I used to run alone in peace and conformity. I knew no other way until I met Sawyer. He’s my forever running partner. He slobbers a lot, digs in the leaves, wags and woofs — and it’s impossible to ride in the car with him while we drive to the trailhead. Welcome to whiny-town! But I can’t imagine life without him.
As I write this, I turn to look at Sawyer, who’s never more than a couple of steps away from me. His big, brown eyes catch me in his gaze, full of mischief and curiosity. He makes me wonder if I could ever find a bond so strong with a human runner. Named after Tom Sawyer, from Mark Twain’s boyhood tale, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, we adopted him from the Central Aussie Rescue & Support Center — and by “we” I mean my husband, Brad, and our girls, Erika, Chloe and Alissa.
How did he come to be the best thing since Peanut M&Ms at an aid station, you ask? Well, it was one rainy afternoon in mid-May 2015 that we were out running errands, and I got suckered into visiting a pet adoption that was taking place, being told “we just want to look.” Like I hadn’t heard that one before. Thing is, I didn’t really want a dog. My life was already insanely busy, and to add the responsibility of having to take care of a dog — no thanks. But anyway, there we were looking at this wild thing. He had been a stray, just newly found, and he was frantically pacing and whining. We went into a small room where the girls could pet him and see how he interacted with them. He wanted nothing but treats, and then he’d run back to his foster mom. Maybe he was a little overwhelmed and nervous, she said. We got back in the car and then began the endless droning. “Please, please, please can we adopt Sawyer?” Ugh! As I sat there listening to all the arguments and proposals and deals that were being thrown at me, I couldn’t help but think how handsome Sawyer was. I reluctantly said we could go back and see what it would involve to adopt him. It was a faltering I will never, ever regret!
Fast forward to June 2015. It was the weekend of Kettle Morrain 100, and I was to be out of town for the race. There had been some talk of bringing Sawyer over for a house visit while I was gone for four days. Good! I wouldn’t have to deal with it, or so I thought. I got back in town, completely wasted from running 100 miles, and there he was in our home. I wasn’t sure what to make of him, and he wasn’t sure what to make of me, either. He still had that timid, stray dog air about him. So, we ignored each other that evening. On Monday morning, Brad went to work and the girls were off to school, and there I was alone with Sawyer. What am I supposed to do now? I mean, he was still handsome and all, but I didn’t really want a dog. The dude just happily followed me around all day. Next thing I know, our contact at the Aussie Rescue called and said Sawyer and cleared all his medical tests and ownership searches, and that he was ours to keep if we wanted him. All we needed to do is sign a few papers.
I’m not sure, I’m just not sure. I don’t think I want a dog. I put all my excuse cards on the table but was trumped by all the positive things that could happen if we chose to adopt Sawyer. The one thing that was laid on me over and over and OVER again was that his breed was so athletic and that he would make an excellent running dog. Ugh! But I like running alone. It’s my ME time. I looked at Sawyer, and if I’m being honest, I just didn’t have the heart to turn him away. And to see how excited the girls were to have him around…. So, I said yes, clearly stating that I was not going to run with him, as it would be too much trouble and I liked running alone. But, you see, it’s the simplest things that make us vulnerable, and when we least expect it, life can pleasantly surprise us.
As human beings, we often tend to complicate things. Relationships can sometimes end up becoming a tangled mess of emotions and feelings that never have an opportunity to grow or evolve. We resist and resent change. But it doesn’t have to be that way. If you willingly open your heart to a dog, they will shower you with unconditional love that knows no limits. A dog enters your life with absolutely no demands, and if you’re open to the possibility of adventures together, they provide you with irreplaceable memories that live forever in you. It’s that simple!
So, here goes the tale of how I found the best running partner in Sawyer!
While I was recovering from Kettle Morrain in June 2015, I decided to take Sawyer on a run with me. I hated every moment of it! He was on a leash, and I felt like I was being pulled beyond my control. My 5-mile “easy” run at a 10-11 minute/mile pace was turned into an 8 minute/mile sprint that I didn’t know I was capable of two days after running a 100 miles. We tried this a couple more times, and it was nothing but frustration. The dog needed training, and who had time for that?
I decided I wasn’t going to run with Sawyer anymore, but each morning as I laced up, there he was, looking at me expectantly. I’d ignore him, and then the guilt of leaving him behind weighed on me so much that I couldn’t enjoy my run. There has to be a better way of doing this. Next run, I took Sawyer to the trail and decided to try him off the leash. It was 7 a.m., mid-week, a time when there was hardly any traffic on the trails. I was hopeful! Alas, as soon as I let him off the leash, he was gone. Just gone. Out of sight. I stood there completely horrified, as I had no idea where the hell had he run off to. There was anger and a weird sense of betrayal. How could he just bolt on me? I walked as I scanned the trails, calling his name, but Sawyer was nowhere to be found. After 10 minutes of yelling for him, I finally caught a glimpse of his furry face peeking at me from behind a tree about a quarter mile ahead. That’s it! I yelled at him, put him on the leash and was once again pulled into a sprint as we made our way back to the car.
We tried this a few more times with no improvement. If Sawyer wasn’t sprinting a half mile ahead of me, he was chasing squirrels, deer and wild turkey — or molesting the occasional turtle on the trail. He would excitedly jump on other people that we came across, and if we happened upon another dog while on the trail, it was impossible to control him. He was incorrigible!
