Come Hell or High Water
"It is the hardest times in life we remember. A painful struggle can turn into a glorious victory if you are patient and believe in yourself." -- Liz Bauer
THE JOURNEY TO JAVELINA:
My quest for my first hundred-mile finish began in early 2012 when I attempted the Badger Mountain Challenge 100 in Eastern Washington. My race ended after 74 brutal miles when I suffered a severe case of hypothermia and had to pull myself from the race. Six months later, I toed the start line of the Pine to Palm 100 in Oregon. There were many complications during that race, some within my control and some outside of it. I made it 62 miles before missing a cutoff by 10 minutes. In September of this year, I started the inaugural Mountain Lakes 100 in Oregon. The race was ultimately called off due to severe weather and flooding, but not before I treaded water for 27 miles and was pulled with hypothermia. Of all three races, Mountain Lakes was possibly the saddest loss for me. I was more prepared for that race than any other and I toed the start line determined not only to finish, but to race it as hard as I could. When my race ended with yet another bout of hypothermia despite ample preparation to avoid just that, I felt defeated. In preparation for each of these races, I trained relentlessly. I learned something from every race and every time I emerged from my disappointment a little more determined, but every failure was crushing (the few friends who saw me deal with those failures know just how crushing they were).
On the drive home from Mountain Lakes, my friend Dana, who had gone to the race to crew and pace me, suggested that I run Javelina Jundred. I could continue my training for a few more weeks, she said, and then race. After such a grueling year of training and racing, the thought of extending my season another month was overwhelming. I was physically exhausted and mentally drained. Three more weeks of doubles and long training days, which would now have to include sauna training as well, was almost more than I could wrap my mind around. My determination, however, outweighed my exhaustion, and the next day I registered for Javelina. The day after that, I started sauna training. Come hell or high water (quiet literally in this situation), I was determined to finish a 100-mile race this year.
In the weeks leading up to Javelina, it was everything I could do to train. I was physically and mentally exhausted from preparing for Mountain Lakes and, to make things worse, in the days following Mountain Lakes, I came down with hypothermia-induced pneumonia, making training even more difficult. There were days when I questioned how I would make it to the Javelina start line. I felt like my body was hanging on by a thread. My lungs burned, my sinuses throbbed, and my tendons ached.
When I awoke at 2:45 a.m. on race morning, I was not excited and I was not nervous. I was sad. It took me some time realize why I felt so down and then it hit me: I was about the attempt my longest running journey for the fourth time and I was going to do it in the absence of my Oregon running family. It wasn't that I needed my friends to be present in order to run; it was that I knew I wouldn't be able to share the experience with them. Thankfully, I had Sarah D by my side. Sarah, with whom I crossed the finish line of my first 50 miler. Sarah, who has, over the last three years, become my mentor, my confidant, and my friend.
LOOP 1 (miles 1-15.3):
Sarah and I ran the entirety of loop 1 together, chatting as we ran at a leisurely pace and taking in the beautiful sunrise, neither of us wanting to go too fast and risk ruining our races early. Before we knew it, we were back at Javelina Jeadquarters. Sarah and I parted ways to restock our packs and refuel. While most of the Oregon ultra community was not at Javelina, I did have the good fortunate to travel with Dana and her partner, Brian, who were there to crew and pace their friend Kara. Kara and I never reached Jeadquarters at the same time, so I had the luxury of Dana’s and Brian's help and positive energy every time I arrived. They also shared text messages with me from friends at home, making the journey feel less lonely.
LOOP 2 (miles 15.3-30.6):
I set out for loop 2 alone, but feeling great. The sun was high in the sky at that point and the temperature was starting to rise. I knew that I could probably run loop 2 at roughly the same pace as loop 1, but that I would soon need to slow down significantly, especially for loop 3 during the heat of the day. Midway through the second loop, my right peroneal tendon started to burn. Having torn that tendon on the left side, I am all too cognizant of that pain and that feeling made me very tenuous. Still, I had no intention of stopping. I ran most of the loop by myself, until I met up with Bruce and Mike, two of my fellow runners from Portland, near the end of the loop, and we ran together for the remaining few miles.
LOOP 3 (miles 30.6-45.9):
For the most part, this loop passed without incident. Cognizant that it would be my hottest loop, I intentionally slowed my pace. Though I felt hot, I never really felt like the heat was unbearable.
