The cut off times for the Ultra Fiord races mystified the USA elite runners: 34 hours for the 100K, 44 hours for the 100 mile. A day after my airport trouble, the elite runners were all circled around a table at the restaurant La Mesquita Grande in Punta Arenas eating salads and arugula covered pizza as we mulled over the why the cut offs were so long. The runners were quite the eclectic group: Nikki Kimball the fiery red haired mostly undefeated talent from the US who would be a threat to both the women's and men's field, Bronco Billy one of the most consistently badass 100 mile runners in the US who has dominated in the sport for 15 years, and Krissy Moehl, another Washington native like me now living in Colorado, known for her talent on tough mountain courses (she was in the 100k distance) as well as other sponsored runners: Matt from the UK, Enzo from Chile, Harry the gentleman from Brazil of RunningNews fame, all of whom had been flown in to race or cover the event as media.
We were all eating around one large picnic table, sharing pizza and travel stories. You could viscerally feel the excitement about the challenge ahead. More athletes were arriving in the coming days including Kerrie Bruxvoort (100mi), Britt Dick (100k), Felipe Medina (30k winner), Xavier Thevenard (70k winner), Manu Vilaseca (70k winner), Willie McBride (100k), and more.
I heard that Stjepan wanted to be generous with the time cut off so that many people, not just front of the pack runners, could finish one athlete said. Hmmmm, that's considerate, but something was off. That's how I set my cut offs for the Tahoe 200 mile Endurance Run. Makes sense, but still, Hardrock 100 has a 48 hour cutoff and is one of the most difficult endurance runs I've ever seen. Although the thought crossed my mind, and I'm sure others that the reason for the long cut offs may be the difficulty of the course. Nonetheless, it seemed incredibly unlikely the race would take any of us more than 32 hrs, after all, we were considered to be some of the toughest, if not best 100 mile/ultra runners in the world.
|Nikki enjoys not one, but two salads race week|
|The Man in Blue|
You could say I have this thing for race directors. I've dated three RDs. Being a RD takes lots of time and energy, its hard work and the lifestyle demands a lot from our loved ones. We can often be too busy to make a relationship work, yet RDs understand each other and that can be a very attractive trait. As a race director blazing new territory with some unique races, I have a lot of respect for other race directors who are doing similar things. I had the feeling that Stjepan was one of those race directors. A visionary and who wanted to create an event that was uniquely challenging and beautiful. His vision reminded me of my vision for the first 200 mile race in the USA, the Tahoe 200. He had the foresight to make a point to point event in some of the most remote and wild lands around and to be able to bring together a field of runners from all over the world, no small feat. I was instantly smitten with that ambition and smile.
|Pre race dinner, it was great to meet so many talented runners, among them Felipe Medina who ran the 30k. I had a feeling he would win. He did. Apparently the Jeff Browning/Felipe Medina sandwich luck rubbed off on me ;)|
|Aid stations, mileages/kms|
|I used the Ultimate Direction PB Vest, Vfuel Endurance gels, Petzl Nao, Smith glasses, plus some of the mandatory gear.|
A bus took us an hour north to the start of the race: a big field with a dirt road and a start line arch. Excitement and fear made the air heavy. Rain began to fall. There was no turning back. This.was.happening. I lined up next to Nikki and Kerrie. I planned to keep them within sight or close for the first half of the race. I'd let them get a bit ahead, but not too far. Veronica Bravo, a talented runner from Chile lined up a bit ahead of us. And then we were off. Veronica took off and Nikki, Kerrie, and I settled into an easy but strong pace.
The first 25k was through cow fields. The ground was very uneven and I was careful to place my feet so that I protected my ankle from sprains, knowing that was a weakness for me. As I approached the aid at 25k, a 4x4 followed me in prompting me to pickup my pace. I entered the aid station and Kerrie and Nikki (Team N&K, as I will call them from here on out) were there, just leaving. Perfecto. I grabbed some gatorade and a few mouthfuls of cup of noodles and left quickly so as to stay as close to Team N&K as possible. I could no longer see them, but I knew they were close. 2:18 had passed in 15.5 miles. We were on a good pace for 108 miles, but I knew that the hard 70k section we were warned about (super technical with a massive 4,500 ft climb) would slow the pace considerably, I just didn't realize by how much.