But there was also something about him that connected with me deeply when we ran together. It was a feeling of freedom, limitless frolic, absolute euphoria that I felt when I watched him run. Seeing Sawyer run is a thing of beauty! I sometimes found myself wondering if I could ever run like that — effortless, free of inhibition, gliding over the terrain below my feet like the rocks and roots didn’t exist. It was absolute perfection! I dreaded running with him, yet I dreaded even more not to take him with me. How could a dog make me feel that way?
As the temperature got hotter that summer, I stopped running with Sawyer altogether. I’d take him on a hike now and then, but I had quit running with him due to the heat and also because it was frustrating that he just wouldn’t listen. It wasn’t until late fall and winter when I started to run with him again. At that time, I decided to keep him off the leash but carry it with me at all times. When Sawyer would take off, I’d stop and make him come back to me, give him a little talking to and then we’d be off again. If we came across other people on the trail, I’d call him and clip on the leash. I did the same when we’d encounter another dog. Slowly but surely, I was beginning to notice improvement. Sawyer had stopped chasing after deer, squirrels, turtles and or any other animals we encountered. He stuck to the single track and was never out of my sight, and he always stopped to look back and make sure I was in tow. He had also stopped jumping on other people that we came across on the trail, but there was still the issue of other dogs.
This is when I decided to use the good dog, bad dog behavior encouragement. I started to take his treats on the run with me. If he didn’t listen to a command, he’d get an earful from me. His ears would fold back and he’d have that guilty-as-charged look in his eyes. Every time he’d listen to a command, I’d give him a treat along with positive reinforcement. Next step was running with Sawyer on the leash. If I felt I was being pulled, I would stop running, give Sawyer some talking to and then slowly start back up. A few frustrating runs on the leash later, and we had our breakthrough. One morning as I ran with him on the leash from our house, which is a little over a mile from Castlewood, he got the hang of it and stopped pulling my ass along. Once we hit the trail, I let him off the leash. We repeated the procedure on the way back, and I was excited to see he actually started running on pace with me while on the leash!
So, there you have it! I’m closing in on two years of countless miles and adventures that I’ve been fortunate enough to share with mas loco Sawyer. I can’t imagine trail running without him. I’m glad I didn’t give up on him, and vice versa. I’ve found the most patient running partner, who never speaks a word yet shares with me a silent understanding and partnership that cannot be broken. Now if only he would stop charging at me in the middle of a run when he gets excited and wants to play, running in circles around me while I try to keep a straight face and not fall off the edge. But what would be the fun in that?
I will forever cherish every memory made running with Sawyer, and although he may never understand these spoken words, I do hope he knows how much I love him and the joy he brings to my daily life.
Go run with a dog, and live a little!
Lake Ouachita Vista Trail (LOViT) 100 Mile in Hot Springs, Ark., had been on my radar since 2014, but it wasn’t until spring break in March 2016 that I had a chance to run about 30 miles of the course. I had no doubt afterward that I really, really needed to run this race. Fast forward to December 2016. I found myself on the Barkley Marathon “weight list,” uncertain of my demise, and I frantically started to search for a training race. Boom! LOViT 100 Mile was mine for the taking.
Now, before I ramble on any further there were couple of other factors that played into zeroing in on LOViT. First and foremost was the approximately 20,000 feet of ascent/20,000 feet of decent, the 5 p.m. start time and the fact that I could jump in my car drive for seven hours, run the 100 miles, and then drive back home. Cost effective!
As race date approached, I found myself slowly moving up that “weight list” for Barkley, and after a series of arguments with myself, I decided I was going to race LOViT, as my odds of making the cut for Barkley weren’t looking good. Just to clarify: Racing and running a 100 miler are two very different things, and for the record, I have only “raced” one of the seven 100 milers that I’ve run since 2014. Most of the time, I just go out and run on a whim and let the day break down how it will for me.
Race: LOViT 100 Mile
Race Director: Dustin and Rachel Speer
Location/Course: The LOViT Endurance Run covers sections of the Lake Ouachita Vista Trail from Denby Bay in the west to Avery Recreational Area in the east. The terrain is rocky, rolling hills and ridge lines that take you along the southern rim of one of America’s most pristine freshwater lakes and through the ruggedly beautiful Ouachita National Forest with approximately 20,000 feet of ascent/20,000 feet of decent. The race course follows out-and-back sections along the single track trail — one of only 40 worldwide trails to receive the IMBA Epic Trail designation.
Time Limit: 34 hours (100 mile)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Crew & Pacer: Amanda Smith! Amanda and I have shared many glorious and miserable training miles, and she also paced me for Superior 100 in September 2016, so there was a solid understanding of running style, attitude and reliance on both ends.
Goals & Training
Goals: Well, I was hoping for a sub-26-hour finish, but finishing the course is always the top priority. As for training, I was logging 50 to 55 miles per week with an average elevation gain of 200 feet/mile. Leading into the race, my peak weekly mileage was 68 miles with 11,154 feet gain. I simply focused on climbing and running lots of technical terrain.
Before I get into the nitty gritty of how LOViT broke down for me, I must refer to the tagline for the race: Ankles of Steel…Iron Will. That’s what you’ll need to take on this challenge!
Start to Hickory Nut Mountain Overlook (34 miles)
The clock struck 5 p.m. on Friday, and we hit the trail running. The first 34 miles were pretty uneventful other than the steep and extremely rocky decent and ascent up Hickory Nut Mountain. This section of the course is deceptively runnable, and the course layout for the first 34 miles lulls you into thinking the east end will be similar. But, that is not the case. The latter half of the course is unrelenting, and you better believe in the above tagline.
