Honestly, I am still trying to process this whole event. It was definitely unlike anything I’ve ever done before and I’m trying to figure out where to begin. So I am going to do my best with my fried braincells to put this in some coherent form.
Confession time: I’ve never run a marathon, road or otherwise. Last year I did the Peak Ultra of 15 miles, and when I attempted a trail marathon last year I DNF’d due to injury. So of course it made sense in my mind to shoot for 50 miles. When I signed up, I originally enrolled for the 88K but injuries and other factors played in and I knew I was woefully underprepared. At my current pace there was no way in hell I would finish in 24 hours. So I decided to do the 48 hour and try to get my 50 miles there. In my brain I was thinking “How hard can it possibly be? I can walk 50 miles in two days.” I had no freaking idea. I also made some seriously rookie moves that played into how my race ended up going. Some things I planned out well – race nutrition, gear, my knee/IT band, etc. Some I thought I planned well, foot care being at the top. Some things… well, you’ll see below.
A note about the RDs: Jack and Andy are definitely course masters when it comes to making a tough course that really tests your mind and body. These two also have a distinct way of getting into your head. They want you to succeed and having the personalities they do, you know they care about the racers, which in a weird way makes you want to do more to please them, because you feel they care about your success. Conversely, you feel like you let them down when you don’t achieve your goal. So you want to push further, to your breaking point.
So some of the race details… Parking was incredibly easy and free. You parked right next to the Ski lodge, and there was ample parking. Also this is where you could set up tents for camping. Camping fee was $12 for the entire time. So I showed up on Thursday and was able to have my tent there until Sunday morning. I set up a tent so I could house my supplies in and a mat and sleeping bag if needed (it was). During the camping, someone set up a pig roast. Again more than enough room for that. Also RV parking was available for the same $12. A couple folks parked the campers up and used those.
There were 4 port potties and a couple of showers with warm water to clean up with.
Check in was amazingly simple: there were no shortage of waivers, the bibs and swag was all organized, and you were in and out. Andy made sure to have a meeting for pre-race safety instructions, which was really helpful. The swag was extremely nice. The shirts are a nice blend and very comfortable – high quality shirts. In the 48 hour I received a very nice tech pullover. The medals were smaller than the snowshoe race, but the white embossing was cool.
The base camp aid station was very well stocked with water, electrolytes and food and great volunteers who checked in with you to see if you needed anything.
A special shout out here to Mark Webb who came up with an amazing amount of foot care gear and tirelessly helped racers patch up their feet to go back out.
The course was divided into two sections, a 10 mile loop up Hogback Mountain and Mt. Romance. The second loop was 13ish miles and went around Silver Lake. That was our “Figure 8”. There was a small section connecting the two loops of about 3 miles or so. The race was going in stages: the 888K started a week prior, the 72 Hour folks started on Thursday, the 48 hour folks started on Friday and the 88k and 8k folks started on Saturday. Race ended at 8:08am Sunday. As you can see the theme of the 8s and infinity was a constant throughout the weekend.
Ok, back to the event. Thursday I arrived, visited with folks and chose to stay off-site for the night to get some much needed sleep in a real bed. It’s a known fact I do not camp. (This does tie in later). The advantage was a bed. The disadvantage was not being on-site and miscalculating times. The previous night as I set up my tent and unloaded my gear I made rookie mistake #1. I didn’t get my pack loaded. I thought “I’ll do that in the morning. I’ll have plenty of time!” WRONG! I arrived with 30 minutes to gun. Thank goodness registration was so smooth (see above). I ran to my tent and starting throwing stuff in my pack and getting water ready. I forgot sunblock, but at least remembered bug spray. This is important later. I didn’t bring any of my real food, just gels and such. I bolted to the starting line with just enough time to get my shoes tied before the gun sounded. Off we went. I fell into pace with a guy named Brian who became my battle buddy through the course. We quickly figured out that why the 10 mile loop was dubbed “happy”, as many folks remembered it from the snowshoe race, so it was familiar terrain. The views were absolutely stunning!! I remembered it as we were going up the mountain, and it was gorgeous all greened up. The climb was respectable (and easier than it was on snowshoes), and Andy and Jack had posted a bunch of stuff in the woods to keep your interest. A clown hanging from a tree at the summit, quotes that had to do with infinity, children’s school worksheets that had to do with the number 8 (more on that later) and dollar store decorations and props. Some of those props were those kid’s wooden masks that you color with paint or markers. They were princess ones (8 of them) stapled to a tree. We saw some other awesome things along the loop, venetian masks, some various famous quotes about infinity. I seem to remember this one: “The problem with introspection is that it has no end.” – Phillip K Dick. There were many others as well. We stopped to read all of them.
The trail was very well marked. As you were working up the ascent there was a turn off for the 8K course. The course looked very tough as there was no trail – it was bushwhacked. The course was a bit buggy, but there were some great breaks in the form of dirt roads and fire roads where the bugs were minimal. There we could reapply 100% Deet, mistakenly thinking it would help against these little bloodsuckers.
