“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want”
This pretty much sums my race at Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR). It’s been a week since the event, and there’s still a dull tightness in both my quads — like when you lift weights and are sore for days after. Just a subtle reminder of what ensued on Thursday, September 12, 2019.
What is UTMR?
Ultra Tour Monte Rosa (UTMR)
Distance – 170KM (106 Mi)
Elevation – 11,600 Meters (38,058 Feet)
Altitude – Race starts at about 6,000 feet, goes up to approximately 12, 000 feet at the highest point, and then ends at 6,000 feet
UTMR is a mountain race through and through! Which brings me to where I live: St. Louis, Missouri, 535 feet above sea level. What in the world would possess my flatlander arse to pick this race? Simple answer: Impending failure, or to put it another way, I wanted to see how close to the edge I could push myself before crash and burn happened. (Yeah, I like that better. Let’s go with that!)
You see, there is something extremely beautiful and gut wrenching about willingly doing something that has failure written all over it. But, like most things in life, when 99 percent of the times things fail, there is that 1-percent chance that you could succeed. So, I had that 1 percent going for me!
Sometime in mid-summer of 2018, I was talking to Jason Poole, a good friend of mine, as I counted my points to enter UTMB and immediately turned to tell him I couldn’t. My reasoning: Too many freakin’ people; I wasn’t sure I wanted to deal with 2,300 people and the circus it would cultivate. Jason’s response: Don’t do it! Followed by, “You should run UTMR, you’ll like it. It’s B.R.U.T.I.F.U.L and only 300 runners!”
I had been following UTMR for a few years but never really thought I’d run it. Conversation with Jason ended, and I scanned through the UTMR website. I looked at the pre-registration requirement for the 170 KM Ultra Tour, and I had not run any of the races listed, but I had run Cruel Jewel 100 the past May and that was going to be the race I was going to qualify with. Cruel Jewel 100, although not a mountain race, still
gets 33,000 feet of gain and 33,000 feet of drop, so that is what I had — plus the few 100-mile mountain races I had run in the USA to qualify me (I hoped).
Right around then, I sent Luigi Terzini, another friend of mine, a note asking him if he wanted to run UTMR. Luigi is from the region, so I thought maybe he’d join me — and just like that Luigi was in. Fast forward January 2019; we both applied as soon as the pre-registration for UTMR opened. Then, we waited and waited until one afternoon I got the email confirming I had been selected to run UTMR in September 2019. And as did Luigi. Exciting stuff!
The next eight months revolved around mandatory gear list, passports, coordinating flights, hotel accommodations, and an endless back and forth of emails, texts, and phone calls between myself, Luigi, Jason, who also decided to join us, and Martien Vadersmissen. Martien is a good friend whom I met in St. Louis while her family had relocated to USA for work. Since then, they had moved back to Switzerland and she became a liaison for Luigi and me with race preparation and logistics. It was like the universe was working in my favor. Everything just seemed to fall into place!
Except, I had been nursing a peculiar acute pain in my right heel for which I had seen a few specialists. Eight weeks of rehab later and the diagnosis wasn’t clear, but I continued to train as the decision to run UTMR had been made regardless of how much of a pain in the rear my heel was being. I won’t bore you with the details of my training — just know that I climbed a LOT!
Sometime in July 2019, I finally found out that I had a bursa at the insertion point of my Calcaneus and Achilles. Per doctor’s orders, no eminent damage could come from running UTMR except I’d need to manage the pain that came from climbing and some downtime was in order upon my return from the race. Pain is relative when you run distance!
On September 1, my bags were packed and Luigi and I boarded the plane to fly to Geneva, where Martien was picking us up. We spent a couple of days exploring Lake Geneva before we made our way to Grächen to check-in and prepare for the race. Mandatory gear check, bib number, and tracker collection later, Luigi, Martien, Jason, and I met up for some pizza and beer before calling it a night. I was nervous!
Luigi and I got back to our sleeping quarters and started to lay out gear for race morning. As I pulled out my bladder to fill it up with water, I noticed my pack was soaking wet. Upon close inspection, there was a hole in my bladder from which the water was leaking. I panicked! Luigi suggested I empty, dry, and tape/patch the hole in the bladder before filling it up again. I did as was suggested and went back to fill the bladder for the second time. It was still leaking! WTF!?! Had I taped the wrong side? Looking at the bladder closely, I realized the hole went in one side and out the other. So, I repeated the empty, dry, tape process and filled the bladder up for the third time. The bladder seemed to be intact and hold water just fine without any leaks. The little voice in my head: How long will this hold? I guess we’ll find out tomorrow, as I start to run.
After the usual restless night of sleep before any big race, the alarm went off at 3 a.m. Thursday, September 5. Bladder check and last-minute prep. Then, we made our way to the town center for the race to start. A couple of things were grinding on me: I felt overdressed, my pack was particularly heavy with all the mandatory gear, water and fuel, and the most unnerving thing was the weather forecast for the race that had gotten progressively worst, calling for rain, sleet, and snow during the first night into day two of the race. It will be what it will be!
After a quick pre-race photo, Jason, Luigi, and I exchanged well wishes. Just like that, the race had started. Both Jason and Luigi took off as I moseyed my way with the mid-pack from the start line into the dark, foggy, and chilly morning. The first 10K of the race was a bit of a blur, as I focused on my footing in the dark and staying steady with the rest of the runners that I found myself pacing with. Then, it began!
We started to climb. It was still dark, trekking poles came out, and in the beam of my headlamp I could see my breath as we ascended 4,300 feet in just a couple of miles. It was a never-ending climb! I remember internalizing to brace myself, as the worst is yet to come and I could do this just as long as I keep moving, one step in front of the other is all it takes. I needed to make the cutoff to Zermatt and then just keep plugging at it. By the time I neared the top of the climb, the first light of day had slowly begun to peer through the mist and fog. I stopped at the top to fill up my handheld with water from one of the springs and chatted with a few of the runners as they made their way up. As I began to run once again, I fell behind Erwin Bennett from Panama City. He joked about how he thought he had trained for hills, yet that climb had just about done him in. I stopped to take photos and Erwin peeled away. The scenery before me was truly breathtaking! I found myself running alone through meadows surrounded by mountains and in that moment, I stopped, closed my eyes, and I took a deep breath.
This was my “the hills are alive with the sound of music and my heart wants to beat like the wings of the birds” moment! But the moment was short lived, as I heard some bells in the distance, fast approaching. As I slowly turned to look in the direction of the sound, all I could muster was, “Whaaat!?!” There was a herd of about 15 Swiss mountain goats heading toward me. Oh shit! They really were CHARGING right at me! I started to run, and they switched directions from the hills to follow me. In a state of sheer panic, I found myself no longer running on the trail but headed straight for the drop, and the realization that pretty soon I was going to run out of ground space and perhaps fall to my death or have to fight of the heard of goats quickly gaining on me. There was no out running them. Just then, another runner came bounding around the corner and the goats stopped, a bit distracted by the added human presence. The runner stopped as he noticed the scene before his eyes, I yelled out to him and hoped he spoke English.
Me: I don’t know what to do? They are charging at me.
Runner: You have to yell at them. They want to fight you. So, yell out loud at the goats.
I’m not sure what I yelled, but I was banging my trekking poles and spouting out gibberish as I walked in the direction of the goats. Survival skills everyone should learn: how to scare mountain goats charging at you in the middle of nowhere!
Just like that, the goats began to retreat and then took for the hills. I jumped back on the single-track and ran as fast I could, not stopping until I hit Europahutte aid station (17.1km). I don’t remember what time it was, nor did I care. I filled up my water, grabbed a banana, and was in and out of that aid station.
The next stretch of the course was a bit treacherous, with three bridges and narrow stretches of rolling single-track cut into steep hillsides. But the views were incredibly breathtaking. The fog had cleared, and some sunlight and clear skies made it possible to see the vastness of where I was. The unmoving mountains in the distance stood towering all around, and in that moment I felt miniscule.
Past the first two rickety bridges, I fell in line behind Elaine Stypula, who was from Michigan and knew Jason. What are the odds? Of the 266 runners that started the race, only 10 of us were from the USA (and only four women) and here I was running with one of them — and to top it all, she was a fellow Midwesterner. I don’t remember much of this section of the course, as the miles went by quickly while Elaine and I exchanged stories. I realized perhaps I could hang with Elanie and we could both push each other and get through the night hours and perhaps finish together. We both hit Taschalp aid station (26.4km) and were informed we had an hour and a half to get to Zermatt, which meant we had to run 10.4km with enough time for gear change, grab micro-spikes to cross the glacier, and refuel to be ready for the night stretch.
I was famished by the time I hit Taschalp, and I threw down a couple of cups of broth and bread, grabbed a banana, and headed out towards Zermatt with Elanie. As we traversed the downhills, I noticed Elaine would fall behind, but she would catch up to me on the uphills and I would struggle to keep up with her. Before we made it to Zermatt, there was the Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge to contend with. I recalled a conversation with Jason prior to the race when he had asked me if I was afraid of heights. My answer was no, but as I stood at the edge of the Charles Kuonen Bridge, I wasn’t too sure anymore. The longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world is almost 500 meters long and 85 meters above the valley at its highest point. GULP!