I had run this section of the course last year, and that familiarity left no element of surprise or worry. I knew what pace I needed to run, and there was going to be no dillydallying about it. I was focused! Within the first hour and a half, the headlamps were turned on and I cruised along admiring the gorgeous sunset while the temperatures held steady in the 50s. There was some talk of a passing overnight storm in the area, with a drop in temperature and 20- to 25-mph winds, but for now the sky was clear.
I saw Amanda at the Joplin Road aid station about 9 miles into the race, and after a quick gear check and hug, I was off. This was the first out-and-back section, and as I made my way back to the Hickory Nut Mountain Overlook for the second time I was leading the women’s field and held my position as fifth overall.
Hickory Nut Mountain Overlook to Getting Lost (42 miles)
OK, this is the section where things get interesting! As we descended from the Hickory Nut Mountain Overlook aid station, I met Shannon Hampton, Arron Lebell (who was running his first 100 miler) and Kamm Prongay. The wind had picked up, and the temperatures had dropped to low 30s. It felt like we were running in a wind tunnel!
I put on my jacket, pulled my gloves and hat on, and the four of us ran steady until we hit a split in the trail at the Pipe Spring. We were at a complete halt. It was dark, and there were signs both to the left and right of us, so clearly we didn’t need to carry on straight. We first went right, but the sign made no sense. We then went left, and the sign said 100K and 100Mi, so clearly that must be the way we needed to go. Not!
The four of us stood there with the course map in our hand contemplating which way to go first. The problem with this intersection at Pipe Spring is the 100-mile runners get to run this out-and-back twice each direction, and although the course was marked, which direction to go first was not clear on the signs. After five minutes of back and forth, we unanimously decided that we needed to go left first. About 4.5 miles later, all four of us hit Crystal Springs Pavilion aid station. We had barely made it into the aid station when the news came crashing in: We should have gone right at the split to Charleston aid station, then back to the split and then to Crystal Springs Pavilion. WTF!?!
My brain just stopped working for a split second. Then, it sparked and I panicked when I realized I was 4.5 miles off course and needed to retrace 4.5 miles back to the split, and then onto Charleston aid station. Not only had I lost my lead, but in that moment, I realized I also would not be able to make up the lost time. I was frustrated with myself, but quickly my brain switched to “you have to move past it.” It’s moments like this that keep us grounded when running 100 miles. Goals have to be adjusted, and it’s because of this unpredictability that we get suckered into running one 100 miler race after another. We’re always chasing the perfect run.
Shannon and I stood there helplessly while Arron and Kamm had started their run back to the split. Just then, I caught the tail end of a conversation between Shannon and one of the race organizers; we were getting a ride back to the split at the Pipe Spring instead of having to run back to where we went off course. Arron, Kamm, Shannon and I hopped in the car and were driven to the Pipe Spring split to carry on in the right direction on foot — and none of us protested. Turns out this wasn’t the first time runners have gotten off course at the split, and there was also some question of the signs being vandalized. Since it was four of us that took the wrong turn at the split rather than just one, the race organizers decided to drive us back and check the signs so no other runners would make the same mistake.
Charleston to Brady Mountain Road (58 miles)
The trip to Charleston and then back to the Pipe Spring is about 2 miles each way. Going out, it’s a steep descent that’s narrow in places, and the footing was tricky going downhill in the dead of the night. Shannon and I stuck together and shared stories as we made our way to the aid station. On the way back, I stopped for a pee break and lost Shannon somewhere on the steep ascent.
The rest of the race I ran solo until 83 miles, which is when I picked up Amanda. I can’t remember much of this section, as it was dark and the entire time we were switchbacking up and down hills on really rocky terrain up to Big Bear. By the time I hit Big Bear, the sun was starting to come out and I could feel and smell the crispness of the early morning hours in the air. There was a bench that looked over Lake Ouchita, and I considered stopping, but I was in grind mode. So, I bypassed the Trail Dog Overlook and descended to the Brady Mountain Road aid station, fueled and kept plugging at it.
Brady Mountain Road to Avery Rec Area (65 miles) then back to Brady Mountain Rd (72 miles)
After leaving the aid station, I made the ascent onto the Emerald Ridge section of the LOViT Trail, so named for the tons of moss-covered rock outcroppings. This section of the course has some gorgeous views and lots of technical terrain. This was also the section I had run last spring break, overlooking the Blakey Dam and then descending to the Avery Rec Area aid station at the LOViT trailhead.
I cruised along with the certainty of knowing where I was going, or so I thought. Avery Rec Area aid station is also the turnaround point for both the 100-mile and 100k distances. It was well into the morning at this point, and I was starting to see the front end 100K runners as I made my way back to Brady Mountain Road. Head down, I could feel the fatigue setting in, and I had not yet let go of the fact that I had lost my lead and my finish goal time.
As I moved forward into my own head, the terrain under my feet did not feel right. I was climbing, and the ground cover felt soft, unlike the rocky terrain that I had just come in on a couple of hours back. I stopped to look around for a marker but saw nothing. About a quarter mile down from where I stood, I could see the trail switchback. This isn’t right! I can’t be lost again!?! I wanted to scream but decided to be more ladylike — so a few F-bombs later I made it back to the trail. I stopped to scan the trail, and far out in the distance I could see the flagging tape. It was hard to make out, as the tape was red and silver stripe and with the glare the sunlight made it impossible to track.
