A Journey of Discovery in the Wild

Month: July 2016

A Word about Black Horse, With Affidavit

When I registered for the BFC, I decided to document my journey to becoming an ultramarathon runner. A blog seemed like a good option, since I could share it with friends if I chose, but I also didn’t want something public or searchable. This was really an exercise in writing as reflection, for myself, and not for public consumption. WordPress offered that privacy, so I decided to start my first blog.

I had started thinking of myself as the dark horse in the race because, as I mentioned in an earlier post, while I’m not the fastest or strongest runner on the course, I do have some mental toughness and determination, grit you might say, that propels me. As an equestrian, I always liked the phrase “dark horse in the race.” It was fitting for me and my horse, Whisper, when we competed. He was a $198 horse that the vet suggested was better fit for dog food, and I was a kid with very limited resources and self-taught horse girl. I trained us both for competition. We still managed to be county champs almost every year and smoked our competition across disciplines. We simply wanted it more than anyone else. I’ve carried that drive into my running. I’ve been humbled by the running world, but I feel confident that I can improve and that I can surprise people by showing them what I’m made of.

There I was, then, setting up my first blog, giving it a title that captured this spirit. Proud of my first entry and the aesthetic, I showed it to a friend, who said, “BFC Black Horse. Cool!” In that moment, I realized that instead of BFC Dark Horse, I had registered both the blog and my new gmail address as Black Horse. I felt like an idiot for my mistake, but it did have kind of a nice ring to it, so the name stuck.

The name is a tribute to my trusty steed. I’ve known hundreds of horses in my life, but none have had the heart that Whisper did. He and I were the scrappy underdogs who proved that hard work and a fierce spirit can outpace pedigree and privilege. Sometimes, when I run the trails, I think of our wild rides through the forest together, and I channel his inner fire. I also sometimes wonder what Wispy would think of me using my own legs to carry myself through the woods instead of using them to hold onto him. He would probably think I’m too damn slow for him and just tell me to hop up and hang on.

Affidavit: There’s one more part to the story, though. I had another palm-to-forehead moment recently when I was thinking about the ultra runner Micah True, and realized that Black Horse would most certainly strike other runners as a total rip-off of True’s adopted identity as Caballo Blanco (White Horse.) For the record, the connection didn’t occur to me until long after creating the blog. It makes me feel a little silly now, as it does seem to suggest I’m trying to put myself in the same league as this legendary runner. That’s not the intent, of course, but it seemed worth mentioning here.

White River 50-Miler: Training Runs

Suntop Summit

Mount Rainier peeks out to say hello as I begin the descent from Sun Top. Photo by Alexander


I registered for the White River 50-miler before I had even run a marathon. In fact, I had run only one half marathon since recovering from a broken leg. Overconfidence? I don’t think so. I would say it was drive. After being laid up for months, missing out on all the running and hiking adventures of summer, I had some serious living to catch up on.

It’s been a relatively straight path from the moment I clicked the registration box to today, with minimal injury-related detours along the way. After that first horrendous marathon, I breezed through the next two and glided through my first ultra. I wasn’t sure if running a difficult 50-miler with such limited experience was a good idea, but I have met with nothing but support and encouragement along the way, and I feel tremendous confidence in myself. Plus, I’ve got great hair for it.

The Seattle Running Club hosted two “preview” runs for the White River course earlier this month, and I leaped at the opportunity to take a look at what I had gotten myself into. Each run entailed 4000′ of elevation gain, the first run a loop of 23 miles and the second loop 25 miles. On race day, there would be an additional two miles around the start/finish area.

Preview Run #1 traveled the second half of the WR course. We set out through the Skookum Flats section, which was intimidating right off the bat. I had not encountered such a technical trail before. The tree roots and rocks were just incredible. Being near the front of the pack, I was forced to run much faster than what was comfortable. It’s incredible how much energy and concentration it takes to negotiate such technical footing, and I was panting less than a mile in. Soon after, I tripped on a root–my greatest fear. Fortunately, I caught myself and prevented a fall, but it scared the hell out of me. Time to slow down. I pulled off to the side to remove my long sleeves as a wave of runners blazed past. Alexander and Andy kept moving forward, and I went on solo.

