Sean O'Brien 100k: I'm dead!

When I finished Sean O'Brien 100k, all I could think about was this moment from Parks and Rec where Chris Traeger gets "infected" by a virus in an emergency simulation, and with his characteristic shining smile, says to the camera "I'm dead!" It's a moment his character has been buliding toward by working with this therapist (Dr. Richard Nygard), where he learns to accept his own mortality and weakness with the same unfailing enthusiasm that he gives to the rest of his life. It's a hilarious and important moment for his character.

For me? Less hilarious, debatable whether it was defining. But there I was, smiling (I think I was smiling?) and telling everyone, "I'm dead!"

My training leading up to Sean O'Brien (SOB) was plagued with illness and injuries. Here's the abridged version:

  • Shin splints in the fall
  • During treatment of shin splints, the discovery of a tumor in my femur (benign, but no running for several weeks while they ran tests)
  • Flu in the early winter
  • Terrible holiday eating and drinking habits (logging this under "illness" seems legitimate)
  • An early-January cold that led to a chest infection and several weeks of no running

So overall, not the strongest training block I could have had, but also, somehow I've had worse. My running was at least consistent, even though my mileage wasn't huge, so I felt fairly good going into SOB. Too good. Ah, hubris.

The night before the race, Mark and I met up with my coach Korey Konga and his family (Alicia and Jordan) for dinner. Korey and I had briefly met in person before, but had never actually spent any time together, so it was a blast to have full conversations over meals that didn't revolve (solely) around running. Back at the hotel after dinner, I had an awkward encounter with the race director and felt like she blew me off a little bit, and I couldn't shake that interaction for the next few hours as I prepped my gear for the next morning.

In his book Training Essentials for Ultrarunning, Jason Koop talks about the importance of picking races that are near and dear to your heart. For the most part, I've only chosen races that I am incredibly amped about. This race was different: it was an early-season Western States qualifier that was a 100k instead of a hundred miler, and so I picked it. Not because I wanted to go to Malibu, not because I had heard great things, but because it checked a bunch of boxes that were appealing to me. After this weird interaction with the RD, I felt my mental game shift slightly, and that would come back to haunt me through much of the race.

 A preview of the beastly course flying into LAX. 

A preview of the beastly course flying into LAX. 

The morning of the race was that weird desert cold, but the day promised to be hot, so I went with shorts and a tank top. I shivered wildly at the start line until the very last second. Mark was standing by to catch my puffy jacket and see me take off into the cold dark at precisely 5:00 am. I wouldn't be seeing him for most of the day, as crew was not allowed on this course - so he headed back for more sleep, more beach time, and generally enjoying Malibu. Lucky guy.

As usual, I warmed up in the first 20 minutes and never regretted leaving behind my extra layers. The course starts out on a short uphill and downhill on a double track trail that was bone dry, and dust immediately started swirling around all of us. This was... slightly different from my training this winter, which was largely 40 degrees and rainy. After about 2 miles, we got to a river crossing and I made a mental note: on the way back, I would cross this river and have about 25 minutes left of an uphill, then downhill, to the finish line.

We all cruised along, heading up some long switchbacks, where I realized I was wayyyy farther back in the field than I usually like to start. It made me nervous, but I calmed myself down and told myself that I had the whole day to gain some time.  The pre-sunrise and early dawn hours remained cool, and the sunrise over the mountains was breathtaking. The early miles ticked off, and aid stations seemed to come fairly frequently. Things were good.

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There was one section we had been warned about: mile 23 through 31 was the longest stretch without aid, and we were told to take extra water. It was on a very difficult, hilly section of the trail that was also very exposed, and us mid-packers would be getting there just as the heat was reaching its full potential. I left the aid station before this stretch with 30 oz of water in a bladder, plus two 16 oz soft flasks, and tucked a bandana under my hat to keep the sun off my neck. I took off up the steepest hill yet, and started to sense that early tinge of trouble. People all around me were clearly more prepared for this weather and these hills, and were passing me left and right. 

 The very beginning of the long end

The very beginning of the long end

Usually when you start near the back of the pack, there are some chatty people, and making new friends is often the best way to get through a shitty section of a course. Some of the people around me who knew each other were talking, but no one seemed intent on speaking to me much more than a few words and grunts. It was still somewhat early, but I needed a distraction. I stuck my headphones in and turned on my "BEST OF THE BEST!" Spotify playlist that I had painstakingly been making as my ultimate running list, and for the rest of the race the songs ended up weirdly syncing up to my emotions.

I'm only happy when it rains
I feel good when things are goin' wrong

Garbage railed about the rain, while I trudged through the dust, no shade in sight, and the temperature tipped over the 90 degree mark. Pour your misery down, indeed.

 Miles of ridgeline trail ahead

Miles of ridgeline trail ahead

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At the top of a climb and before an enormous downhill, I heard a voice behind me say "Heyyyy, Team Seven Hills!" I turned and saw Krissy Moehl, who had started an hour later than me in the 50 mile race. Since we were on a downhill, I kicked up my pace and ran with her for a while, thrilled to finally have someone to chat with. Eventually, I eased off and let her go ahead of me - she went on to win the 50 miler, despite running out of water early on in this brutally hot section. 