Just don’t look down, I told myself. I slowly began to walk towards the other end, which looked like a spec from where I was standing. Somewhere on the middle of the bridge, I made the mistake of taking in the scenery around me. Everything seemed frozen in time, and I panicked. I felt vertigo and nausea about to hit me. I hurried toward the other side of the bridge and, once I got there, took a moment to collect myself. I did not look back once.
Just then, Elaine came up behind me and as we played catch up with each other, we made our way to Zermatt — 30 minutes ahead of the cutoff. Zermatt was a runner’s graveyard. So many runners had decided to drop there, and I knew there were a few behind us that would not make the cutoff.
As we rolled into the aid station, I lost Elaine, since she had a crew waiting for her there. She was in and out of Zermatt before I finished unpacking and then repacking my pack for the next stretch until Gressoney, where I would have access to another one of my drop bags. I wanted to stay with Elaine, but I also realized I need to make sure I had packed everything for the next stretch of the race. In that moment, I wished I had a crew! While I was changing my socks, I chatted with a few runners who mentioned the next stretch on the race was much harder but the cutoff would ease up. They bid me goodbye and headed out.
While I was trying to wrap up everything, I got up to get some food and noticed a substantial drop in temperature. The wind had picked up, and there were flurries in the air, so I went back to my drop bag and grabbed another jacket. As I sat there futzing with my things, a volunteer approached me and said I had 10 minutes to get out of there and to make sure I had all mandatory gear, as reports of fast-approaching bad weather were coming in. Time was slipping away, and I hadn’t even eaten anything. I had no time to eat, so I ended up dumping the food, grabbed a piece of bread and headed out of the aid station. I was hungry, but there was no time to hang there.
As I made my way through the town of Zermatt, a mountain resort town that lies below the iconic Matterhorn peak, the streets were bustling with tourists and people leisurely killing the afternoon. While I navigated the course markers through the town’s streets, I couldn’t help but wonder what the hell I was doing. Why am I here? I could be sightseeing but instead I’m lugging around the very heavy, extremely uncomfortable pack, my quads are on fire, I’m hungry, and the smell of food as I passed the restaurants was not helping my mental state.
I pressed on and tried to enjoy the scenery before me as I made it back onto the trail. As I headed up a steep climb, I came upon Erwin. I didn’t expect to see him there, but I guess like myself he wasn’t doing so hot. We started to pace together and chatted as we slowly climbed our way towards Gandegghutte. This seemed like a never-ending stretch! I was starving, low on calories. It had started to rain, which soon turned into sleet, and I could feel the cold in my bones. Ervin and I both stopped to put on our waterproof gear, and I threw down a bar and some cashew butter. Another mile later, Erwin announced he was feeling sluggish and had to dig into his emergency food ration. He sat on a rock to collect himself while I pressed on. I was about ¾-mile from Gandegghutte when I saw a conga line of runners coming down the trail towards me. In a state of confusion, I stopped and called out, “What’s up?”
It was a group of Spanish runners that tried to communicate to me that I needed to check my phone as they ran past me. I pulled out my phone and saw a few texts from the race organizers: weather reports followed by the dreaded message, “Race is cancelled due to inclement weather/snow and runners should make their way to the nearest check point.” Ugh! Should I try to go to Gandegghutte and take the ski lift into Zermatt or should I simply run downhill back to Zermatt?
Screw it! I decided to bomb the downhill instead. Trail conditions were getting slick; sleet had turned into ice, and there was a dusting of snow starting to line the single-track. Just then, I ran into Erwin once again. We both decided to make a B-line for Zermatt instead of following the original trail that we had climbed out of town a couple of hours earlier. By the time we got back to Zermatt, I was soaking wet, cold, and shivering. When we got to where the aid station was, there was nothing but a canopy left, along with three other runners we took cover and that’s when slowly other runners started to make their way back to Zermatt.
A thing I learned about international races is, when you put a bunch of runners that don’t communicate in the same language and the race gets cancelled, panic, confusion, and loud multitudes of language overload sets in. As important as language is for communication, it also creates barriers and divides people. In that moment, as we all tried to keep our shit together, I wished I spoke French or Italian or perhaps Spanish — anything other than just English and my mother tongue, Hindi. We finally got word that someone was headed in our direction to help us get back on a shuttle that would then take us to Grächen. It would be another 30 minutes before we could get a ride out of Zermatt. I was starving, and all I wanted was a cold beer, so Erwin and I ran back out into the cold rain to the grocery store a couple of blocks away from our base tent to get some food and beer.
At the grocery store, we found beer — and for the record, beer is BEER in any language! Then, an argument erupted over a hot sandwich, which to me looked like a chicken sandwich and Erwin claimed was a fish sandwich instead. Neither one of us could read French, so back nor forth did we go until I overheard another shopper call out to her son in English. I grabbed the sandwich and asked the woman to help us decipher exactly what kind of sandwich it was that we were about to devourer. It was a chicken sandwich! We checked out and inhaled the food even before we got back to the tent, and as we stood there drinking our beer, I offered the extra beer to another runner by the name of Enrico Romano from Italy. Enrico accepted the beer and then the below conversation ensued.
Enrico: Hey, you are the one my friend Marco saved from the goats.
Me: (spitting out my beer) Umm…Yeah, that was me and let’s not talk about that.
We both laughed at that and said cheers as we drank our beers! At some point, about 40 of us walked to the bus station at Zermatt and boarded the shuttle back to Grächen. It was dark, and there was an eerie silence during the shuttle ride back into town. Erwin and I walked together to our quarters, as we were staying the same building. We said goodnight, and I remember looking at my watch. It 9 p.m., and I was freezing. After cleaning up once my brain had thawed out a bit, worry started to set in as I realized Luigi and Jason had not yet made it back. They had both been well ahead of me. A few texts with Martien later, I was told that she was driving both Jason and Luigi back to Grächen. I was relieved to hear they were both alright, and I crawled into bed.
Luigi got back to the cabin sometime around 3 a.m., and we exchanged a few words before we both passed out. Just like that, it was a new day and the race was over! The next morning, we packed up our bags, dropped off the timing chips, and checked out of the cabins. I saw Erwin, and we exchanged contact information as we rolled out of Grächen after saying bye to Jason. Martien, Luigi, and I headed back to Montreux. The next few days were spent with Martien and her family as we visited Montreux, Vevey, Lake Geneva, Lausanne, and Gruyeres while doing all the touristy stuff. We spent our last day in Geneva sightseeing before catching the flight back to the USA.
It’s hard to describe my experience and how I feel. There is a lingering feeling of incompleteness. What if? Would I go back and finish the race? Will there be a different outcome the second time around? How bad do I want to run UTMR?
There are a lot of mixed emotions and feelings: a longing of sorts, maybe not so much to finish but to be able to see what lay ahead of me and perhaps a finish line seal. The end is what we all strive for — conclusion, closure — but perhaps some things in life are better left unconcluded.
There was so much beauty, simplicity, towering mountains, and unrelenting terrain that it’s hard to not have an end to this race. In the short 35 miles of the course that I got to run, I fell in love with this race; the Alps don’t compare to anything I’ve run here in the USA.
So, to answer the question of going back: it’s a bit complicated. I want to go back, but sometimes, time is just not in our favor. Maybe I’ll have another opportunity to run in the Alps some day!
Picture this: A car coming to a screeching halt, exhaust fumes everywhere and nothing but pure burn. “Can you breathe,” I hear someone ask.
I’m disoriented, unable to respond. My eyes search for Amanda, my pacer. There is a mixture of exhaustion, adrenaline, euphoria and the question ringing in the back of my head: What the hell just happened?
I see Amanda. I’m crying. I give her a hug. The next thing I know, I’m sitting in a chair, my lungs are on fire and I’m having trouble regulating my breathing. I hear someone say, “Call the medic. Her mouth is purple, and she’s having trouble breathing.” An ice pack drops on my head, cold water pours over me, and someone shoves a cup in my hand and tells me to drink.
Then I hear the medic, “Can you breathe?”
Me: “Yeah, I just need a minute.”
The guy is standing there, watching me.
Me: “I’ll be fine.”
I’m not sure how long I sat there before I realized the clock had struck 2 p.m., and, as I look up, Wanderley Reis comes across where the finish line of the 31st annual Angeles Crest 100 (AC100) used to be just 7 minutes and 46 seconds before.
Wanderley had missed the 33-hour cutoff. I’d hopscotched the last 50 miles of the race with him and his pacers, and I couldn’t understand how he had missed the cutoff. I was devastated for him!
This is the year, I had said to myself. I’m going to push every physical limit while I’m still able to do so, and here I was sitting on a chair after having crossed the finish line in a time of 32:55:20. Never before in my five years of ultra-running had I had to chase cutoff. This was a new and interesting feeling.
My journey to AC100 began in August 2017, when on a whim I had entered the lottery for the 2018 race knowing little more than it was a classic and I wanted to check it off my “to do” list. Ever heard the saying “What you seek is seeking you?”
Fast forward to August 2018. I’m nursing Achilles Tendinitis coming off a rollercoaster year with some of the hardest ultras out there. I’m questioning my sanity, but, still, I begin to prepare for AC100. My crew and pacer Amanda Smith and I get to Wrightwood, California, on Thursday, August 2, and find out that logistics for crewing and pacing at AC100 are just nuts. Amanda assures me we’ll make it work!