I found my tempo and settled into the run. Things got real when I reached a washed out section of the trail. There was a rope tied across the expanse, and runners were lined up to cross it, one at a time. I was just waiting for this to do me in, but it turned out not to be so bad. It was honestly kind of thrilling to be clinging to a rope, picking my way across the loose dirt and trying not to slide down into the White River below.

Runners started to spread out at this point, and I fell into a rhythm with a runner in front of me. We chatted occasionally but mostly remained focused on the trail ahead. She had also tripped early in the run, so we both took a cautious approach moving forward. Mary Ann would end up becoming my trail buddy for both preview runs. We made a great trail team. She’s a bit faster, which helps push me, but not outside of what I am capable of. She would have me take the lead while being sure not to crowd me. We found a nice balance between talking and silence, and I really enjoyed her company.

The climb to Sun Top put my Taylor Mountain experience to shame. That’s not to say Taylor Mountain isn’t a monster of a hill; Sun Top was just that much harder. It’s steep and relentless, something like 8-10 miles of switchbacks and vertical climbs. I don’t know who can run up such an ascent. We power hiked as fast as our legs and the terrain would allow. I followed Yassine’s instruction to eat every half hour so that I would have the energy to get up this thing. While it can be frustrating to have to hike instead of run, I still enjoy the ascents all the same. Perhaps it connects me to those first runs up the hill behind my childhood home and serves as a comfort of sorts. We leap frogged a few times with a man who was in incredible pain, limping along and howling out loud. He sounded like an animal; it was unreal. This is the ultra runner sort, though. Stubbornly pushing your body beyond its limits and refusing to give in to pain is a trademark characteristic. He was miserable, but he wasn’t complaining. His howls were simply a means for releasing the pain so that he could continue.

Alexander linked up with us on the climb. Before the final ascent, we encountered some steep downhill sections. Again, following Yassine’s directions, I challenged myself to move past my fear and to push the downhills. Lowering my center of gravity and leaning into it, I tore down the hills in a flurry. It was thrilling and terrifying at the same time; the true sublime. It was all I could do to keep from yelling, “Yeehaw!” Of course, my knees would suffer as a result, but in them moment it’s tough not to give in to gravity.

The final switchbacks were intense, as we broke from the forest and met the sun. I could hear voices directly above me and knew the summit was close. As I rounded the final corner, Mount Rainier came into full view. It stopped me short and took my breath. The Mountain has such a strong presence; you feel it as a living being. I felt like it had been sneaking up behind me, spying on me as I crawled up the slope. I hope to never reach a day where I don’t gasp upon seeing it.

We lingered for a few minutes at Sun Top, refilled water bottles, and had a quick snack. I learned that packing sandwiches and rice balls in your hydration vest is a bad idea if you want to pull them out later looking anything like food. The trip down was, for me, the worst part of the run. While it might seem like a welcome change after a grueling ascent, descents can be tough on your body. This was a ridiculously uneven gravel and dirt road, steep at times, and difficult to find good footing. When cars rolled past, they kicked up clouds of dirt to choke you. Alexander and Mary Ann sped down as I picked my way more gingerly, my knees screaming with each step. Alone for miles, I was relieved when the next runner passed me, as it verified that I hadn’t missed my turns and was on the right path back. All told, the descent was about 7 miles long. I realized for the first time that running downhill for such an extended period not only hurts my body, but I find it very boring. I am typically so happy to be running that I take whatever the trail gives me, but the unchanging downhill cadence became monotonous after a few miles, and I was ready for a change.

You should always be careful what you wish for. Just as Eric, the runner who organized the event, told me, when I hit the flat section at the bottom of the hill, it felt like my “ass hit the ground,” to use his expression. A flat surface never felt so difficult! I knew there were only a couple of miles to go, though, so I powered through. My watch had died, but talking to others, I figured out that it took me 5 hours 27 minutes to complete the loop. Not fast, but also not bad. I would push harder on race day, and at least now I knew what was in store. Of course, this would be the second half of the course on race day, so I had to both keep the Sun Top ascent in mind and know that it was going to be tough but not let that intimidate me either. Acknowledge it, and move on.

WR Preview Run 2

WR50 Preview Run #2. Photo courtesy Seattle Running Club.

