My 27 hours, 42 minutes and 30 seconds in the Arizona desert were some of the most challenging, yet rewarding moments in my life. My mood ranged from sheer elation to fatiguing funk – sometimes just minutes apart – but my journey to that point fully prepared me for any obstacle that presented itself. When the low points started descending upon me, I conjured up the sage advice I received from my fellow ultrarunners, dismissing the doldrums with ease (or at least stuffing them far down into the pain cave). Failure was not an option; I would continue on until no longer possible.
When there’s no where else to run
Despite racking up several marathons and ultras, I didn’t think a 100-miler was in my future. But less than 2 hours after expressing that sentiment to a couple of my ultrarunner friends during a 12-hour race last year I was coveting the JJ buckle another friend had just earned. She raved about the race, saying it was great for first-timers. Because it was held around Halloween (or “Jalloween”), costumes are encouraged. Given costumes were de rigeur for my first marathon, the Marathon du Medoc, this was particularly apt. The fact one could earn a buckle for finishing at least 100K was another plus (severe knee problems had forced my friend to drop to the “wuss out” option, but she still proudly wore her 100K buckle).
Since the 2011 date hadn’t yet been set, the next day I was Googling “2011 full moon schedule” knowing the race would be held on the full moon weekend closest to Halloween. The first option – Oct. 15-16 – wasn’t ideal as I knew the temps could still be quite toasty (I’m not a fan of heat). But I was ecstatic to see the second option – Nov. 12-13 – as it not only might mean cooler weather, the race would start on my birthday. I checked the race website religiously over the next couple of weeks, waiting for the date announcement. Impatient, I emailed the race director. I jumped for joy when he confirmed it would be in November. I must have been one of the first to sign up once registration opened.
I need direction to perfection
I dubbed 2011 “The Year of the Ultra” where I’d be taking on longer distances and more challenging terrain than ever before. Before Javelina I was to run the White River 50 in July, a tough yet stunning course with an elevation gain and loss of 17,400+ feet. I took a stair-step approach to my training, first tackling shorter races on demanding courses. The shorter distances improved my form & technique on technical trails without overwhelming me. Once I built up my confidence I moved up to longer distances.
After completing White River I turned my focus to Javelina. I ran the ET Midnight 51K in Rachel, Nevada for some night running (the race starts at midnight under a full moon), then worked in a couple of back-to-back runs over the next couple of months. Because my longest run to date had been 55 miles during a 12-hour race in May, I wanted to get in at least one run of 100K before Javelina. So on our 11-year wedding anniversary I dragged my dear husband out for a REALLY long run. Unfortunately I went out too fast and faded about 35 miles in. Knowing he’d be called upon to light a fire under my ass at Javelina when my motivation flagged, my darling cajoled me into running another 15 miles after encouraging me to take a break and change my shoes and socks. While it would have been nice to get in the full 100K, at least I got some practice with continuing on when my body was screaming to stop.
My weekly mileage was in the 55-70 mile range, although I had one 80+ week where I ran a marathon on Sunday and a 50K the following Saturday. I typically got in at least one mid-week run of 10-15 miles, and also started incorporating some speedwork toward the end of September. These runs were lower in mileage (4-6), but my goal was to run at a pace where I was pushing myself yet still was somewhat comfortable. My monster week culminated in a 26-mile run on the first half of the White River course that featured 2,500 feet of climbing on singletrack switchbacks, followed by a 12-mile run on a paved trail the next day, and ending with a trail 50K the day after. During my taper I worked in a couple more 10+ mile runs, along with some shorter tempo runs.
Another head aches, another heart breaks
It had been a while since I experienced a true taper, and I began to go bat-shit crazy. I not only was consumed by the weather reports, I obsessed over my lap splits (I developed a spreadsheet with pace splits for 26-, 28- and 30-hour finishes). My wish for cooler weather seemed like it would be granted, although it was moving TOO far in that direction as the forecast called for rain as well. It was clear I’d have to pack far more than what I anticipated.