Race: Angeles Crest 100-Mile Endurance Run
Race Directors: Ken Hamada, Jakob Herrmann and Gary Hilliard
Location/Course: Race starts at downtown Wrightwood and ends at Loma Alta Park in Altadena, California. While the runners find a way to thrive on the high alpine ridges of Baden-Powell summit at 9,300 feet, the rocky trails of high country, and the deep canyon surrounding Mt. Wilson. The terrain is extremely technical, with a mix of rocks, roots, lots of loose dirt and ridgelines as you traverse sections of the single-track trails and a solid mix of pavement. It’s HOT! Thrown into the mix is 21,610 feet of cumulative climb and 26,700 feet of descent. The ascents are steep and the descents even steeper!
Difficulty: AC100 is considered one of the more challenging running event in the world!
Time Limit: 33 Hours
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Pacer/Crew: Amanda Smith
Goals & Training: Coming off Cruel Jewel 100 at the end of May, followed by Cry Me A River 100K in July, I had ample training for hills and heat. (Or so I thought.) My goal for the race was to finish in 30 hours, but this isn’t my first rodeo, and I always stay fluid with my running “goals.” Ultimately, I wanted to come home to St. Louis with a buckle. Finish before DNF, because DNF sucks.
Start (0.0 Miles) to Islip Saddle (25.6 Miles)
The race began at 5 a.m. on Saturday, August 4. I don’t remember much other than I said goodbye to Amanda and the next thing I knew we were climbing. (The uphill trek had begun within the first half-mile of the start line.) It was still dark, so my head was down. I was eerily aware of my heart rate and my slow hiking pace as we climbed from 5,942 to 9,260 feet within the first 16 miles. When I finally looked up, the sun was rising in the distance — Blue Ridge in all its morning glory and the promise of a gorgeous day ahead.
I needed to steady my breathing in order to be able to run the downhill, as I was clearly sucking on the uphill. By the time I hit Vincent Gap aid station (13.8 miles), my breathing had settled a bit and I was running steady. I filled up my water, because the next aid station at Islip Saddle was 11.4-mile trek and the sun was starting to beat down on us.
Soon after leaving Vincent Gap, I found myself at a standstill while I waited for the first rattlesnake of the day to cross the trail in front of me. Onwards! About 1.5 miles before I hit Islip Saddle, I had drunk through my entire 16-ounce handheld and 2-liter bladder and was completely out of water. WTH!?!
At this point, I was well ahead of my projected 30-hour finish pace, and, despite being hot, I felt good. I saw Amanda at Islip Saddle, filled up my water, refueled and once again began to climb.
Islip Saddle (25.6 Miles) to Chilao (44.4 Miles)
In short, everything in between Islip Saddle and Chilao pretty much sucked. In length, this is the section when all hell broke loose. We hit several sections of pavement on the highway, weaving in and out of dirt trails, then pavement again and no tree cover. We were baking. Baking well!
Technically speaking, I should have been able to make up some time running on the pavement and its lighter inclines, but the heat rising from the asphalt could be seen from a distance. No amount of ice or water helped. It felt like hell, or what I imagined hell would feel like as I tried to divert my brain from going into a dark place. In my head, it sounded like this.
Me: I don’t ever want to go to hell if this is what hell feels like.
Myself: Maybe there are tiers in hell. Tiers of HOTNESS.
I: Tiers or not this is HELL! Damn it, my ink is getting burnt!
I tried to make myself run from one siderail to the next on the road, then hike in between. At some point, my brain just gave up and I started a death march on the pavement, not giving two shits about my pace and time. I just need to get through this and wait for the sun to go down to pick up pace!
Chilao (44.4 Miles) to Chantry (74.0 Miles)
By the time I got to Chilao, I was an hour ahead of the cutoff at that aid station and fully aware of the fact that my so-called 30-hour finish goal was currently hanging in the balance of “get your shit together” and “get the hell out of this aid station.” I saw Amanda at Chilao for the last time, knowing the next time I would see her would be at Chantry (74 miles), where she would be jumping in to pace me for the last 26.2 miles to the finish.
I was in and out of Chilao, stocked up and ready for the sun to go down. Some of my better running happens at night. I’m much more in tune with myself and can focus on powering through. Plus, I figured the drop in temperature would help me make up some time, so I was looking forward to hammering the run and hopefully getting ahead.
Shortly after leaving Shortcut (50.7 miles), my headlamp was turned on and I was starting to enjoy my run as I marveled at the sunset and the expanse of where I was. I couldn’t help but think how miniscule and insignificant we are when thrown against nature. One misstep and I could be engulfed in the nothingness of the mountains!
The miles went by fast, and as I ran hard down a tight switchback I suddenly noticed that I wasn’t alone. In front of me stood Cesar Salas and Tristan Jones, both of whom I had chatted with earlier in the day as we hopscotched each other during the race.
Me: What’s up guys?
Me: That’s number two for the day!
After the snake had crossed the trail, we started to pace together and a few minutes later I broke away from the boys and kept rolling down a steep descent. But it was soon over, and I was hiking a steep hill when I heard someone behind me. It was Cesar sitting down on a rock.
Me: C’mon man! Don’t sit. We have got to keep moving.
I was fully aware of the fact that sitting at this point in the race would be futile, and time was not on our side. So, just like that, Cesar, Tristan and I became the three musketeers.
By the time we left Red Box (59.3 miles) I was starting to feel some hot spots at the bottom of my feet and reluctant to accept that I was nursing some massive blisters. Just then, we passed Morris De La Roca. I was so focused on running that I didn’t even notice that Morris had no headlamp. I heard Cesar exchange a few words with him. I asked Cesar what was wrong, and the long-short of it was that Morris’ headlamp was out of battery and he feared being disqualified if he asked for help. As a result, he was now “running” in the light of his cell phone.
Me: Huh!?! That’s crazy!
Cesar and I waited till Morris caught up to us, and we asked him to run in between the two of us until he got to the next aid station and could ask for batteries there. We finally made it to Newcomb (67.6 miles)! I sat there while the aid station crew helped me patch up my blisters and change my socks. As I contemplated whether to change my shoes or not at Chantry, I heard someone say the course sweep were at Newcomb already. Sheer panic set in! What!?!
Me: How far ahead of the aid station cutoff are we?
Cesar: One hour! We are waiting on you, let’s go.
Me: Don’t wait on me, not sure I can keep up. My feet are done!
Cesar: Let’s go!
So, with that, Cesar, Morris and I were back on the trail while Tristan tried to piece himself together. Every step felt like a stab, and I just couldn’t hot-step the downhill as fast as I would’ve liked. As Cesar and Morris broke away from me, I knew I would be running alone once more. But I was looking forward to picking up Amanda at Chantry, so all was not lost just yet.
Chantry (74.0 Miles) to Finish (100.2 Miles)
“You Can, You Will.” That was what was written on the pavement as I turned the corner to Chantry, and that was what became my mantra from Chantry all the way to the finish. I saw Amanda at the aid station, ready to roll. I filled up water and food and tried to eat while the medical team worked on my feet again. Time was ticking away!
Chasing cutoff is not conductive to effective stress management, and I knew getting my feet patched and changing my socks and shoes had eaten into some of the time cushion that I had when I rolled into Chantry. By the time Amanda and I hit the trail again, I was 40 minutes ahead of cutoff. We were anticipating the last 25 miles to be the hardest, as I had heard all day Saturday from some of the veterans on the course. I wondered how hard this section could be. We were about to make the infamous climb to the “Dead Man’s Bench.” Aw shit! That’s right, I thought I had died and gone to hell for sure.
Dead Man’s Bench was graced by my rear, and I sat there taking in the marvelous view. It was worth it! I didn’t sit there for too long, though, as I was aware of the time constraints, so we climbed some more. It was Sunday morning, and the air was still a little cool, so I hammered the downhills like a mad woman, hitting a 7:55 pace. I could feel the blisters in my feet pop. I didn’t care!
Quick stop at Idlehour (83.4 miles). I had made up some time, but not enough to stop and lollygag. We hustled to climb once more. The temperature was hitting 97 degrees, the trail was exposed, I could feel dehydration setting in and I was running out of water again. It felt like I was on fire. I was having trouble regulating my breathing, and, pretty much since having left Red Box, I had been hacking and coughing dusty mucus. At this point in the race, my lungs were shot. I was acutely aware of the tightness in my chest that had gotten worst.
Sam Merrill (89.1 miles) was a blessing! As I sat there, I was doused with water, ice dumped in my buff, sunblock sprayed all over my body. Sam Merrill was like a mad lab of volunteers! Fully stocked and ready to hit the trail once again with Amanda in lead, my brain just felt like soup. Hot boiling soup. Sigh! I can’t do this anymore. I think I tried to speak, but I couldn’t form any words. “We have to run” is all I heard Amanda yell as she continued on a really technical downhill switchback. I rolled my ankle three times and stood at one of the switchbacks with tears building up in my eyes…or was it because I was squinting so hard that I had lost all depth perception on the trail? There was no telling what was happening. I felt like I had lost all control. The combination of heat, sun, dehydration, fatigue and blisters hurt. Everything hurt!
Just then, we had to stop again for a snake. C’mon!