Brady Mountain Road to Crystal Springs Pavilion (83 miles)
After going off course for the second time in 24 hours, I decided to get my shit together and hammer out the run until I got to Crystal Springs Pavilion. There, I would get to see Amanda and hopefully have her along for the last stretch to the finish. Since it was just Amanda and I, we had not figured out what and where to leave the car and how to get back to it once I had finished. So, there was the question of whether or not Amanda would be pacing me or just providing support at the aid stations.
At this point, though, I had concluded in my head that I would ask Amanda to run with me and that we’d worry about the car later. I had run so much of the course solo, without seeing another runner for hours, and I was starting to question my ability to soundly navigate the course. Alas! If only things were that easy.
By the time I made my way back to the ridgeline at the Trail Dog Overlook, it was closing in on noon and I was tired. The conversation with myself went something like this:
Me: Why am I still running? I should have been done by now. It’s well after noon for crying out loud!
Myself: Duh! The race didn’t start until 5 p.m. You’re only about 75 miles in, fool.
I: I am so freakin’ tired, and I need to sit. Why, hello bench overlooking Lake Ouachita!
Yep, I sat down on it! Wow! The cool breeze, sunshine, blue sky and blue water in the lake was simply perfect. Far out in the distance I saw a boat zip over the water across Lake Ouachita.
Me: I should lay down on this bench. It will feel so good to stretch and close my eyes.
Myself: What!?! Are you stupid?
I: Don’t do it.
Just like that I snapped out of whatever it was that I was going through and started running. I ran straight until I hit Crystal Springs Pavilion. AMANDA!!!!!
Crystal Springs Pavilion to Mountain Harbor Resort AKA finish (105 miles for me)
By the time I hit Crystal Spring, it was a little before 4 p.m., not quite 24 hours into the 100 miles, as I had earlier concluded. I have never been as elated to see anyone in my life as I was to see Amanda in her running gear ready to pace me at 83 miles. I was in and out of the aid station with my headlamp while Amanda and I chatted.
I talked my arse off…all about getting lost, losing the lead in the race and now just needing to finish. In that moment I realized how lonely running a 100 miles can be. Not seeing another runner for miles on end can be unsettling, so I was thankful to have Amanda by my side for the trip back to the finish.
We ran steady. Amanda stayed ahead of me, picking up on my highs and lows, and we talked and talked and talked! But remember when I said if only things were that easy…?
The overnight storm had knocked out some of the course flagging, and as the sun set once again, it was getting hard to trace those markers. Having gotten off course twice already, I kept questioning every split and turn. Headlamps switched on and Amanda in the lead, we made it to the turnoff at Hickory Nut Mountain about 94 miles. And in there we stood trying to figure out whether to turn at the split or carry on straight.
Me: Do you see any markers?
Amanda: None, and no signs either. Not sure if we turn here or keep straight.
As I hiked up to the split, Amanda was ahead of me scanning course markers.
Amanda: I see a marker to the left.
OK, let’s go. We started running again. This was the section we ran at the start of the race, and there were markers there, but something in the back of my head didn’t feel right. We were about a three quarters of a mile in when we saw a car fast approaching and the driver was saying something, so both Amanda and I stopped. As the driver came into view, we were informed that we had once again gone the wrong way and should have stayed straight at the split. GAH!
But there were no signs or markers directing us to go straight, I protested, and there are markers here, thus the obvious choice. The driver apologized and said he was taking the markers off so others didn’t make the same error as we did. He told us we weren’t that far from the Hickory Mountain Overlook aid station and 5 miles to the finish.
Sigh! We made our way to the aid station, double-checked the direction we needed to go and once again started running. We descended fast down an ATV trail that was chewed up. It was impossible to find decent footing. I didn’t recall this section from the start of the race, but that could also be because my brain was fried. We got to the bottom of the descent and saw a runner just standing there. WTH!?! As we got closer, I realized it was Arron Lebell. We had both gotten off course together the first time, so I was surprised to run into him.
Me: Hey! What’s going on? You doing alright?
Arron: Yeah, just hurting and want to be done, and I don’t see any markers. Not sure if I’m going the right way. I’m done getting lost, so I stopped when I saw you guys approach.
Me: Are you kidding me?
F-bombs were flying, and both Amanda and I were cussing now. It wasn’t funny at the time, but in hindsight it was kind of funny — two female runners with truckers’ mouths and Arron hurting and helpless, trying to navigate to the finish with only 4 or so miles left to go. In that moment, Amanda decided she was going to run ahead and see if she could find any markers. While Arron and I just stood there completely trashed, we saw two runners fast approaching from the direction we had come. As the two runners came near, they confirmed that we had to stay straight and at the bottom. There was a sinkhole or pothole — I couldn’t remember — and that’s where we needed to turn left to get to the finish. Both of the runners were running the 100K and seemed with it and had run the race before, so knew the course well.
OK, so all was not lost! Amanda and I started to run again and realized we had dropped, Arron who was hobbling slowly.
Me: Ugh! We should wait for him.
Amanda: He’s definitely hurting.
Me: Arron, you doing OK?
Arron: Yeah, I’m fine. Just go. Don’t wait on me.
We pushed hard to the finish. 27:54 was my official finish time. This was not my best performance, nor my worst. All in all, I lost 90 minutes of time and ran an extra 5ish miles, but I still managed to place 9th overall, third female, and first in my age group (40-49). The best part, however, was to see Arron finish his first 100 miler race and cheer him on at the finish!