The overall aches and slight sore throat started the final week of the taper, so I began downing the vitamins, especially the vitamin C (even though I knew I’d just pee it out). I abstained from alcohol, opting for water and chamomile tea. While I had taken up yoga again to try to gain some flexibility, I skipped the class before the race since I figured the extra sleep would better serve me. In fact, any time I felt the sleepies coming on, I laid down for a nap, even if just for 20 minutes. As for race jitters, my biggest concern was knowing I’d experience several low points; I just didn’t know what would cause them. I simply had to have faith I’d be able to work through them and that they would eventually pass.
Time, truth and hearts
Since I wanted to have a full day to chill out in Fountain Hills before the race, we caught a late flight to Phoenix Thursday night, arriving just after 11 p.m. My sister Kim was in town, so she gave us a ride to our hotel. We slept in on Friday, grabbed some breakfast at the hotel restaurant and met Kim at the arts & crafts fair a block from the hotel.
None of the merchandise really appealed to me, until I spied a booth with hand-tooled belt straps. I had purchased a $3 belt at Goodwill in Seattle so that I could wear my Javelina buckle home (ever the optimist!), but I wanted to eventually upgrade to a nicer one. I asked the belt-maker how long he’d be there on Sunday, thinking I could hobble over after the race. Just as he was answering (5 p.m.), I heard behind me, “Are you Betsy?” I turned around to see Kelly and Jo, a poster on RWOL and his wife. (Kelly was running his 2nd 100-mile race, two months after finish the Leadville 100 in just under 26 hours. A fantastic performance in its own right, it’s even more remarkable considering he ran his first 5K just 14 months before!) We chatted excitedly as runners do, until I saw Kim was getting bored and wanted to move on. I hadn’t seen her in over a year, so I bid Kelly and Jo adieu.
Since this was no time to cut calories, I went off on a quest for food. Problem was, most of it was your typical fair food – fatty and fried. Thank goodness I found a Thai place with grilled chicken skewers, which I gobbled down with a large bottle of water. After meandering through for another hour (still nothing caught my eye, save for a shawl I bought for Kim), I was ready for more food. By then we were at the “gourmet” area, where I tucked into some bison meatloaf and mashed potatoes with green chiles and fresh corn.
After lunch we met up with some other running friends at the hotel and headed to the packet pickup at race “jeadquarters” at McDowell Mountain Regional Park. Once there it really hit me: “I’m going to run 100 miles!” I collected my goody bag and bib and my husband got a picture of me at the start line. Several folks had opted to camp out; while it meant not having to deal with parking the next day, there was a good chance they’d have to contend with rain. I was happy with our choice of staying in a warm bed. After a hearty dinner of sushi I snuggled into that bed and was surprised to get a decent night’s sleep.
Because I had set everything out the night before, there wasn’t much to do that morning except eat breakfast and down a few cups of coffee. I was thrilled when I looked outside to see a clear sky; perhaps the forecasted rain would be kept at bay (queue the foreshadowing music). I donned my “costume” – a sheer black skirt and calf sleeves with spiders sewn on, gaiters and hat with a web overlay and a web-print cape with yet more spiders. The air was rather cool, but still quite pleasant. Still, I threw on a Snuggie to stay warm until the race started.
I want to shine on in the hearts of men
As the witching hour approached runners began lining up at the start line. My goal was to take it super slow for the first two laps – 3.5 hours or so – and then try to hold on as best I could. I kissed my darling goodbye and lined up at the back of the pack. It’s SHOWTIME!
I could tell many of the runners around me had the same strategy to take it easy in the beginning as I didn’t feel the frantic rush I often do. I settled into a steady, comfortable pace and walked even the shortest, most gradual hills. But within the first mile I experienced a wardrobe malfunction – my cape had flipped around, causing the spiders to stab the backs of my legs. I had hoped to wear it the entire race, thus making me eligible for the “best costume” award, but my No. 1 priority was to be comfortable. I took the cape off and ditched it at the Coyote Camp aid station at mile 2.
After leaving Coyote Camp the trail got steeper and rockier, but the scenery was stunning. I recalled the mantra of a fellow RWOL forumite for his first 100-mile attempt: “I am the luckiest man in the world right now.” Talk about a positive attitude! While he ended up having to DNF at mile 75, I was impressed with his fortitude and ability to stay optimistic even when things got really rough. Knowing I’d go through similar lows, I kept reminding myself 1) I CHOSE to do this, and 2) I was so fortunate to be in a position to even attempt such an endeavor. And besides, it was my birthday! (Being the attention whore I am, I made sure all the aid station volunteers and anyone else within earshot were aware of this).
