No Step Taken for Granted

Photo by Belinda Agamaite.

Photo by Belinda Agamaite.

"If I leave this tent, I'm crossing that finish line," I said to the medic as I tried to convince him to let me continue my race at Javelina Jundred. It had been nearly two hours since I arrived at the aid station at Jackass Junction (mile 83.2) and had been taken into the medical tent with hypothermia. I arrived shivering, barely able to continue moving forward because I was shaking so badly, and unable to eat anything because my teeth were chattering. I felt it come on (I had felt it before), but there was nothing I could do. I was wearing the only extra layer I had until I could reach my bag at Javelina Jeadquarters (mile 91.8). That seemingly short distance of just under 9 miles may as well have been another 83. It was too far for me to go in that condition. I wouldn't make it. 

When I arrived at Jackass Junction, I told my pacer I needed a cot, I needed blankets, and I needed something containing hot water to warm my arteries. A medic led me to a cot in the medical tent and gave me some blankets. Shortly after, he brought me ziplock baggies with hot water. As I placed the baggies on my brachial arteries, I looked around. I was surrounded by shivering runners on cots, all waiting for rides. After 30 minutes or so, I was still shivering. Every time the desert wind blew into the tent, I shivered a little more. I had no idea how I was going to continue. My eyes got heavy and welled with tears. "No," I told myself. "This time I will not lose it. This time, I will pull it together." "We have a car here to take you out," I heard a medic say. I glanced up from the cot, my eyes full with the tears I would not let myself cry: "I'm not done. Tell them I'm not done." The medic agreed to give me a few more minutes.  

Sarah and me at the start. 

Sarah and me at the start. 

My day at Javelina started off well. I had a soft pace goal in mind, but my plan was to run by feel. Because I had had a demanding summer and because I had run Waldo 100k and Pine to Palm 100 in the weeks leading up to Javelina, I had no firm expectations. Given that I had spent the first four months of the year unable to so much as cross train due to injury, I knew that running back-to-back 100s was an ambitious goal. I focused on recovery and quality (food, rest, running) more than I ever had before. As the weeks between Pine to Palm and Javelina progressed, I started to regain my energy. Aside for two weeks when I was very ill, I felt stronger and stronger, and I got faster and faster, with every run. I sent my friend Sarah a text: "I keep waiting to fall apart. When am I going to fall apart?" I never did. For the first time since I started running five years ago, I toed a start line of a race feeling totally prepared. 

Loop 1 (photo by Chris Furman).

Loop 1 (photo by Chris Furman).

LOOPS 1-4 (start to mile 61.2): I ran the first loop with Sarah and our friend Ethan, occasionally leap-frogging with our friend Stephen, also from Portland. We had similar pace goals and we didn't want to go out too fast, so we stayed together, talking away as though it were any other Saturday. We completed the first 15.3-mile loop in 2:49:06, and I felt strong. I set out on the second loop with Sarah. It wasn't long, though, before my stomach started to turn on me, forcing me to fall back. I've had stomach issues during 100s before, but never so early. By the time I was two loops (~50k) in, I had vomited three times. I told Sarah to run ahead and that I would catch up later. I needed to take a step back to try to get my stomach under control. By the end of loop two (~6:06 in), my stomach had settled. Unfortunately, my lungs and sinuses had not fully recovered from being so sick in the weeks prior and my breathing was very shallow, making my stomach seize into knots, which never dissipated over the course of the entire race. 

Once my stomach settled, I was able to run strong once again. My legs felt amazingly good and I had more energy than I ever anticipated. I had settled into a steady pace that I was able to maintain despite the labored breathing and knots in my stomach. Most of all, I was having fun. I reached the end of loop 4, the 100k mark, in a PR time: 13:26:41. I changed my shirt and shoes, and I met my pacer.

Approaching the 100k mark (photo by Chris Furman).

Approaching the 100k mark (photo by Chris Furman).

LOOPS 5-7 (miles 61.2-100.9): I ran loop 5 without issue, picking up an extra layer in my drop bag at Jackass Junction and running into the warm, peaceful night. The desert was dark and much quieter than it was the previous year when the howls of coyotes and the grunting of the javelina filled the air. The dark night sky lit up in all directions with lightning, illuminating the hills in the distance and the soft desert sand. I was in awe of the beauty that surrounded me. 