The trail began to head uphill more weaving in and out of stout, gnarled, and thick trees and I imagined that the views would be nice during the day. It seemed like we were traversing cliffs but the night was endlessly dark and I felt as though I might be on another planet. We immediately began going through very thick brush that towered above my head and cut through my compression socks and capris. Branches grabbed at my bare arms. The branches had no give, hardened as they were to the harsh climate. The "trail" seemed as though it had just been cut from the hills, it was rough, narrow, and at times completely nonexistent. It would slope uphill so strongly at times I would have to grab onto roots and trees to climb. I was hoping this counted as the technical 70k part of the race. Shit. It didn't.
I came to an aid station during this section and was dismayed to see that they only had apples, bananas and cereal bars. Oh well. Doing an ultra is about making do with whatever comes your way, whether it be internal or external. I grabbed 2 half bananas and a cereal bar, filled my Ultimate Direction soft flask put it in my Ultimate Direction PB Vest with more gatorade and left quickly. The rain was really coming down and my t-shirt just wouldn't cut it anymore. I put on my zip up technical shirt and waterproof gloves. Sadly they weren't really waterproof.
More trails through the dark night and then we were on a road for a long while. I was (for once) thankful to have road. The uneven trail and sharp but short climbs were hard to get into a running rhythm. I cruised on the road. I was having fun! The road began climbing uphill and I was flying high. Nothing could stop me. I was feeling great and had a feeling I would catch some of the ladies on this section. I ran most the road only hiking very briefly on a few sections. As I came around a corner I saw three runners headlamps ahead. They were walking a hill. Excitement began to build as I realized one of the runners was Veronica Bravo. Oh shit. Hoping she was ok, I caught up and asked, everything ok? She was with two other runners, men, and with her limited English and my limited Spanish we said little but she nodded yes. Or I think she did. I jogged past and up the hill. One down, two more ladies to go....
I figured Team N & K wasn't too much farther ahead. I was motivated and excited. Another aid station, again very limited in food choices, and I was on my way ready to catch some runners! We immediately turned onto trail and began another big climb. This section went on a long time and I caught another runner, Singapore, a tall man who I would go back in forth with for the rest of the race. We came into the first drop bag spot together, around mile 40, in about 7.5 hours. It would be light in half an hour. I saw race director Stjepan here and he pointed me the way out of the aid station.
"What place am I?" I asked.
"8th," He said, checking.
"Only 7 more to pass," I said, winking.
He laughed. I thanked him for the fun course, a courtesy I would not reciprocate at the next drop bag location at 90k (mile ~55), Hosteria Balmaceda. By the time I arrived there, I was frustrated, beaten down, freezing, and angry.
|Matias Bull going through some mud. Not sure why he is smiling. Matias, care to comment on that?!|
Let me slow down a second to describe the mud. Imagine a narrow trail that climbs up and down like child's rollercoaster, it's raining and there's water everywhere. Your feet have been wet for almost 10 hours. Each step requires you to navigate mud that in many cases goes up to mid-thigh and requires that you use any trees or rocks nearby to pull yourself out. You are glad your shoes are securely tied on as the mud could very easily eat one of them (happened to one runner), forever lost in the deep mud. Those 15 miles were unforgivingly cold, muddy, and technical. Partway through we came to an "aid station". We were handed 2 candy bars and instructed to dip a styrofoam cup into a open water dispenser for gatorade. There was no water. I wished I could have 4 of those candy bars, toughen up buttercup. Candy never tasted so good, but I was beginning to feel deficient, I needed hot food. We crossed another deep stream and back into the mud. I'm sorry to all those that heard my cursing.
At this point the absurdity of the route and another thigh deep mud crossing had me laughing hysterically. I was like a crazy woman. The French man behind me smiled at my insanity but when I didn't stop laughing he joined in and for a moment everything was ok. After too many hours, to the point where I didn't care what my watch said, I finally arrived at Hosteria Balmaceda. Max, an intern for the race was there. He helped me get soup and my drop bag. Nikki just left someone said. I felt better hearing this as I thought I'd lost a lot of time on the last section, but apparently we all did.