Sarah and I eventually met up with each other at an aid station near the end of the loop and we ran the final few miles back to Jeadquarters together. As we approached the aid station, I looked back at Sarah: "The sun's setting," I said. "We made it through the day." Elated, we went our separate ways to prepare for the night. When I saw Dana and Brian, all I could say was "F, that was hot!" "We know," said Brian. "We've seen a lot of people drop," said Dana. "But that was as hot as it's going to get," Brian said. "You made it."
LOOP 4 (miles 45.9-61.2):
While I normally dread heading into darkness, I was looking forward to a reprieve from the heat. I changed clothes, picked up my night gear, and prepared to head back out. Just as I was leaving, Dana asked if I wanted to leave my cap with my drop bag. "No!" I exclaimed. "You're not going to need it," she said." "It's my lucky cap. I got it at my first Waldo 100k. I wore it at training camp, I wore it at Western States, and I carried it Waldo 100k this year. I need it!" I strapped it to my bungee.
Shortly after I started out on loop 4, the sun started to set and a beautiful array of pinks, oranges, and yellows spread across the Arizona Desert.
LOOP 5 (miles 61.2-76.5):
I began loop 5 knowing that it would be difficult. Until that point, the longest distance I had run had been 74 miles. I would cross the 74-mile threshold before finishing loop 5. I thought I had prepared myself for this loop. I was sorely mistaken.
A mile into loop 5, I felt sharp pains in my abdomen and I quickly had to pull off trail for an emergency bathroom stop, something that has never happened to me during a race. After making that stop, I assumed the worst was over. Unfortunately, every time I started to run, the sharp pains surged through my abdomen again and I had to make similar stops about every mile for the next five miles.
At this stage in the race, my appetite was dwindling. Eventually, I reached a point that I was unable to replenish my fluids and electrolytes and quickly as my body was purging them and I started to get nauseous. I had to walk just to keep my stomach calm.
I death-marched my way to the aid station halfway through the loop. When I reached the aid station, I sat down. I had to get off my feet for a minute and I had to evaluate my situation and figure out how to fix it. I asked for a cup of ginger ale and a cup of broth. I slowly drank both and downed two Imodium that I had in my pack. As I sat in that chair, a volunteer kneeled in front of me. "What's wrong with your body," he asked. "Nothing," I said. "My body feels fine. My feet are throbbing." "Of course your feet are throbbing," he said. "You just finished pounding almost 70 miles of sand and gravel. You're on loop 5. If nothing's wrong with your body you just need to finish this thing. The question is whether you have the drive." I picked up my pack and I took one more sip of broth. I stood up: "This is my 4th attempt at this distance. I have the drive." As I was leaving, I overheard him talking to a runner who was considering dropping. I turned around and walked back. I looked at the runner, overcome by exhaustion and sprawled out in a chair, and said: "Tonight, quitting is going to feel good. Tomorrow, you're going to have to explain to everyone what happened. It will feel horrible." With that, I thanked the volunteer for the encouragement and he hugged me.
I set back out into the night, exhausted, feet throbbing. With every step I mulled over my situation, trying to figure out what I needed to do to get through this patch. I crossed paths with pairs of runners (racers and their pacers) and I started to feel even more upset. I wanted a pacer so desperately. I wanted someone to help me remember to eat and to help me stay on course (I had already drifted off course three times). I wanted someone to keep me company. I felt defeated. I had held my goal pace for 4.5 loops and I was now watching it slip away. I started to doubt that I'd even be able to finish.
As I neared the end of the loop, I saw Sarah setting out on her 6th loop. We briefly stopped to check in. I told her I was sick and I was drifting off course. I told her that I didn't feel like it was safe for me to go back out alone. "You need a pacer," she said. "When you get back to Javelina Jeadquarters, ask for a volunteer pacer. There's no way you're not finishing this race, Des."