I got to see more of the trail that I didn’t get to see during the snowshoe race (or at least I don’t remember), like the dam there. Very pretty earthen dam built there that towered over my head. That was cool to see.
When we got towards the end of the loop we saw one of the stranger props: Some Barbie legs nailed to a tree. 8 pairs of legs to be exact. A bit further down the trail the head and torsos were stuffed into 8 jars, lined up on a log. I joked that I knew which one did this, and he was one twisted puppy. 🙂 Loved it. Then he creeped me out at the end of the loop with the garden gnomes! Grrr. Hate gnomes!
We weren’t busting too hard, and the first loop seemed to pass quickly. I admit I was a little disoriented. I felt like “oh, we’re done already?”. I was having that much fun on that loop. I was impressed that it took me 4 hours at a comfortable hiking pace. I wasn’t busting at this point as I figured, “why? i have tons of time!”. I was feeling absolutely brilliant coming off that loop. Knee was doing great, feet were in an awesome spot, no hotspots no blisters.
I went back to the tent to reload my pack and get some food. I didn’t drink a huge amount of water, so it was a quick refill, pack food, and more snacks. Rookie mistake #2 here. I didn’t pack my head torch. I figured the second loop would take about 6, 6.5 hours tops and I would be out before dark so I wouldn’t need it. Did I ever regret THAT decision! Rookie mistake #3 also took place here. I didn’t hit the toilet before I left because I was fine! Semi-rookie mistake #3.5 – I decided against my icebug shoes that worked great on the previous loop as they hold in water if they get wet. I thought I would change shoes and socks to something that had better drainage. I taped my toes that tend to blister and taped my heels up and then met back up with Brian and off we went for 16 mile loop. We saw the “Infinitus fairy” on our way out, waving her wand as if to wish us luck on our way out to what had been dubbed the “sad” loop.
The connecting section was 3 miles of the wettest, marshiest, nastiest, muddy terrain I have been in in a very long time.. You could see where the 888K folks tried to make it better by throwing sticks and branches over the mud, but there was little you could do to avoid getting wet feet. We tried to pick our way through the mud. I would use my trekking poles to poke at the mud to find solid footing that was above the mud. But still, you ended up with wet feet as some of those marshy spots were just too deep to avoid. We crossed a couple bridges, one I was convinced was going to collapse as it was leaning off to the right, then we went in a small horseshoe to boomerang around and go over one that was just a few feet away. We started seeing heavier concentration of mosquitoes, but we were still going strong and joked that this swamp was like the “Swamp of Sadness” from the NeverEnding Story. I found out later that this particular segment came to be known as the “Bog of Despair” to many of the racers.
We arrived at a river crossing that wasn’t that deep at the start of the 888K race but with some heavy rains got very deep (Rumor had it the water was almost chest deep and rushing fast) The water was definitely knee deep when you crossed wading. There were rocks that you could try to step on but they were very slick. I heard later there were high rocks downstream a ways that you could attempt to cross and stay dry. Given how wet my feet were, I tried walking on the rocks but they were slick and my feet still got even more soaked by the rushing water.
At the end of the straight connector there was an unmanned water station. This was the only station on the Figure 8 course. After that, you started the second loop, so we turned left onto the fire road and started hiking quickly. The mutant bugs were quiet on that stretch, thankfully. More Deet and sunscreen applied, and then we turned off the road onto the trails. The trails were less interesting here. The fun factor that was on the top loop was missing here. There were very few of the trail decorations that we saw previously, thought there were some stellar ones that showed up at various point – the 8 pairs of tighty whiteys strung on a clothesline, with all sorts of dirt and junk in there to make them look like they “pooped” in them. The handcuffs we saw on a bridge. Apparently people *really* liked the metal handcuffs as several pairs were missing. There were also 8 squirt guns on a stump that was pretty funny. And the smiling penguin, that later one racer in a sleep-deprived fog stabbed with his trekking pole.
The markers were so few and far between on this loop, making us think that we were lost or got off course somehow. Eventually we’d see a marker but it was nerve-wracking at times.
Honestly this loop is a bit of a blur of fire road, some very technical trails, lots of rocks and root, and a 3ish mile section in a valley where the mosquitos were the worst. Many racers (myself included) got bit many times, even with all the 100% Deet. It was almost as if they just thought of it as seasoning. It didn’t deter them in the slightest and if you slowed down at all they would start to swarm you. As in there would be 20 or more on your arms and legs immediately if you stopped at all. I thankfully had a bug net for my head, which helped to a certain degree, but I’ve never been in a position where I’d hear the buzzing like that of a beehive around my head! It was also in this section where it became a bit more like an OCR with the many downed trees across the trail that you had to traverse.