The second preview run followed the first loop of the race course. It was a cool, rainy morning, which is my kind of running weather. Like the previous week’s run, this one also began in a more technical section of trail. I was more relaxed this time around and navigated the roots and rocks more smoothly. This run was just plain fun. I met so many interesting people along the way. I love chatting with a runner for a bit and then parting ways. You share some stories, your excitement for the race, your appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us. One runner in particular remains with me from this run.

Ron had run Taylor Mountain as well, and we swapped stories about that race and trail running in general. I learned that, at age 40, he was obese and smoking a pack a day. He was also terribly scared of the water. After volunteering at an Iron Man, and facing some painful experiences in his personal life, Ron decided to train for an Iron Man. He took swimming lessons and chipped away at his fear of the water. He quit smoking, got in shape, and lost weight. He said that when he made it through the swim component of his first Iron Man, and stepped out of the water, he felt like he had won the race. He was solidly in the middle of the pack coming out of the water (49%) but, to him, he had the same feeling as if he had completed the entire thing and had won. I knew exactly what he meant. He lingered on that point to emphasize the sheer joy, and importance, of working toward these goals for yourself. The passion and energy with which he shared his story was incredibly moving and inspiring. To look at Ron now, you would never even imagine such a history. He looks like a complete badass. Sometimes I think we believe people who look like chiseled statues are born that way. Knowing how hard Ron had to work to get there, learning the fears he faced, and seeing him now glide up the trail with such ease and confidence today, strongly resonated with me. He went on to encourage me as I make my own journey, even using the term “badass” to refer to me, which was quite a compliment. We ran together for maybe 15 minutes before Ron pulled ahead, but that conversation won’t ever leave me. Its encounters like this that fuel me and feed my love for the trail running community.

It was a misty morning, so there were no sweeping views of mountain vistas. The fog cleared enough on some passes for me to realize how steep the drop off was along the trail. I kept my eyes forward and pressed on, pushing my fear of heights aside. I ran solo for a while and was amazed when I reached the Ranger Creek lean-to to find a clump of runners there refueling and filling water bottles. It’s interesting that you can watch other runners zoom past you out of sight, but you then realize that they weren’t really that far ahead of you. Here, Alexander decided to take the trail back to the car; the weather didn’t agree with him. I linked back up with Mary Ann, and we pressed onward to Corral Pass.

This stretch of the trail was probably my favorite. It’s mostly rolling hills and very runable. The big climb was out of the way, and now we could enjoy a steady pace as we made our way through small alpine meadows and beautiful stands of trees. After a funny encounter with speedy Andy, who, not realizing he had done the lollipop and was now retracing his steps to Ranger Creek, was astounded that I was somehow ahead of him. I assured him I’m that still slower than him, explaining the turn-around, and we parted laughing. At Corral Pass, Mary Ann and I opted out of the lollipop (Eric said it added only a quarter mile) and headed back. The rain had made the trail a bit slick, so it was slower going at times. At the lean-to, we took the left trail back and started the long descent. This was much more pleasant than the Sun Top descent, as here we had all trail switchbacks, no road. It’s easier on the body. Mary Ann had me lead to set the pace, and we found a nice rhythm. She told me about 12 hour and overnight races she had run, and they grabbed my interest (I came home and registered for the Carkeek 12 hour and will register for the Starlight overnight race when it opens. I am so easily influenced!) As with the Sun Top descent, I did get a little bored after 5 miles of constant downhill. I’m not sure why this is, but I guess it’s good to acknowledge it and not dwell on it. I don’t want to dread the downhills. My knee did hurt a times, but I was able to negotiate it. It raised some concerns about race day, though. I will do this descent and still have loop 2 and Sun Top to go, so I will need to find a happy medium between making up time on the downhill from Ranger Creek and not blowing out my knees.

I really had no idea how far we had gone and finally asked Mary Ann (I was just using my Timex stopwatch, which doesn’t track distance.) We were at mile 23, with 2 to go. It was incredible to me that I had run almost marathon distance without even thinking about the mileage. On the road, I would be counting every mile. On the trail, I was completely lost in the experience and had no thought or care of how far or how long. This was such a reaffirming moment, and I reflected on how far I had come as a runner to not be phased by 25 miles on a difficult trail. We rolled into the parking lot at Buck Creek and high-fived our achievement.