I reached Javelina Jeadquarters, but did not see Dana. She was out pacing. I didn't see Brian either, but assumed he was sleeping. I stopped for a minute and debated whether I should wake him or whether I could handle this situation myself. I knew how exhausted he was and, as much as I didn't want to wake him, I decided I needed his help. I woke him and told him what was wrong: I told him I had not eaten any food for three hours, that my feet were throbbing, that my ankle still hurt, and that I was drifting off trail. He sat me down in a chair, told me to loosen my shoes, and said that I needed to get some calories in me. He gave me some soup. I told him I needed a pacer and asked him to find a volunteer: "I'm not experienced enough to do this by myself," I said. "I can't go back out there alone." I put my head between my legs. As soon as I heard myself say it, I was ashamed, but, at that moment, I was positive it was true; I was sure I couldn't do it alone. "This can't happen again," I said. "It can't." "You need to decide how much you want this, Des," Brian said. I started to tear up: "I want it so bad. I've worked so hard. Ahhhh!" I exclaimed. "That's right," Brian said. "Get mad at it." I slowly stood from my chair, using Brian's arm for balance. He guided me over to the food table and I ate some more food. I stretched my ankle and groaned in pain. Brian asked what was wrong. I told him it was my ankle. "I've torn my ankle before," I said. "I'll do it again if I have to." Brian wrapped his arm around me and led me to the trail. I walked back out into the night. As I left the aid station, I reached back to feel for my lucky Waldo cap. It was gone. I stopped in the middle of the trail, my eyes welling with tears. I now felt truly alone.
LOOP 6 (miles 76.5-91.8):
Once I set out on loop 6, I was determined to finish at any cost and, regardless of pace, I was not going to stop moving. Having taken in a fair amount of calories at Javelina Jeadquarters, my stomach started to feel better. My body, on the other hand, was exhausted and I started to fall asleep as I ran and walked. Several times I would only realize I was sleep running/walking when I drifted off trail. I started to hallucinate and I started to talk to people who were not there. It was during this time that I realized that a pacer, for any distance, is a luxury and makes a significant difference. I had no idea how I was going to keep going, but then I remembered a message a friend sent to me a few days before the race: “The strength is there. The energy will come.” This became my mantra through the remainder of the night. For a brief moment, I stopped to pee on the side of the trail. I glanced up at the sky and saw a shooting star and, in a cliché instant of inspiration, I knew I was going to finish. All of a sudden, the energy came and I began moving as fast as I could.
Shortly after sunrise, I neared the end of my 6th loop. As I turned a corner a couple of miles from Javelina Jeadquarters, I saw Sarah D. “Des!” she yelled. I wanted so desperately to stop and tell her how horrible the night was. I wanted to tell her that I got lost and that I got sick, that my feet were throbbing and that my ankle was burning. I wanted to tell her how happy I was to see her. “I can’t stop, Sarah. If I stop I’m going to cry.” “Des,” she said. “You’re going to make it!”
LOOP 7 (miles 91.8-100.9):
When I reached Javelina Jeadquarters at the end of loop 6, I stayed long enough just to grab a cap and drop some of my gear. I had 9 miles to go and I wanted to finish before it got too hot.
Shortly after I set out on loop 7, a blister that had started to form during the night had become so unbearable that I was hardly able to walk, much less run. When I was at Javelina Jeadquarters, I had decided not to look at the blister. I didn’t have far to go and I usually try to leave blisters alone. I knew, however, that I would not get far in that condition, so I stopped on the side of the trail to take my shoe off and look at my foot. As I sat there and assessed the situation, I realized this was not a blister I could leave alone. I did not, however, have any means of treating it. So, I walked over to a cactus, I broke off a needle, and I punctured the blister. The burning as I put my sand-covered sock back on was excruciating. I knew I needed to protect the open wound, so when I reached the next aid station, I asked for some duct tape. I wrapped the tape around my foot to protect it and I continued on. My foot throbbed.
Loop 7 was hot and long. The sun had fully risen by the time I had reached the midway point and I slowed to what seemed like barely a shuffle. Eventually, I reached the end of the loop and, as I turned a corner to cover the last .9 miles, I saw Dana. Dana, ever smiling and encouraging. Dana, yelling “You’re gonna do it!” I started to cry: “It took so long,” I said. “It’s 100 miles, Des. It takes as long as it takes.” Dana thought I meant my race time, of course, but what I meant was the time it took to get to that finish line, the time between the start line of Badger Mountain and the finish line of Javelina Jundred. “It took so long,” I said. "I worked so hard." Dana gently put her hand against my back. “Be happy Des!”
I crossed the finish line in tears, so blissfully happy to have made it through the night and so proud to have made it through the dark hours alone when I didn’t think that I could. Even now, as I write this race report, my eyes are filling with tears.
Since finishing, many people have asked if I will ever run another 100. To that I say that, while I doubted myself many times during the race, I never doubted why I was there. When I crossed that finish line, I knew at that moment that I had many more of those races in me. Will I run another? I’m already registered.