Ain’t nothing to it but to do it! Run LOViT is a great race with challenging terrain and gorgeous views. The race has all the making of an A-list 100mi event and someday I would like to return and race it.
To my pacer: Amanda, I love when we get mad and cuss the shit out of things. I can’t wait to return the favor as you toe the line for your first 100mi race in June!
Side note: Don’t buy moonshine in Arkansas and do visit Burl’s Country Smokehouse if decide to go Run LOViT.
What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?
Garmin Fenix 3, Altra Women’s Lone Peak 3.0, Injinji Trail 2.0 Midweight Micro Toe Socks, Petzl NAO Headlamp, North Face Women’s Capri, Hammer Nutrition Women’s Running Tee Shirt, Hammer Buff, Camelbak ULTRA Pro Vest.
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 and orange slices at aid stations
Every three hours, I took Hammer Endurance Amino, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurolytes and a Ginger Root Pill.
After the first 50 miles, I was fueling on a cup of soup with two slices of white bread at every aid station, supplementing with a gel or two as needed. I also dropped the intake of the above-listed supplements.
Hammer Recoverite and Tissue Rejuvenator
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
The Lookout Mountain 50 in Chattanooga, Tenn., was a race I’d been following for the past few years, but each December just seemed to be the wrong time for me to sign up for a 50-miler. This year, though, as I started to call my season a wrap at the end of September, I heard from some other ultra-running friends who also wanted to do the race. So, since misery loves company, I signed up.
As December approached, I dreaded having to prep for the race. Let’s face it: No one really needs more obligations during the “holidaze” season. What’s a girl to do? Simple really: Train and run free. That became my mantra. I wanted to run Lookout Mountain absolutely free. Free of expectations, free of onuses, free of tangibles and free to explore.
Race: Lookout Mountain 50
Organizers: Wild Trails
Race Director: Randy Whorton
Location/Course: The Lookout Mountain 50 begins at the spectacular Covenant College campus and is known for its scenic and historic climb to its namesake peak. There’s challenging terrain, creek crossings, highly runnable sections, 120-foot Lula Falls and the infamous rope handrail that runners use to traverse Eagle Cliff. The course covers a little over 7,100 feet of elevation gain over the 50 miles on predominantly single track trails. The course is a 22.5-mile loop to start/finish, then out to Long Branch for 34 miles, where you do a lollipop for 4 miles before heading back to the start/finish. My Garmin Fenix 3 clocked 45.3 miles with 7,165 feet of total elevation gain.
Time Limit: 13 hours (50 mile)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Goals & Training
Goals: I had none. Finishing the course is always the top priority, of course, no matter the distance and difficulty. But this was probably the most nonchalant attitude I’ve had entering into a race. Maybe I can chalk that up to my strong performance and running base for the year, or perhaps to my experience with this distance — or, for that matter, the simple fact that this was my last race for 2016 and I was already looking ahead to 2017.
Whatever it was, on the surface I was at ease, but in my head I was a little freaked out at my lack of engagement. To be completely honest, I just couldn’t nail it, so I decided not to worry and just go run.
As for training, I was logging 50 to 55 miles per week with an average elevation gain of 6,500 feet, which turned out to be enough.
As mentioned above, my attitude was blasé and to top it off the weather forecast on race day called for rain with a minimum temperature of 39 degrees and maximum temperature of 59 degrees. Humidity was 96 percent, which put a damper on things…literally. I tried my best not to have a poor attitude as we lined up at the start, freezing in the downpour that had commenced.
Covenant College to Craven’s House (8 miles)
I started the race feeling pretty shitty. I kept trying to tell myself I really, really did like running in the rain, and it was “only” 50 miles. About 3 miles in, I was sweating/overheating like I was trapped in an oven, so I pulled over, stripped two layers, packed my jacket and decided to run in my T-shirt. As I ran some single track trail with a thick leaf cover on the ground, it was hard to find footing. The trail was technical and required all my concentration; then about 5 miles into the race, I started to see the Chattanooga Valley from the corner of my eye. It was a beautiful sight! As rain trickled down, a thick fog covered the valley below. I stopped to take in the view and breathe — really, deeply breathe — and for the first time in 24 hours my faith was restored. In that instant, I knew why I loved trail running!
Cavern’s House to Nature Center (14.8 miles)
As I made my way past the aid station, to my right was a large Civil War memorial fixed to the rock. I continued to take it all in and move forward. The next few miles of the course were uneventful, as we made our way to the Nature Center and then onto the Lookout Creek aid station. This was the first aid station I stopped at, and as I turned to one of the volunteers and asked for a whole banana, I was told they were all out of bananas. WTF!?! We were only 14 miles into the race, and they had run out of one of the most basic and crucial aid station foods? I don’t have time for this, I told myself and continued on. But my brain wouldn’t let go: How does an aid station run out of bananas at only 14 miles into a race? Shake it off, girl!
The thing to know about me is that I typically only fuel on bananas and Coke at aid stations during ultras, at least for the first 50 miles. So, this made me just a little mad. Then started a series of arguments in my brain about how unreasonable I was being when I asked for a whole banana and then acting like a princess when I didn’t get it…blah, blah, blah. Finally, my brain concluded that a banana would not make or break my race and that, when running ultras, we all know we must be self-sufficient.