By the time I rolled into Millard (95.6 miles), I had officially lost my shit. Everything was happening so fast. Volunteers at the aid station were talking fast, my head was spinning and then I heard Amanda. “We are 7 minutes ahead of cutoff at this aid station and we can’t stop.”
I needed to stop. I was crying, either in pain or shock or at the enormity of the task that laid ahead: 4.6 miles of running in an hour — not hiking, not walking, just running hard to the finish. I have never felt so broke down in my life, and everything was out of my control. All I remember saying was I can’t breathe. Before I could utter another word, Amanda was off again and edging me to follow. I wanted to yell and say I couldn’t and I wouldn’t, but I knew that was bull.
“You Can, You Will.” I repeated those words in my head, and we ran. We ran hard! Amanda and I turned the corner to the last 1.2 miles on pavement and I could see Yoshio Otaki struggling to run about a quarter-mile ahead of me, he was chasing cutoff just like I was. It can’t be, I wanted to scream. This isn’t right. Why can’t I breathe? My legs felt fine, my brain was operating on adrenaline, but my lungs were just about giving out on me. Just then, Amanda turned to look for me. I was stalled.
Amanda: You can’t stop, not now! You need to run! Don’t freakin’ stop! You have to finish!
I could see the panic in Amanda’s face, and all I heard was yelling. “Let’s go, 3 minutes.” I ran. I have never run so hard in my life except for when I’m angry. It was anger, it was fatigue, it was madness, and it was running like my life depended on it.
“It’s only running” some will say, not life or death. Choosing to quit is easy, but in choosing to continue moving forward, knowing that the odds are stacked against you, there is a rush like no other.
It’s been over a week since I crossed the finish line for AC100, and I can still feel the tightness in my chest when I run. I’m still coughing up mucus. Is that weird? I’ve caught myself asking that multiple times.
I can’t explain what happened, but when I look at the race results and see that only 100 of the 190 runners who started the race finish it, I feel good. I was one of the 100 runners who got to experience the “golden moment wrapped inside the exhaustion,” and I get to savor it.
There is a time for holding onto and there is a time for letting go. AC100 was my time to hold onto. There will come a point in my running career when I will have to let go, because we can’t ride the high for too long, such is life. But I’m not there yet!
To My Pacer
Amanda has paced me at a couple of 100-mile races and never before had I acutely felt the need for a pacer until AC100. Words will probably never be enough to say thank you!
Amanda, in the moments when I stalled and broke down, I wouldn’t have made it out had you not pushed me, pushed me to dig deep, pushed me to not give up and pushed me to finish. Thank you for being my friend, for pacing my sorry arse and for not letting me give up when every attempt to take a breath made me want to drop dead. The buckle for AC100 will forever hold your name on it!
I first became aware of the Cruel Jewel 100 in 2015. As I followed a couple of friends who were running the race that year, I thought to myself that I would like to run it someday. Then I saw the buckle. HOLY SHIT! As big as a pie plate and 10 pounds of metal. OK, not really, but you get the idea. It was HUGE! I was doomed from the minute I saw that buckle. It was my Gollum moment: “My precious!”
Fast forward to January 2018. I was training for The Barkley Marathons, and in my state of complete delirium from hitting hills in freezing temperatures one afternoon, I got back to my car and had the brilliant idea that I should sign up for Cruel Jewel since my Barkley training would have me in top form and I really had nothing to lose.
In theory, it was a perfect training plan. But as we all know, yeah, stuff happens. I came off Barkley with unexpected results and rolled that right into Ouachita Trail 50 with a nagging ache in my right heal. Two weeks prior to Cruel Jewel, my orthopedic diagnosed an irritated heel bone spur caused by Achilles tendonitis from running all those hills. I looked at the doc and said I had a 100-mile race coming up. He shook his head, handed me some anti-inflammatory ointment and said, “I’m not going to tell you to not run. Come back in 15 years when it starts to grow and needs surgery.”
Race: Cruel Jewel 100 is a 106 mile foot race
Race Directors: Josh and Leigh Saint
Location/Course: Chattahoochee National Forest in the North Georgia mountains. The race consists of 94 miles of trail and 12 miles of mountain road. The course is an out and back, as you journey from Vogel State Park to Blue Ridge, Georgia and back. The terrain is technical, with a mix of rocks, roots and ridgelines as you traverse some singletrack trails along the lush green hardwood forest and some gorgeous flora and fauna. Thrown into the mix is 33,213 feet of gain and 33,213 feet of loss. The ascents are steep and the descents even steeper!
Difficulty: Extremely rugged and hard
Time Limit: 48 hours for 106 miles
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Pacer/Crew: Tim Landewe and Corey Lamb
Goals & Training: If I’m being honest, after hearing the news from my orthopedic, I knew it would be a long day and night and day for this girl. I figured 35 to 38 hours in the woods, but the ultimate goal is always to finish the race — and I WANTED THAT BUCKLE BAD!
Regarding training, as previously mentioned, I had been hitting a lot of hills and kept an average of 50 to 55 miles with 10,000 to 11,000 feet of vertical gain each week.
Tim, Corey and I drove to Blairville, Georgia on the Thursday before the race in pouring rain and stayed at an Airbnb that was 4 miles from Vogel State Park. We got up race morning with little to no signs of rain, full sunlight and dank humidity that felt like an armpit. We went out for breakfast and leisurely made our way to the race start as the 100 miler started on Friday at noon.
There were no big strategies laid out. The loose plan was to see my crew at Skeenah Gap (20Mi) in approximately seven hours, then again at Old Dial Road (31.0Mi) and finally at Stanley Gap (69.1Mi), where I was going to pick up Tim to pace me for 16 miles until Skeenah Gap (85.4Mi) and at Skeenah Gap I would pick up Corey for the final 20-plus miles to the finish.
I was making good time and was 30 minutes ahead of my projections when I hit Skeenah Gap for the first time and kept running steady all the way until I hit Old Dial Road (31.0Mi). This is when I started to feel hot spots on the balls of both my feet. My guess was it stemmed from all those climbs and being on my toes with my heels rarely touching the trail.
It had been a really steamy trek to Old Dial Road, and it was hard to breathe on those climbs as the humidity kept rising. I was drenched in sweat within the first 5 miles of the race and never dried thereafter. At Old Dial Road, I swapped my socks, which felt much better, and after grabbing my headlamp, I said goodnight to my crew. The next time I would see them would be sometime Saturday afternoon.
Stanley Gap (36.9Mi) to Camp Morganton (50.2Mi)
It was dusk as I left Stanley Gap, and within an hour I’d have to turn on my headlamp. I was looking forward to the cool temperature and just being able to zone out and hammer the night miles. I love running at night! Some of my fastest running is done at night, but as I left the aid station, one of the volunteers announced there was a chance of thunderstorms around midnight. Gah! I did a quick mental check of my gear to make sure I was ready to tackle the rain and charged ahead as hard as I could knowing that once the rain hit things were not going to be pretty.
Before I made it to Deep Gap (41.7Mi), I could hear roaring thunder and see lightning out in the distance. It was not a settling sight or sound. I got to the aid station as a little drizzle starting to hit the ground, put on my light windbreaker and continued with the Deep Gap Loop. Before I had hit a mile on the loop, the sky just gave out — it was a shit storm. I was soaking wet, and water was just rushing down the trail. My headlamp was useless in the downpour. My waist lamp saved my rear on this night trek.
There was no keeping dry! The rain felt good, as it helped cool down some of the heat and humidity that had built up during the day, but running was impossible. I slogged my way back to Deep Gap for the second time feeling like a wet feline. It was my worst nightmare. I had encountered similar conditions at The Barkley Marathons, and moving forward had become unfeasible, so here I was standing in the downpour wondering if it was just sheer bad luck or I was destined to DNF. I can’t DNF, I just can’t. Because I want that buckle. Plain and simple!
I pressed on as the downpour continued all the way to Camp Morganton (50.2Mi). I’d like to mention a few good and few not-so-good things about Camp Morganton. It’s the mid-point for 100-mile runners, and I’ve run enough 100-mile races to know that it’s at about the 50-mile mark that things get ugly. So, Camp Morganton was a runners’ graveyard.
- Camp Morganton is a campground, so the aid station was a covered shelter, with bunk beds, bathroom stalls and showers. All the luxuries! You can change clothes, dry out and catch a snooze if you have the time.
- All the above-mentioned things make it almost impossible to turn around and run back out and retrace the 52 hellish miles that you have just completed. This aid station has DNF written all over it.
Some observations/suggestions on Camp Morganton:
- Make sure you have a crew waiting for you at Camp Morganton, so they can get you in and out of there quick. By the time I hit Camp Morganton, it was 5 a.m. on Saturday morning and no one seemed to have a clue as to what was happening. There were a lot of folks at this aid station, and the race crew was preparing for the 50-mile packet pickup.
- Have your crew bring you some real food. It took me an hour to change out of my clothes, refill supplies, patch up my feet, change shoes and socks, and get my head back in the game. By the time I went to ask for food, all that was left on the table were scraps from the previous night, and the beef broth was nothing but beef bouillon in water.
I cannot stress enough on how important it is to have a crew at Camp Morganton!