Not long after seeing Krissy, I came across a tiny oasis: a cold creek near the trail. I dipped my hands and bandana in the freezing water, splashing it on my face over and over and over again. I would have laid down in it if it hadn't been for the thick layer of pond scum across the top. Just then, the second place 50 mile female came running down the hill. We chatted for a while on the next climb, and she asked how far ahead Krissy was. "I was hanging with her for a  bit," she said, "but damn, she's a beast." Uh, correct.

The climb back up to the aid station was long, hot, and exposed. When I finally got there, I was out of water and overheating, so I took a bit of time at the aid station to chug some water, refill, and get some ice-cold pina colada smoothie they were making. I dumped ice down my bra and into my bandana, and headed off back down the road. By now it was the hottest part of the day, and I was truly trudging. I was feeling lonely and defeated, and at the top of the ridgeline I switched my phone out of airplane mode to see if I had service. I did! I immediately texted Mark and Dana, my support crew from afar. 

 Such depth of conversation.

Such depth of conversation.

My nutrition plan until this point had been a gel every 45-60 minutes, which had gone quite well. But during the hot section, it all went to hell, and after the pina colada aid station and subsequent downhill, my stomach wasn't having it. Fortunately, my hydration still seemed good, and I was able to bomb the downhills; unfortunately, the uphills were excruciating and I would lose all the time I had gained on the downs.

 "Shade"

"Shade"

The course is generally a lollipop, with an out-and-back on the "stick" portion on your way back to the start/finish. Because of this, there is one aid station, Coral Canyon, that you pass through three times, and the RD was allowing people to drop to the 50 miler distance here, which eliminates the out-and-back section. On approaching this aid station for the second time, I knew I had a decision to make: I could take a right turn and be home free, but it would mean dropping to the 50 mile distance. Or, I could turn left and run a 6-mile out and back: 6 miles downhill, then turn around and do 6 miles back uphill. That would get me to the 100k distance and the Western States qualifier that I was there for. I got to the Aid Station and turned left. I was here for the 100k; nothing less would do.

 The course.

The course.

There was a bit more climbing, then the hill crested and turned into a long downhill. The trail turned around the mountain and was - thank the goddesses - in the shadow of the mountain for most of the way down the hill.

Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again

I ran it as fast as I could. The cutoff at the turn around was 5:15 pm, and the cutoff back at the top was even tighter. I knew I needed to bank time since I would be slow on the uphill. But at the bottom of the hill, the course flattened out and I came to a screeching halt. I didn't remember anything about a flat! This was some bullshit, and I was angry and mopey. I switched to walk/jogging to try and get it done, passing plenty of day hikers who had come to this valley to enjoy the beautiful environs. I, meanwhile, was hating every stupid rock and every stupid mountain during the stupid stupid sunset.

 Everything in this photo is stupid.

Everything in this photo is stupid.

Finally, the aid station. Crew access was allowed at this aid station only, and Mark had been waiting for me for hours due to a mix-up in communication from the RD. It was 4:45 pm, 30 minutes before the cutoff. The sun was setting and the temperature had dropped, but I was still boiling hot - Mark said later, "I could've fried an egg on your back!" I got to the station, sat down heavily on the picnic table bench, and hunched over, feeling completely toast. I had taken a gamble in doing this out and back, but it was occurring to me that it had been the wrong decision; I should have dropped to the 50 miler. Mark handed me a sponge for my face, and I broke down crying. "It's just... so.... hot..." I whimpered, "and so hard." And then I said a few words I'm not sure I've ever said during a race: "I don't think I can do it."

The thing about statements like that during an ultra is that they can really define what happens in the next few moments. If you choose to believe the words that just came out of your mouth, you'll give up. It will take no small amount of coaxing and bribing and cajoling to get you moving again, and that's only if you can get moving again. The other option is: you hear the words that just came out of your mouth and immediately realize how ridiculous and pathetic it all sounded.

I experienced the latter.

The moment the words came out of my mouth, I knew I'd be leaving the aid station as soon as possible. I had a huge fucking hill to conquer. I dabbed my face down a bit more, gave Mark a kiss, stood up and immediately felt better, stronger. I headed back out, this time crushing the flat section in order to make up some time I lost in my tiny pity-party.

I get knocked down
But I get up again
You ain't never gonna keep me down

 The sunset behind us - no one even knew it was happening until I told them to turn around.

The sunset behind us - no one even knew it was happening until I told them to turn around.

Then, I hit the uphill. The sun was fully setting behind us now and putting on an incredible show over the mountains, but meanwhile I was being passed by what seemed like dozens of runners. Eventually, full darkness settled in, and I silently paired up with another runner who was suffering as much as me. He and I would silently trudge, one foot in front of the other, taking turns to stop and bend over or crouch down in the middle of the trail, trying not to puke. Finally, there it was, up ahead. The peak of the hill. We had a downhill to the aid station about a mile away, then most of the rest of the course was downhill.