A couple weeks later, it would be time to put both practice runs together into one run. Instead of intimidating me, though, these preview runs have only made me all the more excited to run my first 50-miler. Yeehaw, indeed.

Ultra at Last: Taylor Mountain 50k Race Report

“They said you’ve got great hair for this.”

–Woman at the finish line of the 2016 Taylor Mountain 50k

Pain ahead

No kidding.

Taylor Mountain was not supposed to be my first 50k. I hadn’t planned on running it at all, but after developing runner’s knee (due to being an idiot who ran through pain instead of taking time off), I had to sit out the 50k I was training for, Soaring Eagle. Fortunately, Evergreen Trail Runs allows you to transfer your registration to another race, so onward to Taylor Mountain.

Mentally, I  was prepared for my first ultra, even if I didn’t know what to expect. It’s 5 miles longer than a marathon, so that didn’t seem very intimidating to me. Even the toughness of the course, with its 3 river crossings and 5600′ of gain didn’t worry me. What did worry me was my knees. My running coach, Yassine, had given me a time frame during which I needed to turn a corner, or he was going to have me withdraw from the race. While I did turn that corner, my knee certainly wasn’t 100% going into the race, and I was very concerned about how it would hold up. It wasn’t so much the prospect of a DNF at Taylor Mountain that troubled me; rather, it was the fact that this was my last chance to get a 50k under my belt before my first 50 miler. If my knee couldn’t hold for 50k, then White River was going to be out of the question. I refused to accept this as a possibility. I had already spent one summer sitting out due to injury, and it wasn’t going to happen again.

Adam, my running husband as most people know him, picked me up early that morning to make our way up to Taylor. We met up with some running friends and mentors, Karey, Nicole, Amy, and Jason. They all gave me encouragement and veteran suggestions, and Amy joked that I picked a hell of a course for my first 50k. I was secretly pleased that this was considered a tough course. Finishing it would prove to me that I could run White River.

What a great race and incredible group of people. Trail runners really are a different breed, and I absolutely love this community. I feel at a loss for words to describe the atmosphere; it’s different from a road race and charged with a unique energy. I was thrilled to be among them. I even made my peace with Evergreen Trail Runs, as they finally gave me the shirt I ordered a year and a half ago.

Within the first mile, we reached the major water crossing. I was amazed at how many runners tried their damnedest to keep their feet dry. They wasted a lot of energy on that futile endeavor. I plowed past them straight through the water. The cold was a shock, but it felt good at the same time.

TM Creek 2

Forging the water crossing. Photo courtesy Pronounce Photography.

The monster hill of Taylor Mountain was there to greet us on the other side. It was muddy as hell already and would only get worse with each loop. A few strong souls ran up it, but most of us walked or power hiked this beast. The hill was relentless, but even the most stubbornly long hills must reach their climax. I was grateful to have Adam there. He did the talking, which kept my mind off running and made the time fly by. We picked up another first-time ultra runner, Lisa, and chatted with her as we slogged through the shoe-sucking mud.

At some point, I ended up in the lead, with Adam, Lisa, and another runner behind. While Adam had (repeatedly) warned me to take it easy on the first loop, I couldn’t help myself and ran faster than planned. It was so easy to get caught up in feeling strong and being grateful that I could be out there running through this beautiful forest, and that translated into a faster pace. By the time we completed loop one (13.1 miles), I had beat my fastest half marathon time by 30 minutes. My favorite part was when a woman at the aid station asked me if I had just finished my first or second loop. Ha!

Onto the second loop. After climbing that hill for the second time, my legs weren’t so happy, but the knee was holding up. Adam continued to chat away the miles, and we made trail friends along the way. One seasoned ultra runner, training for a Western States qualifier this summer, gave me some tips. His main tip: “Eat. Eat a lot. When your stomach hurts, eat. Just keep eating.” The “even when your stomach hurts” part stuck with me, and I have heard his voice echoing in my head on future runs. Thanks, runner! (I also loved that he asked anyone he could for a Western States update, since it was under way as we ran.) At some point, Lisa pulled ahead of us. Adam and I leap frogged another runner who was clearly a great runner but who was having a tough day. When Adam insisted on stopping to take in a view at one point, this guy came up from behind us and playfully-ish said, “No, fuck you, keep going!”  He meant it, but he was also trying to have fun with the situation and laugh at himself. He looked rough, but we must have irritated him enough, because eventually the leap frogging game ended when we never caught back up to him again. I was also happy to have learned a lesson from a running mentor, Marie, who has a spare of anything you might need on a course. When we passed a runner who was having serious cramping issues, I was able to give him some electrolyte tabs and water to keep him going. I have learned to keep plenty of those tabs on me, and it’s allowed me to help out other runners other courses.