Because the race is so well supported – there were three remote aid stations, plus the main one at Javelina Jeadquarters – I opted to carry two handhelds instead of a hydration pack. I also packed my Nathan vest in one of my drop bags, but never needed to use it. I stored several gels, a headlamp and a rain coat in my Jackass Junction bag, and more gels, another rain coat and warm clothing in my main bag. Since I had a tendency to bonk during my long training runs, I ate a gel or some other bit of food every half hour. And even though we had cool temperatures, I carried a baggie of salt tabs in case of an electrolyte imbalance.
The course comprises six 15.4-mile loops with a 9-mile partial loop at the end (101.4 miles total). We switched direction every loop, which meant we would see the frontrunners. About 2 miles out of Jackass Junction (the halfway point of the loop) I spied a shirtless Hal Koerner barreling toward me. He made it look so effortless! (He’d go on to smash the course record, finishing in 13:47). A couple of miles later I saw the women’s frontrunner, Liza Howard, gliding along; she too would break the women’s course record with a time of 15:46.
Meanwhile, I kept to my steady slow pace, knowing it would enable me to finish strong. I sauntered in to Jeadquarters in 3:26, stopping just briefly to kiss my darling, fill my bottles and grab some food. Although the first half of the counterclockwise loop is uphill, it’s a gradual, smooth trail. I ran as much as I could, but still wanted to take it easy since I had several more miles/hours to go. The temperature started to rise a bit, but I was still very comfortable. I made up some time on the downhill section after Jackass Junction, although given the rocks I took more gingerly steps. I grabbed my cape at the last aid station and finished lap 2 in 3:39.
You know you gotta help me out
I was ready for “real” food by then, so I grabbed a sub sandwich and a few pickles. I was still in great spirits, and had no chafing or blisters. But soon after leaving the Coyote Camp station I began to feel some severe bloating in my belly. Had I eaten TOO much? I tried working up some burps, to no avail. As the pressure built I remembered a tip from another RWOL forumite: “Is it a problem or inconvenience? Find a solution for the problem, block out the inconvenience.” While I was certainly uncomfortable, I wasn’t going to let a little bit of gas ruin my race. I not only stopped taking in food as frequently, when I reached Jackass Junction I sat my ass on the john and let ‘er rip. A fart never felt so good! Newly energized (and de-gassed), I tore up the trail down from Jackass Junction. As friends came toward me and asked how I was doing, I gleefully replied, “I farted!” However, I refrained from sharing that information with Hal, who passed me THREE TIMES on that one loop alone.
While our pacers could join us starting on our fourth loop, I thought I’d wait until completing that loop before asking my darling to come along. But as I was nearing the end of my third loop I had a change of heart; I wanted him to see at least some of the trail in daylight, plus it would be a nice birthday present to myself. Even though he wasn’t quite ready to hit the trail when I arrived, he teared up to hear I wanted his company. Since we’d hit nightfall during this loop, I tied a long-sleeved shirt around my waist and put on my headlamp. We each grabbed a slice of pizza and headed out.
I was just over 45 miles in to the race, but still felt pretty strong. My walk breaks became more frequent, but my darling was impressed with my stamina. He’d pause briefly to grab a gel or adjust something, only to see me several yards up the trail. I was on track for a 26.5-hour finish, so I continued to surge on. A little over an hour in to that loop it got dark enough for the headlamp, but the temperature was still perfect. By the time we neared Coyote Camp I was thankful my darling was with me as the batteries on my headlamp began to die and I had neglected to grab some from my Jackass Junction drop bag. Ever the Johnny-on-the-spot, he switched out the batteries while I grazed and made a pit stop.
The end of this loop would be a critical one: not only would it be the longest I’ve ever run (100K), I also had the option to stop. Going in to the race I was concerned it would be a huge temptation as I imagined I’d see runners lounging in deck chairs enjoying frosty beverages. But I tuned out everyone else and concentrated on grabbing what I needed from my drop bag. Even though people caution you to “beware the chair,” I allowed myself a very short break as I gobbled down a burger before heading out on the 5th loop.