Camp Morganton (50.2Mi) to Stanley Gap (69.1)
I had rolled into Camp Morganton while it was still dark, but by the time I finally made my way out of there, it was daybreak. I hadn’t eaten anything and being low on calories made me irritable. I reached for some bars in my pack, and as I slowly hiked up a hill, there was a bleak ray of sun peering through the thick clouds of fog. It was beautiful!
I reminded myself that I had to get moving fast, as within a couple of hours the 50-mile runners will be out running the trails. I made my way back to Deep
Gap for the third time and continued onto the loop. The loop sucked! It was muddy as hell, and there was absolutely no running happening. It was going to be a mud slog! Somewhere in the middle of the loop a few guys came flying by, which I assumed were the 50-mile runners, and by loose estimation I figured it was around 9 a.m. on Saturday morning.
Back to Deep Gap for the fourth time, I was in and out, making my way to the horrendous drop at Weaver Creek Road. The sun was out, and it was once again turning into an armpit. As I started the trek back up Weaver Creek, I paced with Simone Valentin Austin. It was Simone’s third time running Cruel Jewel, and she mentioned it was probably the worst conditions she had encountered during the race in the past two years. Simone was kind enough to share some coconut water with me, which at that point in the race proved to be my go-go juice.
Stanley Gap (69.1) to Skeenah Gap (85.4)
I was so looking forward to seeing my crew and having Tim along for the next stretch of the race. We didn’t waste much time at Stanley Gap and continued forward. I saw Simone and her crew and bummed another coconut water from them. It was nice and cold, and it felt refreshing! By the time we hit the pavement, my feet were starting to hurt and running the exposed stretch of the road made it mentally difficult. I stopped quite a bit before running again. At this point, I knew I would be looking at 40 hours for the finish. As long as I was moving, I’d be alright, as I was well ahead of any cutoff. Tim kept me moving steady, but there was no avoiding the pain in my feet and it slowed down my pace. Downhills hurt more than the up hills.
We made it to Wilscot Gap where, I had a drop bag. I changed my socks and shoes for the third time and was horrified at the size of the blisters on both my feet. This isn’t my first rodeo, and I’ve never had blisters/foot issues in my past 10 100-mile races. Aside from freaking out A LOT, I knew there was nothing to do as the damage had been done, so I popped whatever blisters I could, duct-taped my feet and kept moving forward. By the time I made it to Skeenah Gap, every step felt like a stab and my feet were on fire.
Skeenah Gap (85.4) to White Oak Stomp (97.9)
I hit Skeenah Gap, and Corey was waiting for me with a coconut water. Say what?!? That coconut water is good stuff! Tim was off pacing duties, and Corey lead the way as daylight started to fade once again.
This was the most miserable stretch of the race! It got dark, and the bugs came out and were flying at my headlamp like I was being attacked. I was tired, my feet hurt and my brain just about gave out on me. I had been at it for close to 40 hours. Every inch of my body was screaming for me to stop.
I was walking a 30-minute mile. I complained, I whined and I asked Corey to stop. I would sit at every fallen tree and rock that we came across and close my eyes — and there was Corey with his red nightlight staring me in the face. He was the devil! I swear I wanted to punch him, because he wouldn’t let me sleep. I tried talking him into letting me nap for 15 minutes on a rock.
Me: I just need 15 minutes to shut my eyes. I promise we’ll get moving after that.
Me: Why not? I’m not chasing cutoff.
Corey: Because if you sleep now I’m afraid I won’t be able to wake you back up and get you moving.
I just sat there on the rock pretending to have not heard him and closed my eyes. Somewhere in the back corner of my brain where I was still functioning I knew Corey was right. If I fell asleep, I won’t be able to wake up. So, I pressed on with my death march. I was “sleep running.” Everything felt numb; I felt no pain, no sense of smell, no nothing. Yet, somehow, I was able to put one foot in from of the other. I also hadn’t eaten in the last 6 miles. Not only was I sleep deprived, I was also calorie deficient. Everything turned my stomach. The thought of peanut butter and jelly made me nauseous, and I could smell the ramen in my head. I just wanted some real food.
We stopped once more because my feet hurt, and I figured adding another layer of socks might help. As I swapped my socks, I saw a tick embedded on my leg along the edge of my sock. I pulled at it and its mouth part snapped. I yelled for Corey: What do I do? Squeeze it and try to get it out, he said. I did as I was told and in doing so made a tiny hole in my leg where the tick was.
Onward! While in my state of delirium, I stuck my pole in the ground only to feel something swirl on my pole. I looked down. I had stabbed a copperhead and it was now partially wrapped on my pole and hissing loudly. I shook the snake off my pole and jumped ahead to follow behind Corey. We could hear the copperhead hiss loud for a few seconds afterwards.
Holy shit! That was enough to wake me up. After that, I tried not to sit on any trees or rocks and kept a steady hiking pace until we hit White Oak Stomp (97.9Mi).
White Oak Stomp (97.9) to Vogel St Park/Finish (106Mi)
White Oak Stomp is the last manned aid station, and by the time Corey and I got there, it was dawn once again. The realization that I had now been running for two days and two nights set in, and I just wanted to finish. I was famished and felt like death. I sat at the aid station trying to muster my strength for the last 8.5 miles to the finish. I cringed at the thought of the next section we were about to hit, as it was 5 miles of downhills and I was completely useless going downhill at this point. I dreaded every step I’d be taking to get me to the finish. The volunteer at the aid station was kind enough to fix me an egg with cheese on a slice of bread — it was the best thing I had eaten in the last 24 hours. I was in heaven! I filled up my water and quickly pressed on to the next 1-mile climb before we started the descent.
It was somewhere on the first decent that I heard someone coming up behind me as I commenced my death march. I turned to look back, and it was Samantha Turco. I had shared my water with her going down Weaver Creek, and she had been way behind me, but now to see her flying down the hill about to pass me. No way! I’m not ultra-competitive, but I don’t like people passing me in the last 10 miles of a race. Something about getting passed in the last few miles to the finish just blows my lid.
I looked at Corey a few paces ahead of me and said, “Let’s run.” And we ran hard! I was flying down those hills, the same hills I had been dreading going down 30 minutes earlier. The sun was up, and it was a new day! Nothing hurt anymore. I’m not even sure how on earth was I running so fast down those hills. I passed five more runners and never saw Samantha again. Running felt great! We powered through to Wolf Creek (102.3Mi). I passed two more runners and, as I ran once again, my faith in what I do was restored. I love Ultrarunning!
It’s miserable, it’s painful and it breaks you down. There’s no room for ego, and just when you’ve lost all your shit, it comes back to you. The joy, the exhilaration, the downhills, the grit and all that the human spirit is capable of enduring. Your entire life’s story can be told during a 100-mile race.
As Corey and I made it to the last bridge before we hit the 1-mile section of the pavement to the finish, Tim was waiting for us. The three of us ran hard. I passed another runner before I crossed the finish. I had left it all out there in the last 8.5 of the 106 miles to the finish.
And, finally, the buckle. My precious! I held the coveted buckle in my hands in a state of complete delirium and ecstatic bliss. I was finally done.
My feet were trashed! I threw out my shoes after I was done with the race, and I had blisters the size of eyeballs on my feet. Sound painful? More than anyone can imagine, but it was worth it! It’s always worth it!
Cruel Jewel 100 is not a race to be taken lightly, in hindsight I wish I had made Cruel Jewel 100 my goal race for the year. I can’t stress enough to make sure you have a solid crew if you plan on running this race. Things can go from good to bad to ugly fairly quickly. Keep an open mind and your goals loose. Humidity is a B.I.T.C.H!
To my pacers:
Tim, you are rock solid! If you ever decide to quit your job and take on pacing full-time, I will happily be your pimp. Your time and patience are valued as a friend. I look forward to many more running, crewing and pacing misadventures with you!
Corey, you are still the devil! That red nightlight will haunt me for years to come, but I’m so glad you didn’t let me sleep. Thank you for being there for me and patiently listening to me whine and complain about everything and then cranking the gears when I needed to run. I hope to return the favor one day when you decide to lace up for a 100 miler!
Shoes – Women’s Altra Timp
Jacket – Columbia Women's Titan Lite Windbreaker II
Socks – Fits Medium Hiker Crew
Trekking Poles – Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles
Hydration Pack – Salomon Advance Skin 12 Set Vest Pack
Headlamps – Petzl Nao Performance Headlamp
Waist Light - UltrAspire Lumen 600R Waist Light
Stories from “Out There” – The Barkley Marathon
I was only about an hour into the 2018 Barkley Marathon, standing on top of the Pillars of Death, when I looked down and noticed my map was gone. Just freaking gone! My gut dropped. I looked around, feeling queasy. The two veterans I was keeping in sight had moved on. I hopped back and forth, scanning the area, only to conclude that my map was somewhere in the depths of the stone columns on which I stood. I considered climbing down the Pillars of Death in hopes of retrieving the hand-drawn map that I’d copied from the race’s master map the night before. I’d made two copies but was only carrying one on me. Dumbass!
Time to take a breath, calm down, think…and pray.