Nature Center to Covenant College Start/f\Finish (22.5 miles)
I call this “the grind” section. This is the section of the course when you start to ascend. You hit a 500-foot climb over 3/4 mile, then some rolling hills before you start a 2-mile climb with about 1,200 feet of gain that snakes and winds. It seems almost never ending, as you can’t see where it crests. My advice to anyone running Lookout Mountain 50: This section is best tackled when you put your head down and keep plugging at it one step at a time. Before long, I found myself at the start/finish aid station. I refilled my water, put on my windbreaker, had some warm soup, and was in and out to the latter half of the race.
Covenant College to Lula Lake (29.9 miles)
This section of the course, on ATV trails, was fast but extremely muddy. A dense fog blurred the views, and the persistent drizzle returned. The only saving grace was that the water level in the creek crossings was low. As I approached a split in the trail, I made a left turn to go off course for a pee break, and as I turned to duck into the woods, three other runners followed me.
“Timeout dudes! I’m going to go pee. Go back and stay to your right.”
It was getting hard to see the trail markers, which by the way, are limited and in-ground. As I made my way back on course, another runner came up behind me and said he had gotten lost missing a turn on the trail. As we approached Lula Lake aid station, I was so caught up in making sure I was following the course that I completely missed Lula Falls. How do you miss a 120-foot waterfall? Well, I wasn’t going back to find it.
I was in and out of Lula Lake aid station and made my way to the infamous rope climb up Eagle Cliff, arriving on the opposite side of Lookout Mountain above Chattanooga Valley. I could barely see 50 feet ahead of me; dense fog made the woods eerily spooky. The entire time I had a vision of the legend of Sleepy Hollow and the headless horseman in my mind’s eye. Must run fast and get out of the woods to the finish before daylight fades!
Long Branch Loop (Long Branch Aid Station to Long Branch Aid Station – 38.2 miles)
I got to the aid station and asked for Coke. They were all out of Coke. WTF!?! Before my brain could repeat the sequence of earlier in the day, I decided to make a run for the trail.
This is what I call the “douchey” section of the course. It’s a 4.2-mile lollipop that runs on private property, so you pass a lake, some homes, a barn and rolling hills. I was feeling sluggish and with much irritation made my way back to the aid station, still a bit whiny about not getting any Coke. This is when I should’ve grabbed my headlamp, as the race details clearly indicated that runners will need a headlamp for the trip back to Covenant College. But I was being stubborn, and as I looked at the time, doing the math in my head, I felt confident I’d be at the finish before full dark. In hindsight, this was a bad move, as I underestimated the rainclouds and the thick fog cover.
Long Branch to Lula Lake (42.5 miles)
I made my way back to Lula Lake with the goal of getting my arse to the finish before all daylight faded, but as they say, the best laid plans fail. I was running steady until I started the decent from Eagle Cliff. Now, I’ve run some pretty treacherous trails, and never once has my spirt waivered — except here I was standing atop a nasty clifftop, heartbeat racing, unsure how I would make it down alive. I could barely see where I was stepping. It was muddy as hell, and the slick rocks made the footing impossible. I considered sliding down the rope. If only I was Tarzan!
Instead, I sat on my butt, clutching to the rope for dear life and slid down the cliff. Whew! As I approached Lula Lake aid station once more I had a pleasant surprise when I happened to look to my right and saw the gorgeous Lula Falls! A thick fog danced around the cascade and the loud sound of crashing water filled the air. How the hell did I miss this on my way out?
I refilled my water at the aid station and turned to ask one of the volunteers: How far to the finish?
Volunteer: About 7 miles. If you hustle you can make it before it goes dark, but get moving quick.
All I remember was saying thanks and making a b-line for the trail, with a fading voice in the background saying, “Get it girl!”
Lula Lake to Finish Covenant College (50 miles)
I’d barely made a 1/4 mile from Lula Lake aid station when I came upon a fork in the trail that I didn’t remember seeing earlier in the day. I stopped while my eyes tried to peer through the fog for a course marker. Just then, another runner came up behind me and we both stood looking at each other.
Runner: Now what?
Me: I don’t know. I don’t see a marker.
Runner (throwing this handheld to the ground): I hate this shit! We’re 43 miles in and no markers. Why do they do this? Every year, they mark it less and less.
Me: Well, let’s walk a bit and figure it out.
As we hiked a few paces, I noticed some homes along the ridge that I remembered seeing earlier in the day.
Me: I think we’re on the right trail.
Runner: I see something! There’s a runner up ahead, and look a maker buried in the mud!
All was not lost! With that, he was gone and I slugged onwards, making my way across a road and heading back to the gate I’d come through on my way out that morning. I was on the ATV trails again. UGH! It was impossible to run. Not only was I tracking pounds of mud in my shoes, but it was like running on ice. So, I decided to hike, picking each step carefully to prevent wiping out.
I made my way to the single track and noticed I could barely see anything. It was foggy, and the rain had picked up some. All daylight was fading. It was like the moment when your headlamp flickers as a warning before it dies all together. I mentally kicked myself in the rear for not having picked up my headlamp at Long Branch. Gah!
Four more miles to go, or was it 3? Shut up and run! I hustled in the dark as best I could without a headlamp and no end in sight. I stopped to look behind me in hopes of seeing another runner with a light, so I could follow him or her to the finish. Nothing. As I rounded the next corner, I heard someone cheering, “Only a quarter mile to the finish!” I relaxed into a steady jog, and the lights heading up the slope towards the finish came into focus. Hey, I can see so much better with some light!
10:15:19 was my official finish time, making this a 50-mile distance PR for me by 15 minutes and a RRCA Female Master Championship win!