I changed my pants, shirt, everything as fast as I could in the bathroom. Shit. I didn't have any socks in my drop bag! I knew if I put on my mud soiled compression socks I would get blisters. Max looked concerned when I told him. A minute later he handed me the socks off his feet. I didn't know what to say, but I knew I needed them so I put them on- heaven- downed two cups of soup, grabbed my poles and was off to chase down Nikki. Max, I cannot thank you enough.
|Hotel Balmaceda, using Max's socks, changing ALL my clothes. Max you rock. Seriously.|
For this entire climb I had been trading back and forth with a man who spoke only Spanish and who was also wearing five finger shoes. Yes. Five fucking finger shoes. Damn, now that's crazy. We summited the first peak, hitting some snow and wind then began heading into a valley. It was freezing cold and I stopped to put on my jacket. About a half mile down we came to a checkpoint and started up a glacier. Matias Bull, from TrailChile who was running the 70k caught up with me and FiveFingers. He led us up the climb, part of which we had to traverse by ropes. Past the ropes we kicked foot prints in the snow climbing steeply and I worried about FiveFingers who was falling back.
The wind was blowing hard near the second summit and I was reminded of what trail running was like on Colorado's Hardrock 100 course. This was by far tougher and more dangerous, I thought. Looking over the edge at the top we still seemed so far from Puerto Natales and the finish. We were in the middle of the towering mountains. My heart sunk as I realized it was getting dark and I wanted to be down before I needed my headlamp. Matias took off. I followed him down past a crevasse and I was thankful to be ignorant of the dangers of the mountain. I'm no mountaineer and in this case it played to my favor. I was happily oblivious to any danger. Go, go, go!!
|Manu Vilaseca running up the pass en route to winning the women's 70k|
We followed a river down the valley a ways, then returned back up still unable to find markers, and then back down again. We were standing in the cold with water up to our ankles, defeated. Where would we go? Let's climb that peak over there and see what we can see. So we went up, up, up. Nothing. We slid down it another way and for the 10th (or was it the 100th time?) I fell hard on a steep muddy embankment slamming my head into the hill behind me. I sat down. Matias sat next to me. Maybe we should wait here for help he said. No. I'll freeze I responded. Let's go back to the last marker we saw again. We reluctantly set back again. I felt my race, the competition, my dream slipping away from me. It was survival now. I was devastated.
FiveFingers, Matias and I found another man during that time who was also lost. While standing in the snow deciding what to do, I saw lights up the hill. We ran toward them hoping to find the route. despite our yelling for help and flashing lights at the runners, the group continued on without us and we were luckily able to follow. Then we saw the markers! Oh sweet markers! Back on course. I took off, Matias kept up. In a half a mile we came to a checkpoint. Do you have food? I asked the aid station. I was starving. No, you can get water from the creek. Damn it!
I was on fire, angry at myself for being lost for so long and disappointed to have no food. Matias, I have to GO, I said. I ran the next 7 miles fueled by a desire for hot food and to be out of the woods. I did not see Matias again, and I caught and dropped about 10 runners. I was a woman on a mission to be finished with this race. I got to another checkpoint with just a bag of trail mix on the ground and again instructions to get water from the stream if we needed it. Ugh. No. I had been hoping for more food, a real aid station. I grabbed a handful of peanuts and raisins and felt my spirits sink. There was still another 7 miles to our drop bags at mile 81.
It seems like I should have arrived at mile 81 aid station a while ago, like half a day ago to be honest. I'd bonked, weaved like a drunk for miles, adding precious kilometers to the already 14km long section. I had to keep sitting with head on hands dizzy with hunger and thirst, only to quickly force myself into a shuffle the last 7 miles on a painfully long 15 mile segment that followed on the heels of being lost for 2 hours. I was counting my steps hoping to estimate how far I'd travelled. It was impossible to know however as my Garmin had died while I was lost on the mountain and my mind was gone, gone to a dark place.