It was March 2015 when my curiosity about the Barkley Marathon first took hold. I sat there in a van full of runners on my way to Urique, Chihuahua, Mexico to run Caballo Blanco, listening to Don Winkley talk about the legendry race and Lazarus Lake, the mad scientist behind it. Don told us how Barkley was “the world’s toughest foot race” and how bad things happened when you were “out there”
Up until that point, I was aware of Barkley but had never met anyone who had run it. And I’d never considered running it myself. But, really, how insane could a race really be?
Upon returning to the U.S., I began to the scratch the inevitable itch. How did you even enter the race? It was like piecing together a puzzle; no one ever gives you all the information. As I researched and read and learned more about the Barkley “cult,” there was this underlying sense of exhilaration — and fear — that set my heart racing.
I researched more, learned more, networked more. I was finally able to learn how to apply, and later in 2015 I submitted my entry. (No, I’m not telling you when or how.) Those lucky enough to get into the race receive a condolence letter rather than a congratulation letter. I didn’t get one, but I landed on the “weight list,” which meant that Lazarus had seen something he liked in my application. Or maybe he was lining me up to be a future “human sacrifice,” the person who has “no business” running Barkley but whose certain failure provides comic relief.
As I followed the slow progress of the weight list, it became apparent I wouldn’t be running Barkley in 2016. Fast forward to sometime later in 2016, and in my second year of applying I moved up the weight list. In fact, I was number 10! Panic set in as I realized I had a very high probability of making it into the 2017 edition of Barkley. I started training.
Admission of stupidity: Up until this point I’d never held a map and compass in my hand, even though navigation is central to traveling the course at Barkley. I reached out to Al Beers, who at the time was vice-president of the St. Louis Orienteering Club. We’re fortunate to have a permanent orienteering course in St. Louis, so once a week I met Al and he helped me learn the ropes. I wasn’t very good at first, but I kept at it because, well, what choice did I have?
I made it up to number three on the weight list for the 2017 Barkley Marathon, but once more received no condolence letter. So, I did what any stubborn and spurned ultra runner does and applied again. I patiently waited until, one afternoon while out running errands, my phone pinged to notify me of a new email message. I opened my inbox folder, and my heart skipped a beat. There it was: the much-awaited and dreaded condolence letter. I was in the 2018 Barkley Marathon! I was ecstatic!
As the realization of what I would be up against set in, a questioned emerged: How the hell was I going to train for the menacing elevation of Barkley? The steepest climb near where I live is no more than 340 feet per mile! I was at a major disadvantage and almost certainly lining myself up for failure, but lack of vertical was no excuse for not going out there and trying. Sometimes trying is all you can do, and I had to try.
In short, my training plan consisted of registering 50-mile weeks with 10,000+ feet of vertical. I bushwhacked, a lot, mainly to get accustomed to running and hiking off trail. I figured that instead of pushing my mileage I’d condense my weekly average vertical, hoping this would keep me upright for a loop or two at Barkley. I also, reached out to Jeff Ryan, a board member of the St. Louis Orienteering Club, to help me brush up on my navigation skills. (Al had since moved away.) After a few rustic rounds of navigation with Jeff, I decided the only way I was going to learn was to do it alone. So, a few times a week I’d head out to the orienteering course, working on reading the map features and shooting bearings — and in the process getting lost and finding my own way out.
By the end of my taper week, I’d gone from “where the hell am I?” to being able to pinpoint exactly where I was on the map and where I needed to go. I was comfortable getting lost in the woods, yet I questioned my ability to navigate at Barkley’s Frozen Head State Park.
Failure to Launch
So, there I was at the Pillars of Death with no map. Was my race over even before it had started?
Think…and pray. After a series of arguments with myself, I decided to wait for the next runner to come up behind me, hoping I could hang with them and try to knock out at least one loop.
Just then, Amy Winters came around the bend. After a brief introduction and explanation of what had happened, we decided to work together. I would need to run at Amy’s pace, which I was fine with as long as we got through the first loop within the cutoff time of 13 hours, 20 minutes. Except it was going to be slow; Amy had a prosthetic leg and had been invited to Barkley because Lazarus wanted to see “if a girl with one leg could finish a loop.”
I was instantly in awe of Amy. She moved exceptionally well on the ascents, much better than I did on two legs. It was truly admirable to watch. With me navigating and Amy keeping a steady pace, we made it to the first of the 13 books from which we would need to retrieve the page that corresponded to our bib number. All was not lost!
Not long after that, another female runner, Melody Hazi, who had blown past book 1, caught up to us from behind, and the three of us navigated to book 2. At this point we were about three or four hours into the race, and Amy had already run out of drinking water. She didn’t want to fill up from the nearby creek because the filter she was carrying didn’t fit her bottles; we would hit the first water drop after book 4, though, so we went on. I offered to share my water, since I had a 2.5-liter bladder and another 20-ounce flask. Amy said she’d ask for it when she needed it. We grabbed our pages from book 2 and continued with Melody in the lead. We “scurried” up the high wall instead of going around it to save some time.
Somewhere between book 2 and book 3, about five hours into the race, Amy announced she had exhausted her food supplies. I had a moment of panic but then realized I’d packed enough food to last me for 24 hours, and from there on out, I shared my food with Amy. This was also the moment I looked up to see that
Melody was moving out of sight. I considered dropping Amy and continuing forward with Melody, but she was already ascending the crest of the hilltop. No big deal, I figured. If we ran into Melody or another runner later on, I could split with them.
Does that sound cutthroat? Perhaps. But that’s the Barkley Marathon. It’s an every-person-for-themselves, last-person-standing kind of race. You need to be self-sufficient. There’s no margin for error; any small mistake can lead to a major catastrophe. This might mean you have to be ruthless and selfish in your decisions. If you’re working together to get from one book to another, and the thread breaks because you’re the weak link, then you get left behind.
This coming from a person who had lost her map just an hour in!
Anyhow, on our way to book 3, I overshot my bearing and, as we ran the trail and started to descend one of the switchbacks, I realized my mistake. Book 3 was on top of Bald Knob, so we backtracked and started the assent. We made our way to the hilltop and got our pages. I looked over the edge just as we were engulfed by a thick cloud of fog and a light, steady drizzle commenced. It was earie, and visibility was shot. Was it still daylight? It was hard to tell.
As we made our way back to the trail, Amy mentioned she was worried about carrying on in the thick fog and the dark hours of the night that lay ahead because she did not have a headlamp. I didn’t know how to react to this…. How does someone attempting the Barkley Marathon forget to pack a headlamp?!?!?! Just how?
In that instant, my fate was sealed. Time was ticking away, and with each passing hour, daylight faded. The rain became a thunderstorm, only getting worse as darkness descended (except for the occasional stab of lightening). I tried to stay positive and continue forward. We just needed to get through a loop, I kept telling myself, even if we were over the time limit.
I had to empathize with Amy, because, whom am I kidding, I was the dumbass who had lost her map. Still, it was difficult to comprehend having not packed enough water or food — or a headlamp! — on what is considered one of the toughest 100-mile races in the world. I’d packed two headlamps with three sets of backup batteries, so doing the math I figured we could keep moving forward in the dark, but I wasn’t sure if my food supplies were enough for the both of us.
Following the park boundary on the “candy ass” trail, we made it to Garden Spot, took our pages from book 4, and put on our rain jackets and extra layers of clothing. Temperatures were dropping steadily, and showers were coming down with no sign of stopping. Every footfall felt like stepping in slop. In a rush, we blew past the water drop and ended up at a T on a Jeep road. I stopped, trying to figure out which direction we had to go, when Thomas Armbruster appeared out of nowhere. He had been going up and down the road in both directions for the past two hours, unable to find his way to book 5. He’d finally decided to throw in the towel and was headed back to camp on Quitter’s Road, where it would take him another three hours to reach the start/finish line at the yellow gate.
Not even quitting Barkley is easy. Self-extraction is mandatory, and if you dare to go out there, then you better be able to get your arse back. Help is not coming.
After a brief chat with Thomas, we decided to continue to book 5 in the same direction that Melody had taken. I wasn’t sure if we were headed in the right direction, as none of this was on the map — no Jeep road, just directions that were hard to follow. I couldn’t shoot a bearing and follow that because we’d technically be cutting course.
Wandering for an hour in the downpour, Amy and I were nowhere close to any of the landmarks mentioned in the course directions. It was getting dark, and I handed my spare headlamp to Amy. I stood staring down at the map, trying to find any recognizable landmark. I was completely drenched and hypothermic, my hands shaking and rain pouring off the bill of my jacket hood like it was an awning. I told Amy we needed to backtrack to a point where I knew where we were on the map, then shoot a bearing for Stallion Mountain.
Amy didn’t want to go back and asked if I could take a bearing and continue on. Shooting a random bearing would be futile and dangerous since we had no idea where exactly we were and I was hypothermic. We hiked back up the Jeep road, and after getting a better handle on our location, it was mutually agreed that we needed to head back to the yellow gate. I shot a bearing straight for Panther Gap Trailhead, and we took the trail back out to the parking lot.
On our way back to the yellow gate we picked up Leonard Martin, who had turned around after book 8, unable to ascend the epic climb at Rat Jaw due to poor footing, torrential downpour and no visibility. As the three of us hiked back to the start/finish to face our demise, I was shivering and couldn’t think straight. Back at the yellow gate, we each earned a round of taps on the bugle, as all quitters do. I gave Amy a hug for our time shared together and made a B-line for the car to dry off and get some food to eat.