As we approached the finish line to close out loop 2 (26.2 miles), Adam and I would part ways, and I would go into uncharted waters on a final 5-mile loop. Everything moving forward would be my longest run ever. I made a quick pit stop (thanks to Karey for reminding me that even though the loop was “just 5 miles,” it would take me over an hour to complete it) and I heard someone say in my direction in a very firm voice, “hurry up!” The voice sounded like a sterm version of Karey, even though that didn’t seem in character for her. Whoever it was, they prompted me to get in gear and get back out. As I picked up the pace and left my crew, Adam told me Alexander was there. I looked up in surprise, not expecting him to have driven all the way out there when he wasn’t running, and it gave me a lift to see him waving as I headed back for one final loop, solo.

One more loop!

Ready for the solo loop! Photo courtesy of Karey

As much as I loved running the first two loops with company, I was excited to go out for the final loop alone. This is coming from someone who was initially intimidated by the forests of the PNW and the bears and mountain lions that were surely waiting to pounce on me. In the Midwest, we sadly no longer have those apex predators; there are no wild animals that could potentially kill you on a hike in Indiana. My first hikes in Washington were tense. I carried a bear bell, inquired about bear spray, and talked loudly and constantly. Here I was now, going out alone, and happy to do so.

I passed a group of hikers near the river crossing. They wished me luck, and for a moment I considered asking them to watch me cross to make sure I made it to the other side. Just as quickly, I dismissed that thought. Solo means solo. That icy water felt wonderful on my tired feet, a great lift before the long haul up the mountain. I passed a runner who was clearly in pain and encouraged him as I slipped by. From there out, I saw no one.

A very loud rustle in a dense pocket of foliage interrupted my thoughts, and I told myself that it was just a very, very large bird to quiet the voice in my head that knew it was a bear. Later, I would learn other runners had seen a bear on the course. What a step forward from that earlier self with my bear bell and fear. It seems that I am finding my place in the Pacific Northwest. That, or I was just too tired at that point to care.

The five-mile loop veered off from the longer loop, and it had less tree cover. The sun was intense, and I didn’t have enough nutrition with me. I felt a little delirious and occasionally spoke my thoughts out loud. Being the snake-magnet that I am, I of course encountered a snake out here, too. Fortunately, he was more interested in sunning than slithering, so I passed by without disturbing him. It’s the slithering, more than anything, that gives me the creeps.

Just when I was losing steam, I came across an unmanned aid station. Not only was there water, but there was also a box of Clif gels. Fist bumps ensued. I had never been so excited to choke down that stuff. It gave me the boost I needed, and I picked up the pace for the final few miles, most of which were downhill. I could hear folks at the finish line as I approached and quickened my pace even more. What an incredible experience it was, coming out of the woods to hear a group of friends there roaring with cheers as I made my way to the finish line! They had all stayed to cheer me in, even those who had run the half marathon. That is a very long time to wait around, and I cannot express my gratitude enough. It meant so much to me to have that support as I completed my first ultra. Thank you Adam, Karey, Nicole, Amy, Jason, and Alexander. I will never forget that finish.

As the race director congratulated me on finishing my first 50k, everyone gathered around to celebrate. A woman came over to me and said, “They said you’ve got great hair for this!” I had no idea what that meant, but my friends all laughed and agreed with her. I later learned that they had actually said, as I went out for the solo loop, “She’s really got it up here,” pointing to their heads but meaning great mental toughness, not great hair. I will take mental toughness over great hair any day, and this was one of the most meaningful compliments I’ve ever received, especially coming from seasoned ultra runners.

My time wasn’t anything to brag about. It took 6 hours and 50 minutes to complete the 50k. Given the 5600′ of gain and horrendous trail conditions, that isn’t so bad. It was a tough, tough, course, but I smiled the entire way. I never went to a dark place, never hit a wall. I loved every muddy second of it.

I was finally an ultra runner, and I was hooked.

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