My usual prodigious ability to estimate distance had disappeared like the reflective course markings had just 8 miles ago in the thick fog that rolled in with nightfall after summiting and descending the highest peak on the course. My mind was on a steady decline with each additional mud patch and steep (we call these hills "Chinscrapers" in Washington State) stretch of trail that lay before me like a shimmering road in the desert. A desert that stretches as far as the eye can see-- only my desert here was made of water, mud, roots, and endless kilometers that had been cut into a trail so recently that it felt like we were traveling off trail. These kilometers that had no care that they should be just 6/10 of a mile. No, these kilometers were independent mother fuckers making a new name for themselves, the hipsters of the trail world. For all I could tell they might be 1.6 miles each or 2.6 miles, instead of the usual 0.6 miles.
As my mind tried to accept that a kilometer was not a kilometer but rather a distance quite independent of logic and measurement, another long stretch of shoe eating, thigh sucking mud came into view and spit me out into a river cold enough that I wondered if perhaps it was snow and I was hallucinating. My poles dug into the steep bank on the other side of the river in a n effort to propel myself up another Chinscraper and my Altra Lone Peak 2.0's gripped the clay-like mud for a moment before sinking mid calf into the cloudy soup. At that moment I broke down and cried. I sobbed for my poor broken body, for my lungs full of phlegm, for my race that I was sure was gone. And I kept trucking on. There was simply no other choice.
A light slowly began illuminating my back as another runner began to catch up with my seemingly drunken shuffle toward the next checkpoint. It was Singapore. His tall and lanky form settled in behind me and I moved over to let him pass. How far do you think we've gone? We had 12km to go from the last checkpoint and i thought we must have gone about 10k already, I'd been counting steps afterall. Maybe 5km he said. I felt like crying, and after he passed and was out of range, I did. I could hardly believe my estimate could be off by so much. There was nothing to do but continue.
Honestly I was worried. Worried that I could not make it another 7km. I was having some trouble breathing because my chest was congested and I couldn't seem to cough the congestion out leaving me with the ability to breathe only as deep as mid-chest, wheezing my way toward the aid station. Knowing that I was farther than expected I decided to fill my bottle with river water for the 3rd time that stretch. I choked down a gel and emptied half the bottle. I couldn't let myself get any more dehydrated. the last real aid station had been at mile 55, a good 22 miles ago that included a 4,500 foot climb, glacier traversing, and being lost for 2 hrs to boot. I needed to get to the next checkpoint!
|That's about right|
It was in that 7km that I accepted this experience. Acceptance is a funny thing because it didn't make my journey any easier or prettier nor did it clean up my language as I cursed at each mud pit and stream crossing, but it gave me the confidence that I would complete this beast. I knew I had to keep marching on for my own sanity. Even though the journey was stripping me of my usual reality and all the comforts of daily life, it was giving me back my life. A life that could only thrive on the edge of what is possible, because without these intense adventures, I am nothing. Without them I feel dead and it's a death that was slowly eating at me through my two DNFs this year. Was I tough enough?
These pivotal experiences that define ultra adventuring are what I love about the sport. This trail of endless kilometers was the gritty moment of truth, a moment that separated the mere survivors from the conquerors. I was going to be a conqueror, whatever that looked like. Each thigh-high-mud-sucking step I used as mortar to place bricks, one on top of another, until I created a castle. It would be a home fit for a conqueror.
Lights in the distance meant that I was close to the aid station. It still looked so far away! The trail weaved me into the brush, out of the brush and finally along a stream as though a farm wife was sewing a patchwork quilt. I paused unsure where the course went. Glancing all around me I spotted something large and smooth, the size of a big dog running toward me. I thought I must be out of my mind, no big surprise since I'd been on the trail now for two nights and a day. This was no hallucination however and as it got dangerously close, I realized with alarm that it was a puma.
