Under the Red Sun and Just Short of Everest

Live to the point of tears.
— Camus

As Darin and I crested another false summit in the cold, windy, pitch-black night, I saw a sign: "Lightning Lake." I sighed, my cough making my voice shaky. I was overcome by the indescribable feeling of knowing that the finish line was only 10-12 miles away. "It was so big," I said, "Yeah," Darin quietly said. "It was."

Mile 1 (photo by Darin Swanson)

Mile 1 (photo by Darin Swanson)

The Training: I decided to run Fat Dog 120 in 2015 while I was training for the Slam. I knew it would be a brutal race on some of the most difficult terrain I'd ever seen. I knew I wasn't ready, but I planned for it anyway. The following year, I decided I'd run the race after Badwater. Unfortunately, I didn't foresee a long setback leading up to Badwater or an even longer recovery. Ultimately, I decided to put it off for another year, but still I planned, studying the course, reading blogs, and talking to people who had run it previously.

In 2017, Fat Dog became my number one focus. I planned my race schedule around it, and every run had a purpose. An average training week for me was 85-95 miles, peaking at 104, and most weekends saw 10,000-12,000ft of elevation gain. By the time I was ready to taper, I had put in just short of 2,200 of the hardest miles I've ever run and 225,000 ft of elevation gain in 7 months. I was vigilant about rest, strength training, and maintenance, and managed to avoid any long setbacks. By race day, I was the healthiest I'd been in 18 months. I was ready.

Race Morning: I awoke on race morning to the smoke-filled skies of Princeton, BC that we'd grown accustomed to seeing in the days prior. It was windy. My breathing was labored. I kept my asthma inhalers close at hand. 

I was worried about how the smoke and heat would affect my ability to run but, somehow, I was calm. My mantra in the week leading up to the race was to "control the things I can and let go of those I can't." I wasn't complacent, but I was at peace. I couldn't control what was happening -- the forest fires, the heat, the wind, the possibility that the race would be canceled -- but I could control how I reacted to them.

Smoke moving into Ashnola aid station (photo by Aaron Huston)

Smoke moving into Ashnola aid station (photo by Aaron Huston)

Fat Dog starts at 10:00am, allowing for a more relaxed start to the morning. After loading the car and checking out of the hotel, we got some coffee and began the 90-minute drive to the start line in Cathedral Park. 

Start to Ashnola (mile 18): After a short out and back on a gravel road to disburse the runners, the race begins with a long climb of nearly 6,000 ft over ~10 miles. I instantly felt the effect of the heat (a later start meant we didn't get the cool morning hours) and the smoke; I felt like I had a weight on my chest. I began to wheeze. Before long, I pulled off to the side of the trail and let a long line of runners pass as I pulled my rescue inhaler out of my pack. I realized quickly that I was going to have to make some adjustments to my planned pacing if I was going to make it to the finish.

Despite the smoke, I completed the climb in the amount of time my pace chart predicted, and I was looking forward to barreling down the descent on the other side. When I reached the other side, though, I didn't find the descent I anticipated. Instead, I was met first by a never-ending boulder field and then by a technical path down through a meadow. Despite the boulders, the marshy trail, and the tall, wet grass, I couldn't help but smile. "This," I thought "is exactly what I trained for."  I had never been so comfortable during a race. "This is exactly what I hoped for." I smiled. "I've been here before."

For the next several miles, I climbed and ran through rolling hills above the tree line, surrounded by snowcapped mountains bigger than any I'd ever seen, through fields of wildflowers. I watched as the line of runners ahead intently navigated the mountains, strategically placing one pole in front of the other. The wind blew smoke and dust across the sky, and I thought just how insignificant I was in this vast expanse and how fortunate I was to live that moment. 