I came to realize that being self-reliant is always the best policy! Things won’t always go as planned, but that’s when we can all use an attitude adjustment. “Attitude is the difference between an ordeal and an adventure.”
A few quick pointers for anyone running Lookout Mountain 50 for the first time:
Author: Shalini Kovach is the founder and lead organizer of Terrain Trail Runners.
It’s been five days since I returned home from Lutsen, Minn., and I’m still unable to make up my mind if I loved the course or hated it — or maybe the reality of actually having finished this BEAST of a race hasn’t sunk in quite yet. As I continue to ponder, there are a few things I’d like to share before I get on with what and how this race broke down for me. I’d entered the lottery for Superior 100 well aware of how difficult the course is fabled to be; the race has a reputation of being amongst the toughest and wildest of its kind, so I wanted to find out for myself if I had it in me to finish.
I’d been so focused on training for Western States 100 in June that getting into the lottery for Superior 100 kind of fell on the back burner until it was July and I tried to refocus all my energy. I’d be lying if I hadn’t questioned my ability to finish Superior 100 based on everything I’d read and from talking to folks who had run it. The DNF rate is high, finish times are slower and the cutoff is 38 hours. Geeze, who’d want to be out on the trail for that long?
Race: The Superior Fall Trail Race 100Mi, 50Mi & 26.2Mi
Organizers: Ultrarunners For Ultrarunners and Rocksteady Running
Race Director: John Storkamp
Location/Course: The Superior Trail Race is a point-to-point (95% trail) ultramarathon that traverses the Sawtooth Mountains on the Superior Hiking Trail in the far reaches of northern Minnesota near the Canadian border. The course parallels the north shore of Lake Superior, the greatest freshwater lake in the world, climbs to near 2,000-foot peaks with breathtaking vistas of the lake and inland forests, crosses countless whitewater rivers and serene streams, and meanders through mystic boreal forests.
Difficulty: Extremely hard
Time Limit: 38 hours (103.3 miles)
Runner: Shalini Kovach
Crew & Support: Jerod Thornton and Amanda Smith. I’ve shared many hours of running trails with both Jerod and Amanda, so there was a comfort level and silent understanding that they would be able to push me through when things got tough. Even though we don’t run the same pace, the thing that mattered in this case was that both Jerod and Amanda are resilient. For Superior 100, I didn’t need fast, I needed consistent, no BS running and both my pacers delivered just that!
Goals & Training
Superior 100 would be my second 100-mile race and fourth ultra for the year, and given the difficulty of the course, I figured a 32-hour finish was realistic — baring no issues.
Training was a no-brainer coming off Western States 100. I tapered, then revamped my peak training weekly mileage to 70 miles leading into Superior. Three things I’ve learned from having run a few 100-mile races: less is more, terrain-specific training will take you a lot closer to the finish line than junk miles, and a three-week taper is your best friend.
I only train on trails, and on each run — no matter the length — I shoot for about a 100 feet of gain per mile. This has pretty much become my rule of thumb, and it’s worked so far! Finishing the race, of course, is the ultimate goal.
Gooseberry State Park Visitor Center to Silver Bay (25.0 miles)
It was a calm, relaxed and uncluttered start as 250 runners lined up to tackle what lay ahead. The clock struck 8 a.m., and everyone eased into the run. It was a pretty uneventful 25 miles to Silver Bay, with lots of up and down and each climb leading to a gorgeous view of Lake Superior.
A few things to mention here: There was some chatter among the runners on how that 20-percent chance of rain at the start of the race was now looking more like a 100-percent chance of rain overnight, and as the sun came out, it got hot and humid. I needed to adjust my pace. Also, the trail was extremely muddy in the “runnable” sections of the course. Nothing to freak out about, I told myself, it was still early in the race.
I saw Jerod and Amanda at Silver Bay. They had ice for me, which I put in my bandana. Then, I topped off my bottles, put on my headlamp for the night section and kept moving forward. I was two hours ahead of the cutoff and holding steady.
Silver Bay to Finland (51.2 miles)
This was the craziest stretch of the race, as the climbs continued to come at you and the views became more and more stunning. The drops were exhilarating; the terrain became more rugged and relentless, and some stretches of the trail were nothing but a web of roots, slick and unyielding. There was a sense of freedom and wildness as I traversed through this section of the course. This was also when I realized that there would be no rushing through this race. Extreme patience and caution would be needed to get through the night.
Silver Bay to Tettegouche Aid Station was a 9.9-mile stretch. This is when I got passed by Richard Plezia, a seasoned ultra-runner and a veteran at Superior 100. As I got tucked in behind him, we started to chat. Richard, come to find out, is in his 50s and had run Superior 11 times. He’d finished eight of those starts, and the immaculate pace and tenacity he was moving forward with was enough for me to hang with him until Finland, which is where I’d planned on picking up Amanda. I must add here: For anyone attempting Superior 100 for the first time, if you find a veteran runner running your pace, latch onto them, because it’s stabling and experience goes a long way on this course.
As Richard and I came upon a bluff after one of the numerous climbs, he pointed at the skyline as the sun was setting and said: “It’s coming.” I could see and hear the dark clouds, thunder and lightning brewing far out in the distance. All I remember saying to Richard was, “Don’t lose me. I’m pacing with you.” We ran steady as it got dark; headlamps were turned on and Richard and I shared stories as I gingerly walked across one of the many extremely slippery wood plank “bridges.” Whoosh! BOOM! I butt-planted…hard. Not my first for the day but probably one of the worst. My left leg was knee-deep in mud and water. As I tried to pull myself up and not lose my shoe, I felt a cramp in my left calf and I just sat there in the swamp watching Richard pull away from me in the dead of the night. “Ugh! Get up! Don’t lose him,” said the little voice in my head. “Shalini are you OK? We need to keep moving forward,” I heard Richard call out. “I’m coming!”