You’re gonna bring yourself down
This is where my race got tough. Just after passing through Coyote Camp I began to feel droplets of rain. I still wasn’t cold, so I kept my shirt tied around my waist. But then the droplets turned into a steady shower, so I threw it on. I also started to feel a hot spot on one of my toes, and I knew I’d have to take care of it at Jackass Junction. The hot spot got more intense, so when we saw the Tonto Tavern aid station had been set up (it was for the last partial loop), I asked if they had anything to treat blisters. Alas, it was a water & food only stop, although the volunteer did offer me a snort of tequila. (I declined).
With just over three miles to go before hitting Jackass Junction, I tried to ignore the hot spot as much as possible. By now the rain was really coming down, so I had something else to grouse about. Soon the lights of Jackass Junction came into view, which meant a few moments of reprieve. I plopped myself down in a chair by a heater and pulled off my shoe and sock.
Holy moley – what a doozy! I had about a dime-sized blister on the side of my second toe. I gave everyone the heebie-jeebies as I set about cleaning it up. While the aid station had bandages and duct tape, I had to use the pin on my bib to pop it. (My darling sterilized first it in the heater). I sat stoically as the pain seared through my toe. We slathered on some Neosporin and covered it with the bandages and duct tape; it would have to do until I could get my foot properly cared for at Jeadquarters.
The rain and cold had started to take its toll, as several runners huddled around another heater waiting to be taken back to Jeadquarters. Unfortunately one of them was a friend of ours; she doesn’t do well at night and the rain took any fight she had left. She still would leave with a 100K buckle, but I know she was disappointed. After downing a hot cup of chicken broth I threw on my rain coat and trotted down the trail.
While I expected there’d be rain – they’d been predicting a storm all week – the intensity shocked me. This was Arizona! It’s supposed to be sunny and hot. The downpour lasted a couple of hours, mucking up the trail and dampening my spirits. While I was relatively comfortable on top, the rain plastered my skirt to my legs, causing them to get really cold. All I could think about were the dry warm clothes waiting for me at Jeadquarters.
But a couple miles out of the main aid station the rain thankfully subsided and my skirt dried out. I was still soaked through up top, but I quickly changed out of my wet shirt and jacket and threw on two long-sleeved shirts and another jacket while the medic tended to my feet. In addition to replacing the duct tape on my blister with a more appropriate bandage, he also re-taped the balls of my feet, first spraying them with Tuf Skin so the tape wouldn’t slide off. I then changed into a pair of Injinji toe socks and my larger Cascadias and prayed these would solve my feet issues for the remainder of the race.
Don’t you put me on the backburner
Although I had just one more long loop to run, I knew it’d be a slog. The dry clothes and shoes certainly helped, but I was beginning to get pretty punchy. The downpour started up again, so I threw on a large garbage bag at the next aid station. I also allowed myself a quick sit, savoring a cup of hot chocolate with my peppermint Gu. The carnage continued, as several more runners were huddling around the heater, contemplating pulling out.
While I wouldn’t say I felt good, stopping wasn’t even a consideration. My dreams of a 26 1/2 hour finish were dashed, but I felt I could still reach my goal of finishing between 27 and 28 hours. Other than the rain, my only other issue was having to stop several times for bio-breaks. By now I was hitting the port-o-potty at every aid station, plus I had to make another pit stop among the cactus (my dutiful husband helped cover up the present I left in the desert. He must love me very much). Given how much I had to pee, I wondered if I was drinking TOO much. But I kept checking my fingers for bloating and everything seemed okay. However, as we were nearing the end of the 6th loop I took off my handhelds to see a couple of sausages staring back. While the bloat hadn’t yet reached my fingers, it was quite obvious in my hands. I downed a salt tab and began drinking Gatorade exclusively.
I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier
Practically everyone I’ve talked to who’s run a 100-miler says sunrise is one of their favorite moments of the race. Not only can you ditch the headlamp, the dawn brightens your mood and rids you of your negative thoughts. It certainly energized me, especially since the rain had finally stopped. Once we passed the Tonto Tavern aid station we saw several runners with glowstick necklaces signaling they were on their last loop. I yelled out encouragement to each of them, knowing I’d soon be there.