Getting sponged off at Ashnola aid station (photo by Jeff Fisher)

Getting sponged off at Ashnola aid station (photo by Jeff Fisher)

As I descended to the Ashnola aid station around mile 18, I started to get very hot and it became increasingly hard to breathe. I could smell the smoke in the air and my skin was hot to the touch. I came into the aid station and was greeted by the smiling faces of my amazing crew, Darin and Dennis. "Sorry I'm late," I said. "I found a boulder field." To my surprise, I also saw my friend Larry's crew, Jeff, and Aaron (Jeff who had also crewed me at Badwater). It was energizing to see so many friendly and encouraging faces.  

I was hot and on the fringe of dehydration, so I planned on making that aid station one of my longer stops. I drank a lot of fluids and shoveled calories as Darin restocked my pack and Dennis poured cool water over me and filled my sleeves with ice. I had already blown out one shoe on the rocks, but decided to stick with my plan to not change them out until mile 41.

Once hydrated and cooled off, I made my way down a dirt road to the next trail connection, where I'd begin my next climb of ~3,300 ft over about 8 miles.  

Ashnola aid station with Darin and Dennis (photo by Jeff Fisher)

Ashnola aid station with Darin and Dennis (photo by Jeff Fisher)

Ashnola to Bonnevier (mile 41): The next stretch was long and hot, and the climb challenged my breathing again, but I moved forward with the knowledge that the next time I'd see my crew, I'd get a pacer. It had already been a long, lonely day, and I couldn't wait. 

The next aid station (~mile 25) was remote and minimal, but I took a few minutes there, again to hydrate. I had passed runner after runner sitting on the side of the trail, suffering from dehydration and stomach upset, and I was not going to let that happen to me.

At the Calcite aid station (~mile 35), I retrieved my drop bag. I had hoped to spend some time there refueling,  but the aid station was nearly out of food and had just enough water left to top off my pack, so I decided there was no point in staying; I would be better off pushing on to get to my crew. As I prepared to leave, I grabbed my poles that I had rested against a chair. Unfortunately, they were not my poles; someone else had accidentally grabbed mine. Tired, hot, hungry, and irritated, I put my headlamp on and ran out of the aid station, hoping to catch the person who had grabbed my poles, knowing that he/she would be just as frustrated when discovering the mixup.

Darkness soon fell and I turned on my headlamp as I made the descent to the river at mile 39. As I got closer, I saw the welcome glow of lights and glow sticks, signaling that the river was getting close. I grabbed hold of the rope with both hands, now 11 hours in and unstable on my feet. The river was cold, but it felt good as it rushed over my legs. I finally reached the other side where a volunteer put a reflective vest on me to prepare me for the upcoming stretch of highway I'd have to run to reach the next aid station. 

Bonnevier aid station (photo by Aaron Huston)

Bonnevier aid station (photo by Aaron Huston)

Running along the dark highway was horrible, and I hated every minute of it. There were few course markings and cars were moving fast. At times, I was unsure where to go and genuinely feared for my safety, often resigning myself to walking as far off the side the highway as possible. I finally saw Christmas lights in the distance and, relieved, turned off the highway. The road I turned onto, though, was oddly quiet, and I didn't see any people. As I got closer, I saw that the lights were coming from a hotel and it was not the aid station. I retraced my steps, went back out on the highway, and kept running. Finally, I saw the familiar reflection of a "Runners on road" sign, and I crossed the highway to the Bonneview aid station. 

Once again, I was greeted by Darin, Dennis, Jeff, and Aaron. "I'm not in a good place right now," I said, "and I just need a moment." They gave me a chair to sit in and, like pros, had all of the stuff ready that I'd asked for. I told them I hadn't eaten anything but gels because there had been no food at the aid stations, and they quickly pumped me full of calories. They helped me change my wet shoes and socks and dimmed the cell phone lights as I stripped off my wet bra and shirt. I took a layer of tape off my feet that did not survive the river crossing. With 500 calories in me, cold brew in my water bottle, dry layers, my backup poles, and my first pacer, Dennis, I was excited and ready to go into the first night. 