When I began loop 6, I was tired, but still felt good. My legs felt strong and I was still running a steady pace. As the night progressed, though, the temperature dropped rapidly within the span of only a hour, something I did not expect based on my experience the previous year when the nighttime temperature never felt cool. I had emergency layers in my drop bag at Javelina Jeadquarters, but that aid station was hours away. By mile 80, I was shivering and barely able to walk, let alone run. I crossed paths with a runner and his pacer: "Is that Desiree?" I heard. I stopped and turned off my headlamp. "It's Craig," the voice said. It was Craig Thornley. "How are you doing?" he asked. "I'm having a hard night," I said. "Some days are hard," he replied as he wrapped his arms around me and gave me a hug. All of a sudden, I was overcome with emotion, so happy to see someone from home and feel the support of the community I knew was rooting for me. "We'll see you at the finish, okay?" he said. I nodded my head, turned my light back on, and walked forward. Maybe it was seeing someone from home or maybe it was hearing someone I respect so much say that he'd see me at the finish, but I knew at that moment that my race wasn't over. 

At the start of loop 6, 76.5 miles in (photo by Belinda Agamaite).

At the start of loop 6, 76.5 miles in (photo by Belinda Agamaite).

I reached the aid station at Jackass Junction in bad condition. I knew I was hypothermic and had been for several miles. Unlike my two previous experiences with hypothermia, however, I was still coherent, giving me hope that I could pull it together. As I lie on a cot in the medical tent trying to get warm, I shivered each time the wind blew. Another runner asked me what was wrong. "I can't get warm," I said. "I'm cold on the inside and I can't stop shaking." A medic entered the tent to tell me it was their responsibility to pull me. It would not be safe to let me continue, he told me. "Wait until sunrise," the runner said. Everything will be better when the sun comes up. You'll get warm." The medic asked me if I was ready to go. "I've finished the race before and I can finish it again," I said. "Let me wait until the sun comes up." The medic left the tent to go talk to another medic. He returned. He agreed to let me go, but made me promise to check in and out of every aid station from there on, proving that I was okay. "If you decide to quit," he said. "I'm not quitting," I interrupted. He stopped talking. He handed me his sweater and a large garbage bag, both of which I put on. With renewed energy, I stood from the cot. The sun had not yet started to rise, but I didn't care. I was ready. "I'm leaving," I said.  

As I stood from the cot, I expected to be unbearably sore. I wasn't. I started to walk. My walk turned to a shuffle. My shuffle turned to a jog. Soon, my jog turned to a run. After two hours in a medical tent, any aspirations of running a specific finish time were gone, but I still had legs and I could still run. I would finish.

Sunrise on the Javelina race course (photo by Betty Lee).

Sunrise on the Javelina race course (photo by Betty Lee).

As the sun rose over the Arizona desert, I made my way back to Javelina Jeadquarters and I stripped away the garbage bag and then the medic's sweater. I caught up with the runner who talked to me in the tent. "Thank you," I said. "You saved my race." "You made it!" he exclaimed. "I didn't save your race," he replied. "You did." I thanked him again and I ran ahead. 

When I reached the start/finish area at Javelina Jeadquarters, I checked in long enough to say that I was alright and would be continuing. I asked for my glow necklace that would give me entrance to the 7th and final loop, I grabbed some food, and I left. The last loop was slow for me. I'm not proud of it. I could have moved faster and I didn't. I was determined to finish but, knowing that my finish time would probably not even match my time from the previous year, I stopped pushing. I made relentless forward progress one step at a time, but every step left me more disappointed in myself than the last. I didn't know how everything could have gone so well for so long only to fall apart due to one seemingly little mistake. I didn't know how I could let myself get hypothermia again. I felt like a failure. When I finally finished, I walked across the finish line. A volunteer handed me a buckle, a buckle exactly like the one that had brought me to tears only a year before. I paused. I considered handing it back. I didn't feel like I had earned it.

Crossing the finish line (28:41:53).

Crossing the finish line (28:41:53).

In the two weeks that have elapsed since finishing the race, I've reflected on and internalized my experience a lot. There are days when it makes me emotional and others when I feel stoic. Most of all, the last two weeks have given me perspective. When caught up in our goals and expectations, sometimes it's difficult to remember where we started. I began this year immobilized for four months with nerve damage, tissue damage, foot drop, and a torn meniscus. I devoted my year to physical therapy and rehab in an effort to regain some semblance of the strength, endurance, and speed I once had. I ended the year by running two 100-mile races in 7 weeks. For that, and for every step I've taken since starting to run again, I am thankful. I'm not where I want to be, but I'm so grateful to be where I am.