I had a couple more obstacles to overcome first, however.
About a mile out from Coyote Camp my darling started receiving texts from our friends asking for an ETA (two of them had already finished, but they planned on coming back to Jeadquarters to see me finish). Another was a good friend of ours, Wes, who had come down from Flagstaff to videotape. My darling stopped to reply, but when he tried to catch up to me he rolled his ankle in the rocky section. While it looked like a bad one, he told me to continue on; he just needed a few moments to recover.
By the time I hit the CC aid station he was no longer in sight. I didn’t want to continue on without seeing how he was doing, so I borrowed a phone from a volunteer to call him. He hobbled in just as I reached him; even though he reiterated I should continue on, I decided to walk with him the 2 miles back to Jeadquarters.
Just out of Coyote Camp the trail became extremely mucky with shoe-sucking mud. It caked onto the bottoms of our shoes, adding what seemed like 10 pounds to each foot. The stuff was tough to scrape off, and we began to kick every stump, log and rock we saw to try to rid ourselves of it.
Wes was waiting for us as we rounded the final corner into Jeadquarters. He was getting ready to run his first marathon in a couple of weeks, so he asked if I wanted him to pace me the final 9 miles (my darling was out due to his ankle). However, I decided I wanted to go solo, losing myself in the special playlist I created to push me in the last couple of hours. I filled my bottle, gulped down another salt tab, snapped the glowstick around my neck and plugged in my ear buds for what I figured would be the last 2 1/2-3 hours of the race.
I wanna stand up, I wanna let go
While all the songs on my playlist were uplifting and motivating, one was a standout: “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers. I originally heard it on a video of Joan Benoit Samuelson winning the first women’s marathon at the 1984 Olympics. It’s carried me through several races, and in the months leading up to Javelina I pictured myself crossing the finish line with it pulsing through my ears.
Spurred on by the music I picked up my pace considerably as I headed down the trail (both Garmins had died, so I had no idea of my actual pace). When I reached the mucky section I tried as best I could to maneuver around it. I also warned people coming toward me to do the same. As I passed the Coyote Camp aid station I yelled out, “No offense, but I’m so glad I won’t be seeing you again!” The volunteers cheered me on as I skedaddled along.
While I was still taking walk breaks, especially along the rocky section, I was making great time. As I would come up on other runners many of them would do a doubletake as they hadn’t expected anyone to be that strong at that point in the race. But something takes over me as I near the end: I’m a “horse can smell the barn” kinda gal.
Once I made the turn at the Tonto Tavern aid station I made a quick pitstop in the bushes, but fortunately no one passed me. I picked up my pace even more as the trail became a smooth, gradual downhill. Although I didn’t keep track, I must have passed at least 15 other runners by then.
All these things that I’ve done
Although I had played The Killers’ song twice already, with just over a half mile to the finish I stopped to queue it up again. One of the course marshals saw me stop and yelled, “Keep going! You’re almost there!” I yelled back I was putting on my power song, and sure enough, as the initial piano key strokes started playing I leapt into a sprint.
The rest was a bit of a blur; I remember seeing Wes at the corner again, sprinting himself so he could get me at the finish line. Spectators lined the trail cheering me on. When I saw my darling I threw my hands up and burst into tears. The race director handed me my buckle as I grabbed my darling for a big hug and a kiss. My friends surrounded me with huge smiles on their faces, congratulating me. I plopped down in a chair and relished the moment.
While my 27:42:30 finish put me in 116th place out of 174 entrants, my 2:14:53 last lap placed me 23rd overall!
Over and out, last call for sin
While everyone’s lost, the battle is won
With all these things that I’ve done
All these things that I’ve done
(Time, truth and hearts)
If you can hold on
If you can hold on
Postscript: It’s now a little over two weeks later and I’m finding recovery from a 100-miler takes a LONG time. I’ve only run about 28 miles since, and it wasn’t pretty. But I’m hoping I’ll be able to ease back in soon. After all, I’m already signed up for my next 100-miler: Rocky Raccon in February!