Bonnevier to Cascade (mile 80): As we began the next ~3,500 ft. climb, Dennis and I shared our stories from the day and then our stories about life. The time, for me, flew by. Before I knew it, we had reached the remote Heather aid station at mile 54. 

I had done well drinking during that 13-mile stretch, which meant that I was very low on water when we reached the aid station. Unfortunately, we were told when we got there that they were almost out of water and were rationing. We took what they would give us and made our way back out into the night. 

The next miles were exceptionally-technical, rocky terrain, surrounded by steep cliffs. It took what felt like an eternity to reach the next aid station at Nicomen Lake (~mile 64). We reached the lake just after sunrise, again to find very little food. Thankfully, they had filtered some water from the lake, so we were able to refill our packs.

As Dennis refilled my pack, I lied on the ground in utter exhaustion, thinking about how I was only just over halfway. "I know this is the hard part and I'll get through it," I said, "but the hard part is really hard right now." Dennis reached out his hand to help me up. We were not stopping. "Night one done," I said, as though checking off another mile.  

Cascade aid station (photo by Aaron Huston)

Cascade aid station (photo by Aaron Huston)

The next stretch of trail was very runnable downhill. Dennis took the lead and we blazed (probably not, but it felt like it) our way to the Cayuse Flahs aid station (mile 75), where Dennis' hard pacing efforts were rewarded with pizza.

The next 5 miles to Cascade aid station were filled with needles (sharp ups and plummeting downs) that seemed to go on forever. Feeling beaten, I stopped midway and stared up at the next climb. Dennis put his hand on my back as though to signal there would be no stopping. He knew I didn't need to. I didn't.

We finally made the last descent to the Cascade aid station (mile 80), where we met Darin, Aaron, and Jenn (who had traded off pacing Larry). Dennis put his arm around me and told me nice work. "Thank you," I said as I teared up with gratitude for his support and a sense of accomplishment for making it so far. I was beaten up, my feet hurt, and I was tired, but I was so deeply happy, so grateful, so determined. I changed my shoes one more time, ripped the remaining tape from my feet, and set out into the second day with Darin by my side. 

Taking care of my feet at Cascade (photo by Jenn Love)

Taking care of my feet at Cascade (photo by Jenn Love)

Cascade to Skyline (mile 101): The next two miles were another stretch of highway to a trailhead. It was windy and noisy, but not nearly as smoky as we made our way closer to Manning Park, and the morning was much cooler than the morning before. 

Miles 80-100 are a rolling reprieve and are quite runnable but for the overgrowth. They are also known for being infested with relentless mosquitoes. Despite covering myself in 98% DEET, they ate away at every inch of my body. Soon, the itching replaced the ashiness of my feet. 

After a rolling run along the Skagit River, among what looked like fairy dwellings and hobbit homes, Darin and I reached the next major aid station (Shawalum) at mile 92, where we were surprised by Dennis. We refueled, sprayed down with more bug spray, I rinsed my contacts, and we were off again to complete the rolling section along the river to the Skyline aid station at mile 101.

Not long after leaving Shawalum, I felt blisters form on two toes, one on each foot. I knew there was nothing I could do about them until we reached crew and I didn't want them to alter my stride, so I squeezed my toes together as I ran, forcing them to pop. By the time we reached Skyline, I had succeeded. 

Skyline was a great aid station. They had an abundance of water, lots of food, and even had smoothies. Darin and I addressed our foot issues with the help of Jeff as Jenn and Dennis refilled our packs. Another 400 calories down and we were once again off. The next time we would see crew again would be at the finish. "Seven and half hours and this shit is finished," I said as we walked out of the aid station. Little did I know it would be nine and a half.

Skyline to Lightning Lake (mile 122): As Darin and I began the next ~4,000 ft climb, we were swarmed by mosquitoes. I pushed as hard and as fast as I could, trying to get us to an elevation high enough that they wouldn't bother us, but the pitch was so steep I couldn't move fast enough. They bit our heads, faces, arms, legs, backs. We were covered in them. As the sun started to set, we reached about 3,000 ft in elevation, and they finally started to fade off.  