After the Valley of Mutant Mosquitos, came the ascent. This one seemed to go forever, but the views were fantastic, so long as you didn’t stop long to enjoy them. Once you hit the top, the descent began with a huge series of switchbacks. This was a decidedly technical bit of terrain where you wanted to take a bit of time to go down safely and not get injured. The problem here is that we *grossly* underestimated our time. It was starting to get dark. I was getting decidedly nervous but was still thinking we could get back before dark. However those damned switchbacks went on forever!! I didn’t realize at the time we were seeing both Lake Dunmore and Silver Lake. At this point it felt like we were just in a never-ending, infinite spiral. By this point, both of us had been ready to quit. But the thought that we kept telling each other is “what are you going to do? Sit and let the mosquitoes eat you alive?”. Truth be told we were all alone out there. We hadn’t seen a racer in hours. So we kept plodding on. By this point we were both tired and I was running out of water. So now stress was creeping in. I could also tell that my tape had long given out and the wet feet were starting to get hot spots and blisters. I was in a bit of trouble, but kept trying to think we were getting close to the end, and it was going to be fine. I really kept trying to bolster my spirit as well as Brian’s.
Once we got down to the water level, we travelled around by the lake to the campground area. It was now getting really dark and now I’m really having some panic set in. How much freaking farther?? From there we went across a dam and to some picnic area, and we saw the access road. YES!! By this point we were both tired, bug-bitten, and just wanted to get back, but it was slow going. That road was steep but in my heightened panic state the hill wasn’t that particularly challenging, but it was slower going for Brian. Finally we hit the aid station. I was thrilled to find there was one gallon of water left. I filled my small water bottle so as to leave some for other racers and off we went. The bugs were completely unbearable at this point, the pain in my feet was getting bad, and my knee decided to give me crap, but this time it was on the inside of my leg. So my IT band brace and patellar brace were useless. I desperately wanted to quit at this point. It was pitch black, I had no headlamp, and sharing one is really tough. I was in a complete state of blind panic by this point. I couldn’t see anything, and had absolutely no control over the situation. We heard a Fisher Cat, which only added to my level of panic and dark or no, I started moving like it was my job! After stumbling around and being convinced I wasn’t going to make it, my friend Lisa happened upon us. She had extra lights which made all the difference at that point. I just wanted to get off that course!! That last 3 miles seemed to take forever!! When we finally got back to Blueberry Hill we found out we had been out there for 10 hours.
It was at this point in the race, after doing 26 and a bit brutal, hard earned miles, that I hit a crossroads. The crossroad that we hear about all the time – the “outside your comfort zone is where the magic happens” and the “Spartan the F*** up and go until you break or you’re a wuss”. Is it really wussing out when you stop before you are broken completely and out of commission for a while? Or does that fall into the “smart person listening to their body and stopping before something bad happens”. My knee was shot and my feet looked like raw hamburger. I knew I couldn’t drive so I crawled into my tent for some attempt at sleep. Thank goodness I had the mat and sleeping bag as I was camping after all. I got a small bit of sleep and went over this decision in my mind for some time before deciding to call it. I did not want to risk further injury. Of course I could’ve wrapped my knee and lanced all the blisters and taped them up to go back out in the muck, but to what end? To “prove” I’m a badass? To whom? Or do I break myself then have to look at my son (who had a field trip that I am to chaperone the day after the race) and say to him “Sorry baby, but your mom was stupid and am broken and can’t go with you on the field trip”. And have to tell the teacher who is depending on me as a chaperone. Which should win out? I can honestly say when I thought in those terms, the pride went away and the son won out hands down. I can say with the utmost certainty these were the most hard earned miles I’ve ever done, bar none.It just is hard sometimes to reconcile yourself to the “right” choice for yourself when you have spent so long hearing the indoctrination speeches of “Push yourself past your limits. Go beyond your comfort zone” and all those other catchy meme phrases. The best I could do at this point was comfort myself that it was the right call for me, and try to support my fellow racers that were still battling it out there.
While in this space I had some thoughts and observations. One thing I noticed is the lack of a visible medical team this time. I’m not sure what happened but there were no noticeable EMTs on site. Perhaps they were there, but they weren’t obvious. Some participants and crew were EMTS/Nurses/Medical professionals but I didn’t see any actual EMTs there from the town. This made me really nervous as while there was a LOT of gnarly feet and blistering issues, there were things like rolled ankles, tweaked knees and possible pulled muscles. I didn’t see any substantial injuries, but if there were, how would they be dealt with?
Along with this was on the “sad” loop, there was no way to get to anyone who may have gotten injured on the course. While the “Vally of the Bugs” was reasonably flat, the number of tree traverses made for some interesting times. But it was when we started the ascent on the back loop that things got scary and I realized what would happen if me/someone got hurt. There was no cell signal so there was no way to get a message back to base, and even if so, base had little reception to receive it. People were very few and far between coming through. When my knee finally gave, I knew there was NO WAY I could wait for help, as there was none to wait for. You HAD to make it back as that was the only option you had. I guess it is a way to test your mettle, but it can be a dangerous test if things were really wrong. I was lucky. I was able to make it back but the struggle was very real.
All said and done, this was an incredible race. Again it really tested you. I made several rookie mistakes, but I am happy that I took on the hard terrain and insane insects to try to see where I came up. This is an excellent race and one that I would highly recommend, but certainly one not for the faint of heart. Foot care became paramount as did nutrition. I would definitely like to take this on again next year to see what nefarious changes these two make to keep us racers on our toes.