I quickly waved my poles at the big cat yelling Go AWAY! Hey! Go! I stood tall and confident shifting my body quickly so that I was facing it head on. It swerved mid dash away from me and about 25 feet away to a berm where its eyes glowed large as teacups, or so it seemed. I kept yelling "Go away," but the cat didn't seem at all disturbed by my yelling. It turned its head and suddenly even in the beam of my light, it was gone. Then back again as its eyes were again illuminated by the turn of its head in my headlamp. Then it ran at me again.
|A puma in Torres del Paine National Park, photo courtesy Richard Zahren|
I began yelling at the approaching runners. As they arrived the cat lurked on the berm it's eyes glowing, occasionally turning its head to disappear from the beam of light of my headlamp. The two men quickly found the route as it crossed a river. Glancing behind me I followed the men toward the aid station. A quick as it happened, the ordeal was over. Wtf...
Walking into the aid station was like coming home from a car accident. I was equally glad to have real sustenance as I was to be alive and walking still after a full night of running, a day and almost another full night. It was 4:15 in the morning and it would be light in 4 hours. Drop bag? Yes. How are you? Damn good now. I'm in a daze. I'm alive. ALIVE. As I entered the warm building, so thankful to be here, I saw Nikki and Kerrie. I was confused and impressed. In the state I was in I thought they had finished and were hanging out, maybe to help, maybe to cheer me to the finish! I smiled and asked them how the race went. They did not answer but seemed to ignore me. I didn't read too much into it, partly because I couldn't wait to change my clothes and get hot food and partly because I am used to the attitudes you sometimes see in ultras between competitors. But I was confused.
I changed and grabbed a bowl of pasta. Nikki and Kerrie were gone. It was then I was told they were sleeping and had decided to drop from the race. What?! I was shocked. There was a marathon left, all on dirt roads. Someone said they were dropping because they thought the race was too dangerous. While I was grabbing my gear to head out, I talked to Nikki. She was very angry and upset. She thought there were runners dying out on the mountain, or lost. I commiserated with her, that had been an outrageously tough section. I needed to finish I told her, feeling some pressure to agree with her assessment. I may have chosen the most difficult race I could have to get my finish but goddamnit I was going to finish no matter what. As I was leaving I glanced back a the aid station and caught another puma in my headlamp. Wow. I felt no fear, I was beyond that. I walked away into the dark alone.
|The lovely and fast Veronica Rojas and me at mile 81 aid. She ran the 70k.|
More gut wrenching in the bushes. My stomach was done. I was at the same time gut wrenching and also so tired I fell asleep running. I curled up on the side of the road. I needed to rest. Just 1 minute. Maybe 5. But I didn't have an alarm and I was afraid I would not wake up, so I forced myself onward. Being unable to stay awake was the most painful experience of the race. I could see lights flashing, rainbows and all around me, runners, none of which were real. The hallucinations were too much. I ran on, not wanting to be passed by anyone. I'd come this far, I wanted to keep my position! To stay awake I would slap myself and running helped, but ultimately I just had to keep going and weather this new storm.
During the final 4 miles I caught the Angel Karina again. I was so happy to see her and finally I felt awake! It suddenly donned on me I was going to finish this damn race, and I was going to win it! The moment was rich with satisfaction and the trials and tribulations for the previous 100+ miles no longer mattered. My journey was about to be done and it felt so fucking amazing! I finished in just over 37 hours, taking 1st woman and 5th overall in the toughest, longest, and most dangerous race I have ever done.
|Finishing! See that emotion! That is so real.|
|The top 6 finishers of the 108 mi/173k race!|
|Celebrating the same night after finishing-- we'd been up far too long. Me, Scott Nickerson, Jeff Browning,Felipe Andres Contreras Medina (I think soon to be the best 100 mile runner in the world), Enzo Ferrari, Matias Bull, Solo JC, Alvaro De La Barra, Karina Palomino,Paola Castelvecchio, Veronica Bravo Vergara,Mauricio Quintanilla and Carolina Izurieta Lioi at Base Camp. #UltraParty|
For more daily fitness ideas, inspiration, and humor, check out my Facebook Page
Yoga based core and strength exercises on my YouTube Channel
A little crazy on Instagram
Short, sweet and sassy on Twitter
Entertaining 5 million at a time on Google+