Shortly after sunset, we realized that we were both very low on fuel. Somehow, we'd forgotten to ensure at Skyline that our packs were filled with enough to get us to the finish. Knowing that the last two aid stations were very remote and would, therefore, have minimal aid, I started to worry. "We'll make it work," Darin said. Darkness fell on the second night, and we continued to climb. "Day two done," I said.

We reached the Camp Mowich aid station (~mile 110) in the late evening, elated to find not only water, but also gels and even chips. We both breathed a sigh of relief. We were going to have enough fuel to get us through the night. We left the aid station in good spirits, knowing there was only one more aid station between us and the finish line. "One more time. I only have to say '104 out' one more time!" We continued on down the trail, imaging what the views must look like in the daytime, shining our headlamps on the fields of wildflowers that surrounded us. We looked up at the stars, stars we hadn't seen for days due to smoke. 

As we continued to climb through the night, the wind picked up and it got colder. I stopped abruptly in the middle of the trail. "I'm freezing," I said. I had never gotten so cold so fast before. I felt like I was shivering to the bone. I pulled one of the jackets out of my pack and layered up, and we pushed on. As the drop-offs got steeper and the trail more tenuous, we moved a little slower, but still we pressed on with relentless forward motion. 

As Darin and I crested another false summit in the cold, windy, pitch-black night, I saw a sign: "Lightning Lake." I sighed, my cough making my voice shaky. I was overcome by the indescribable feeling of knowing that the finish line was only 10-12 miles away. "It was so big," I said, "Yeah," Darin quietly said. "It was." "We're going to make it," I said. "Yeah we are," Darin replied. 

We soon saw the lights of the Sky Junction aid station (~mile 114), another deeply remote aid station. As we climbed, the wind got stronger and stronger and the air got colder and colder. We stopped briefly, but were soon on our way to finish the final 8 miles. 

We climbed false summit after false summit. Each time we thought we had reached the top, we saw another reflective flag in the far distance above. The wind blew and were started to feel occasional drops of rain. The occasional drops turned to an actual storm. We continued to climb. The sandy, rocky terrain became loose and slippery. We continued to climb. We found ourselves on the spine of a mountain. We continued to climb. We had skirted 6,500 ft in altitude for nearly 9 miles as the storm set in and still climbed. I started to panic and breathe hard. "I want you to get that under control," Darin said. "I'm scared," I said. "We have to go down eventually," he replied. "Step carefully." I took deep breath after deep breath, each interrupted by my asthmatic wheezing. I started to calm down and we started to descend. It got warmer. Soon, we could see the lights of Lightning Lake and the finish line far off in the distance.  

We continued to run the rocky downhill never getting any closer to the faraway lights. The lake disappeared and so did the excitement, We heard the crackling of bears in the trees and made noise. I tried to run faster, but it was even more difficult on the wet rocks. 

Finally, after a long descent, we reached a dirt road that connected to a rolling trail around Lightning Lake. We couldn't see lights and we couldn't hear any voices, but we knew we were there. I ran as hard and as fast as I could for those remaining miles. Soon, we saw glow sticks lining a paved path to the finish arch. "Thank you," I said to Darin as he ran hard next to me. "Smile," he said. "You did it." 

Fat Dog 120 was everything I'd hoped, everything I'd trained for, and everything I expected it to be. It was rugged. It was raw. It challenged me to the core. It broke me down and then it built me back up. It made me feel small and it made me feel insignificant. It reminded me of just how vast our wild spaces are. It made me realize that I could be more. Most of all, it reminded me of just how incredibly fortunate I am to live these moments -- the pain, the doubt, the happiness, the awe, the gratitude -- all of them. To live these moments, to know I'm alive.