And, just like that, my Barkley Marathon experience was over.
I have a lot of mixed emotions about what happened out there. Sigh! To say I’m disappointed in myself would be an extreme understatement. I’d like to think that sticking with Amy was the right thing to do, but there’s another part of me that wonders what would’ve happened if I’d stuck with another runner instead. What if? I sit here second-guessing the choices I made that resulted in my failure, my inability to finish a loop. The question is not how but whether I’m ready to deal with the aftermath.
Barkley is unlike anything I’ve ever done, and I doubt anything will ever come close to my experience of being “out there.” I went into the race unsure of my orienteering skills but came back feeling confident in my ability to navigate. I know that I need to move on with rest of my racing season but somehow can’t.
Anyone who has run Barkley knows how the race gets in your blood and poisons you for good. Everyone who passes the yellow gate on race day makes their own reality while out there. I hope I’ll be invited back to Frozen Head in the future, so at least I’m able to complete a loop. When I’m 70 years old, sitting on my front porch, smoking my pipe, I want to be able to look back and say, “I was really, truly ‘out there.’”
To my crew Brad Kovach and Tim Garvey: Thank you! Your support was invaluable, and I will always be in debt to you guys for being “out there” for me.
Ode to “Out There”
Out there it’s beautiful
Out there is where it’s wild and untamed
Out there is where time gets fast but everything else gets slow
Out there you create your own reality
Out there is where dreams go to die
Out there help is not coming
Yet “Out There” is where I long to be.
Shoes – Women’s Altra Timp
Rain Jacket – Showers Pass Women’s Refuge Waterproof Jacket
Shirt – 32 Degree Long Sleeves Base Layer
Jacket – Pearl Izumi Women’s Fly Softshell Run Hoody
Pants – Showers Pass Women’s Track Pants
Socks – Fits Medium Hiker Crew
Gloves – HEAD Sensatec Running Gloves
Trekking Poles – Black Diamond Distance Z Trekking Poles
Hydration Pack – Osprey Women’s Dyna 15 Hydration Pack
Headlamps – Petzl Nao Performance Headlamp and Black Diamond Icon Headlamp
I’m not a super analytical person. In fact, most decisions in my life are based on emotion and how strongly I feel in the moment. But I do plan my racing season well in advance. So, there I was in December 2016 with three 100-mile races on the radar and a few other ultras to fill in the gaps. I had zeroed in on Bighorn 100 in June 2017 as my goal race for the season — and my Hardrock 100 qualifier. Let’s do this!
But, of course, life rarely ever goes as planned. At Bighorn, I found myself chasing the cutoff and made the decision to drop out at about 70 miles. The muddy trail conditions and nasty weather had tanked many a solid runner, and I was one of them. But I had based the decision on logic (i.e. mathematics) rather than emotion — and immediately after I made the decision, I regretted it.
Bighorn 100 was my first DNF ever and a hard pill to swallow. As I sat on the plane on my flight back to St. Louis, all I could think of was that I needed to finish a mountain 100-miler and get a Hardrock qualifier…and that’s how I ended up entering the IMTUF 100.
IMTUF 100 is notorious for its steep and relentless climbs, unpredictable weather and technical terrain. (To call the course sadistic would be an understatement.) It’s also a Hardrock qualifier and the only 100-mile race that’s part of the 2017 US Skyrunning race series.
But none of that mattered at the time. I saw the elevation profile for IMTUF 100 — more than 20,000+ feet of elevation gain — and I knew it was the race I was going to run. I got back home, texted Amanda Smith to ask her if she would pace me and received the response, “I got you.” I didn’t need anything more.
But, as Jameson Frank wrote, “Our greatest battles are those with our own minds,” and as IMTUF approached, I let self-doubt creep in. Rather than trust my ability to finish the race, I put my trust in uncertainty. Had Bighorn been a fluke, or was I not up to the task? When I should have been changing my relationship with fear and the fear of failure, I was instead dwelling on “I’m not good enough.” I hoped come race day my nerves wouldn’t deny me a strong performance.
Race: IMTUF 100 (Idaho Mountain Trail Ultra Festival); in “real” miles the race clocks in somewhere between 102 and 106.
Race Directors: Jeremy and Brandi Humphrey
Location/Course: McCall, Idaho. IMTUF 100 is alpine to the core. Starting and finishing at the famous Burgdorf Hotsprings at approximately 6,115 feet with runners ascending Bear Pete Mountain to Squaw Point at approximately 8,000 feet, the race tackles some of the most rough and rutted trails and summits of this premiere mountain playground. Crossing eight high passes and gaining around 22,000 feet, this world-class course was crafted to be tough and breathtakingly scenic. In 2017, IMTUF ran a counter-clockwise loop, and changes direction each year.
Difficulty: Extremely Rugged and Hard
Time Limit: 36 Hours (100 Mile)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Pacer: Amanda Smith
Goals & Training: (a) 32 Hour Finish (b) 34 Hour Finish (c) When shit breaks down… just f*$king finish!
As for training, I ran straight up vertical, as much vertical as I could get here in St. Louis. I have a bit of OCD, and it helps when I’m zeroing in on a goal. I averaged 60+ miles each week with approximately 10,000 feet of gain. I’m not a big fan of hill repeats, so I bushwhacked and ran some steep sections of the forest that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as trails. I ran slow but steady and power-hiked a ton, with some tempo runs thrown in, too, and a few overnight long runs. My training was as good as it would get living 600 feet above sea level.
As race week approached, the one question that circled my head day and night was, “Am I good enough?” I’ve never felt so unsure of my ability to finish a race as I did going into IMTUF. I felt inadequate, nerves high, as I struggled to find my footing.
Amanda and I flew into Boise, Idaho on Thursday, hung out, loaded up supplies and drove three and half hours to Secesh Stage Stop, our “luxury” crash pad for the weekend. Friday morning when we woke up, the weekend weather forecast was calling for sub-30-degree temperatures overnight and highs only in the 50s. Since I hadn’t packed any running tights, we decided to make a run into McCall in hopes of finding some long pants to race in. As fate would have it, all I could find was yoga tights in size large; they fit in the legs, but the waist was big. No worries, I could manage.
At packet pickup, I got behind a girl and asked, “Hey, is this the line?” She turned to me and started talking, and I stood there completely flabbergasted trying to put a name to the face…. Holy shit, it was Anna Frost! I was talking to Anna Frost!
As we made it to the pre-race gathering, I nervously chatted with a few runners, and I soon stumbled into the joke of the evening.
Runners: Hey, where are you from?
Me: St. Louis.
Runners: (With a surprised, somewhat uncertain look on their face.) So, how do you train for something like this in Missouri? Did you run up and down the Arch? (Or.) St. Louis, Missouri, where is that? Midwest is what we fly over.
I heard this multiple times at the pre-race meeting, at the start of the race and during the race. I became “St. Louis” to everyone, and every time a runner would pass me or vice versa, I’d hear them call out, “Hey, St. Louis!”
As a result, even while I battled the demons in my head and blew off the comments, all this talk had me questioning my ability to finish the race even more. A few of the runners I’d spoken with had run IMTUF previously, and many of them had impressive racing resumes with races like Hardrock 100, Bear 100 and Bighorn 100, to name a few. Most everyone I lined up to race with was from Idaho, Colorado, California or some other mountain state, and then there was me from St. Louis, 600 feet above sea level and the only flatlander out of the 141 runners that started the race.
“You don’t belong here,” said the voice in my head.
Start Burgdorf to Lake Fork Trailhead (44 miles)
Headlamps ready and the sound of the elk bugle ringing through the frigid air, we hit the trail running at 6 a.m. The temperature was holding steady at about 26 degrees. Amanda said good luck to me, as the next time I’d see her would be at 70 miles, sometime early Sunday morning.
The first few miles were nothing more than a power hike, as I got behind a few runners and chatted with Anne Crispino-Taylor, whom I’d been introduced to through a mutual friend. Two things that I was unnervingly aware of
were my elevated heartrate and the cloud of “moon dust” that I was inhaling.
As we got to the top of the first climb at Bear Pete, the view was absolutely stunning! I stopped to take a few photos, and this gave me a chance to slow my breathing a bit, take in the scenery I remind myself that this was what I lived for: the present moment. And in that moment, I was glad to be standing right where I was.
As I started to run again, we were descending. I ran hard, as I love me a downhill, making it past Cloochman. There was a quick stop at Upper Payette #1, and I kept on rolling with Anne all the way though North Crestline, about 24 miles into the race. At this point, I decided to slow my pace, as my heartrate was high and the climbs were becoming labored. Still, I ran steady.
All I remember was the descents were just brutal; there were sections we ran on rocks, rut and more rocks, and I had rolled my ankle at least twice. Nothing major, though, as I was still on pace for that 32-hour finish when I rolled into Lake Fork at 44 miles. I paced with another runner as we hit Lake Fork.
As I made my way to the aid station, I was being cheered by three women. I said hello to them, and as I turned to walk off, one of them looked somehow familiar. I stopped and did a double take, locking eyes with Nikki Kimball. As I smiled ear to ear she ran over to give me a hug and all I mumbled was, “Thanks for the hug. This made my day!”