Cutoff at the aid station was 7:25 pm and as I ran in, the time read 6:45. A volunteer asked me what I needed, but in truth, I didn't need much. I was only 6.5 miles from the end. I looked around aimlessly when another volunteer pointed out a giant RV parked at the aid station. "Well, if you need a puppy break, there's an RV full of dogs over there." Um.... what now? I went over, and sure enough, it was a mobile adoption van with a playpen in the back full of dogs. I reached in and made friends with a golden retriever, who licked my face through the mesh wall. Now THAT'S an aid station, folks. Note to self: if I'm ever a race director, have puppies at the last aid station.

The guy on the uphill with me decided he had time to lay down and try to reset his stomach for 15 minutes, but I was still worried about the time. I took off, full of puppy love energy. I was so ready to be done, and I knew I could be done soon - I was still feeling fantastic on the downhills, had no quad trouble at all, and most of the rest of the course was downhill. I was almost done!

It's no surprise to me, I am my own worst enemy
'Cause every now and then, I kick the living shit out of me

"Or, conversely," said my stomach, "fuck you!" For the first time, on this downhill, my stomach started being a total asshole. I resorted to walk/jogging down the hills, but was still moving faster than some of the other runners out there. I reached a point where I knew I had about 4 miles left, and that was when I made the decision: if I puked in the bushes, it might be enough to clear out my stomach and get me to the finish line. So, I puked in the bushes. Another guy I had been leap-frogging for the past few hours went past. "Ohhh, poor dear," he said. 

But then.... it worked! I rallied. I ran and ran and ran, and felt like a new woman. I knew I needed to maximize that feeling because it was only a matter of time before the stomach troubles returned. Soon, I caught up with the "poor dear" guy, and realized - we were at the river crossing!! I whooped and hollered as I ran to catch up with him. He turned and was shocked that it was me. "Whoa, you sure rallied!" I didn't want to tell him that puking and rallying is my M.O., but.... yeah. That's kind of what I do. "How much farther from here?" he asked me. I told him that on our way out, I remembered thinking it would take 25 more minutes, but that there was an uphill and then a downhill to the finish. We stuck together as we powered up the last hill. My stomach was fine enough that I was back to power hiking instead of trudging, but our hearts sank as we saw headlamps up ahead, wayyyyy up above us. We had both forgotten the size of this hill. Fuck. We were cutting it so close.

At the crest of the hill, the cheers from the finish line echoed off the canyon walls and sounded so close. I couldn't see exactly where it was, but knew we were near. I left my new friend to bomb the downhill, then continuing running the final flat. My watch died about 4 minutes before the finish line, but I knew I was getting super close to cutoff. I felt a blister on my big toe explode. I kept running.

Country Road, Take me home
To the place I belong

At the finish line, there was a massive bright light. I heard people off to the left shouting my name, but couldn't make out who they were because they were so backlit. I forced my brain to work: who are these people? It was Mark! and Korey! and Alicia! And Jordan! All lined up at the finish line. I stuck out my hands and high-fived everyone as I went by. The second my feet crossed the finish line, I bent over and uttered the only thing I could think to utter: "fuuuuuck."

I finished 15 minutes before the cutoff. The finish line was mostly packed up, and there was no food left save some chili that Mark handed me in a bowl. "Sorry, there aren't any spoons left" he told me. Note to self: if I'm ever a race director, don't make the back of the packers feel like garbage by packing up before they get there. They already feel that way, trust me.

The night was very cold, and everyone was freezing. Since there was nothing left of the finish line party, we packed up and headed home right away. I took a nice epsom salt bath, ate some food Mark had bought me (Pirates Booty, my go-to recovery food), and chilled out with him, reliving some of the highlights of the race, slowly winding down, and calling it a night after the final bits of adrenaline dissipated.

We got a few hours of sleep, then headed to the airport and down to Mexico, where we spent a week lounging on beaches and drinking mojitos. The combination of rest and active recovery with biking, walking on the beach, and swimming in the ocean made my recovery an absolute breeze, so that was a huge lesson learned. Mostly, I'm glad to have this one over and done with, and happy to have my qualifier for the year. I have big things planned for 2018 that largely are non-official events, so if you'll excuse me, I have some planning to do.

 [Photo by Howie Stern]

[Photo by Howie Stern]

STATS

Finish time: 15:46:33
Distance: 62 miles
Elevation gain: 14,000'
Female finisher: 28 out of 31*
Overall finisher: 121 out of 134*
Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 3.5
Pack: Nathan VaporHowe 12L Race Vest

*The RD allowed people to drop to shorter distances during the race, which it looks like quite a few people did. There were originally about 65 women signed up for the 100k distance.

SPECIAL THANKS

A quick but sincere thanks to Mark, who has not only been super supportive of my training, but is slowly but surely becoming a regular training partner. Thanks to Korey and the entire Konga family: Korey's been extremely patient with my often-crazed texts and emails that at times can be *ahem* a bit overenthusiastic. I'M JUST REALLY EXCITED, OK? It was great to hang out with all of you, and it meant a lot to have you all (Mark, Korey, Alicia, and Jordan) there at the finish. And thanks very much to the volunteers out there - the pina coladas were delicious.