A few things to note before I ramble on. Regarding the “moon dust,” it was crazy ridiculous on these trails, in some places 3 or 4 inches deep, and not only do inhale it the entire race but it is in your mouth, ears, nose, eyes and any other exposed body part. Also on this note, change your socks and shoes as many times as you can if you want to finish the race without major foot issues, and make sure you fill up water and food at each aid station, as those climbs can take up more time than you anticipate and some aid stations are 7 to 8 miles apart — and feel like 13 to 15.
Lake Fork to Upper Payette #2 (70 miles)
Ah, Lake Fork! This aid station is the bomb! It was where a lot of runners were picking up pacers, so there was a crowd of people, and the aid station had brick-oven pizza. (I passed even though it looked awesome.) Lake Fork is also where I had to pack all my gear for the overnight stretch, load up water and fuel, and double check to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. As I sat there digging through my drop bag, contemplating the extra layer of shirt and heavier long pants, Bill Losey sat next to me and the conversation starter was the Bighorn shirt I was wearing.
Bill: So when did you run Bighorn 100?
Me: Ha, if you call it running. I was out for the race this past June and dropped at miles 70.
The next thing I knew I was telling Bill all about the DNF and how I hated myself for having made that call. We chatted for a bit as both of us changed gear, etc., and come to find out that Bill had run Hardrock 100 a couple of times, Bighorn 100, Bear 100, Angeles Crest 100 and even Barkley Marathon a few times. Serious badass! Yet here he was telling me he just needs to finish IMTUF.
Me: Huh!?! Why wouldn’t you finish? With all your races, you should have nothing to worry about. I’m the one who needs to be able to finish this beast of a race.
Bill: I haven’t run a 100-mile in three years, and I don’t want to DNF, as I have a long drive back to Colorado and spending that much time in my head after a DNF will not be good.
With that said, Bill was gone. I gathered my stuff and, after a series of arguments with myself, decided to add the fourth layer of shirt for the overnight stretch — a decision I would not regret when temperatures dropped well below 25 degrees and many runners were dropping due to fatigue and cold. As I made my way to Snowslide, my conversation with Bill had catalyzed something inside me: I was no longer questioning “Do I belong here? Do I have it in me to finish? Am I good enough to finish?” Instead, I knew I had to finish this race!
I ran hard, it got dark and it was bone-chilling cold, but I was in my element. I love running at night! It was a clear night, and the crescent moon shown. It was perfect until I started to descend and found myself turned around at the bottom of the same hill having made the same loop twice. WTH!?! I stopped and waited for a couple of runners coming down and followed them out to the aid station.
Snowslide to Duck Lake was a blur. I was in and out of the aid stations. I had 10 more miles to go until I would hit Upper Payette #2 once again and pick up Amanda. I was looking forward to having some company and hammering out the last 30 miles. At this point, a 32-hour finish was still in sight, but let me tell you, this course is so freaking deceptive.
As I made my way to Upper Payette #2, I was losing all depth perception in the light of my headlamp and the thick clouds of moon dust, which was ankle deep in places and making for a treacherous descent. Part of it was fatigue setting in, and I lost footing in a couple of places only to find myself on my rear. As I tried to steady myself, I rolled my ankle for like the fifth time in 10 hours — but this time when it happened I experienced a stab of pain running on the inside of my right leg all the way deep into my right hip. F*CK!
This was bad. I knew I had done a number on myself. I’m a trail runner; I roll my ankle all the time, dust it off and keep running. But this was not just another ankle roll. I knew I had tweaked something, but I pressed on with some pain in my hip and my ankle being totally uncooperative. Going downhill was sheer torture at this point. I could power hike with minimal stress, so I did just that all the way to Upper Payette #2.
Upper Payette # 2 to Finish Burgdorf (Somewhere between 102-106 miles)
By the time I hit Upper Payette # 2, I was unsure if I’d make it to the finish in 32 hours — but that was the least of my worries as I still had 30+ miles to cover before I could say I made it.
I was relieved to see Amanda waiting for me. I made a B-Line for the chair, swapped shoes and socks, and could not ignore the swelling that was fast growing in my right ankle. UGH! I typically stay away from anti-inflammatories while racing, but right there and then I didn’t even think about it twice. I popped some ibuprofen, got some food and coffee, and was out of there as quickly as I could. Upper Payette #2 was a runner’s graveyard, and I didn’t want to become one of dead.
Amanda and I hiked steadily, and ran when I could, until we started to make the climb up Diamond Ridge. It was daylight, and unlike most runners when daybreak gives them an extra push, for me daybreak is when I’m at my worst. The realization that I was now looking at a 34-hour finish had sunk in. I was frustrated with myself, as I could hardly run the downhills, but Amanda kept me talking and moving, and before long we were at Chinook, about 86 miles into the race. Gear change, stock up on food for later and we were on our way again. It was starting to get hot! How hot you ask? Well, I got sun burnt in my face and that rarely ever happens.
With a 34-hour finish still in sight, we made the most sadistic climb (or so it seemed) on the entire course only to drop down and do an out-and-back at Lone Lake, mark our bib and make our way to Willow Basket for a second time. What is the point of this torture? Lone Lake! But wait, what is this? It was the most beautiful and refreshing sight! Lone Lake! I loved Lone Lake! Amanda and I took some photos and pressed onto Willow Basket. I was starting to hit a massive low as we made it past the aid station. I was reduced to hiking, and the frustration of not being able to run some of the so-called “runnable” terrain that lay before us made it twice as hard to press on mentally. Nine more miles; I had to do this for 9 more miles! I can do this. I’m freaking going to finish this!
Sigh! I was running low on calories, and the sun reflecting off the mood dust made me dizzy. I was hot and then I was cold and then I for sure thought I had lost my mind.
Amanda: Stop, you need to eat something
Me: I just can’t eat anymore.
Amanda: OK, well, you have to eat. We still have 6 more miles to go, and you need to eat. Here have a gel.
Me: Gah! I hate these hills. I even hate the downhills, and I just want to run flat — but don’t tell anyone I said that.
We both laughed so hard at that. Two gels later, I managed another couple of miles before I had to take another gel. I felt like the walking dead. The 9-mile stretch from Willow Basket to Ruby Meadow just sucked. I asked Amanda what time it was and soon realized there was no way in hell I was going to make the 34-hour finish unless I start running, and running hurt. I tried, but the pain in my right ankle and hip was unbearable. I took another ibuprofen just so I could push myself to run.
Then, out of nowhere, while I was still complaining, we were on the road 2 miles from Burgdorf. I was miserable to the point that I refused to run. I still had a chance to get it done under 35 hours, but I was so frustrated with myself and my inability to run the last 9 miles that I didn’t care what time I finished. I knew I was going to finish, and that was that! Just then, Amanda announced we were 100 yards from the finish and I had to run. Fine! “I’ll run but I hate you for making me run,” and with that I was off as I made an effort to “sprint” to the finish. My official time was 35:08:49.
A few stats from the race: 141 runners started, 86 finished, 41 dropped (DNF). Only 33 runners broke the 30-hour mark, and of those, about a third came in after the 29th hour. I was the 80th runner to finish, 21st female and 9th in my age group, 40-49.
IMTUF 100 is a gem of race! I hope to be back to run the loop clockwise in 2019, and although it was not my best performance, there’s always reason to believe that the next 100 miles will be better than the last. Isn’t that what we thrive on? I got what I was after with finishing IMTUF: a ticket into Hardrock 100 and a renewed sense of accomplishment! IMTUF also marks the ninth 100-mile run I’ve finished (minus Bighorn 100) since I first embarked upon this journey in 2014.
I’m still learning, changing and challenging myself and I don’t ever want this process to stop. I don't want normal and easy and simple. I want painful, complicated, difficult and life changing!
To my pacer Amanda: If only you knew how much I appreciate you being there for me! Running is a selfish endeavor, and to have likeminded folks who will support your sorry ass no matter what is something to cherish for life. I value your time, patience and our friendship and, most importantly, all the bullshit talk that I hope is never disclosed outside of the trails. Thanks again for having my back!
To my sponsor Hammer Nutrition: Thank you so much for making IMTUF 100 happen for me! Thanks for understanding the needs of endurance athletes and making innovative products that help us achieve our goals. In my three years of racing on team Hammer, I have never once had fueling issues, GI stress or any of the other commonly reported issues when attempting these types of events. Hammer on!
Garmin Fenix 3, Altra Women’s Lone Peak 3.5 and TIMP, FITS Socks Medium Hilker Crew, Petzl NAO Headlamp, Some random brand yoga tights, Hammer Nutrition Women’s Running Tee Shirt, Hammer Buff, Hammer Beanie and Salomon Advance Skin Set 12 Pack.
Here’s a breakdown of the fuel and supplements I used before, during and after the race:
Hammer Nutrition Race Day Boost and Hammer Nutrition Fully Charged
Hammer Heed and Perpetuem mixed equal parts in one 17-ounce bottle; Hammer Gels (Peanut butter and Espresso flavors); banana, chicken broth and tortilla wraps at aid stations. Every three hours, I took Hammer Endurance Amino, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurolytes and a Ginger Root Pill.
Hammer Recoverite and Tissue Rejuvenator
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
Our blog writers are members of Terrain Trail Runners, local athletes just like you, who want to share their love and knowledge of the sport.