Finland to Cramer Rd (77.9 miles)
Ah, Finland! This was the first time I saw Jerod and Amanda since having left Silver Bay. There was a sigh of relief in seeing familiar faces and knowing I’d have Amanda running with me for the next stretch of race. It had started to drizzle, but the temperature held steady in the mid-50s. I ate some food, refilled my bottles, restocked my gels and bars, and Amanda and I were on the trail.
Richard was somewhere ahead of us at this point, as I told him not to wait on me. I was feeling pretty good, so I ran hard, passing a few runners in and out of aid stations. I even ran past Richard all the way till we hit Crosby Manitou at 62.9 miles. This is when the downpour began. I pulled my jacket from my pack and, with Amanda behind me, continued to slowly plug away at it. BOOM! Another butt-plant. I was in the mud again, and with the rain pouring down, I was drenched. My hair was dripping, and I was feeling a bit sluggish, dizzy and irritated with myself. No matter how hard I tried to run, I just couldn’t pull it, the trail was sloppy in the dark and my hands were freezing. Not a good sign, said the little voice in my head. Don’t stop. One step in front of the other is all it takes.
But soon, I was shivering. I’ve never experienced hypothermia before, so this was a bit of a shock. I turned to Amanda. “I’m freezing. Can I take your jacket?” “Sure,” she said. I threw Amanda’s jacket on top of mine, pulled out my gloves and asked Amanda to run ahead of me. This was the only way to pull myself. If I sat, I’d completely shut down. So, with Amanda patiently pulling me along, we made our way to Sugarloaf Aid Station. Coffee! I need hot coffee! I stood there throwing down coffee so hot it burned my mouth. Richard came up from behind us and asked how I was doing. I think I grunted, to which he replied that I’d feel better when the sun came up. And with that, he was gone.
We recommenced with a slow death march to Cramer Road Aid Station. I was way off my projected goal finish time. It was 9:40 a.m. when I picked up Jerod, who had been waiting since 6 a.m. and was amped up, ready to roll.
Cramer Road to Caribou Highland Lodge (103.3 miles)
This was the most interesting stretch of the course! Pretty much all of the 100-mile runners were on a death march, some moving forward faster than others, but a death march none the less. Morale was low, fatigue had set in, the overnight rain had taken its toll, and the terrain just kept getting harder and harder. The climbs did not lighten up one bit; it was a mud fest.
From the minute, I picked up Jerod, I was whining. I could hear myself do it, but there was no snapping out of it. Everything hurt. I was still cold and had my jacket on, and I was walking a 25-minute/mile. No amount of pushing or pulling me from Jerod’s end was helping. I hadn’t sat down once the entire race, but now I was looking for rocks to sit on. Oh! This rock looks good, and damn straight I sat on it. Jerod came up behind me and said, “REALLY?!” “I just need a few minutes,” I protested.
We made our way to Temperance Aid Station (85 miles). I made a B-line for a chair, and I could see the horror in Jerod’s eyes. I just need to sit and eat. Jerod shook his head and got me food. I ate and slowly pulled myself up to start the death march again. As we made the climb past Temperance River Road, Jerod asked if I’d kept my headlamp, as he didn’t think we would make it to the finish in daylight — at least not at the pace I was moving. We came up the bluff, and my butt was on the bench once again. Jerod tried to text Amanda to meet us at Oberg Mountain Aid Station with headlamps. I felt defeated, bogged down, and I didn’t want to run anymore. I’d officially hit a major mental FUD.
Everything around me was perfect. The sun was out and there was a cool breeze…the trail was begging to be run, yet here I was sitting and whining. “I can’t do this. I’m not good enough. I will never be fast enough to finish. I hate this. I just don’t get it.” Jerod shook his head and continued to type on his phone as we sat on the bench. Right at that moment, I realized I was (over)indulging in self-pity. I’d signed up for this race knowing well enough what I would be up against. One is never a product of circumstances but of the choices that we make, and I made a choice to do this. Just like that, I was done taking a beating from the trail. I was done with the death march. And I was sure as hell not going to finish in the dark.
I got up and said to Jerod, “I’m going to run.” He pointed to the trail and said, “Go for it!” I did just that: I ran. I ran hard. I ran past 20 or so 100-mile runners, one of whom was Richard. I ran past 50-mile runners, and I ran past marathon runners.
I should add here that about a mile to the finish, Richard shot right past me and said I should stick with him and not Jerod. I never saw Richard at the finish line and never got to thank him for pacing me. Richard finished ahead of me at 33:39:50.
As for me, I didn’t stop running until the finish line. I finished at 34:00:51. I placed 66 of 138 runners overall, 10 of 22 female runners, and 3 of 8 in my age group (40-49). And it was still daylight well after I had finished!
Difficulty is a state of mind. When you push yourself to the edge, sometimes that edge will push back. It will push back hard. And that’s when you choose to accept defeat or push even harder. I’d rather be defeated taking on a challenge than to play it safe and never explore what’s beyond that edge.
To my pacers: Jerod and Amanda, thank you for gutting it out with me in the moments of distress and self-doubt. Pacing is the single most selfless thing you can do for a fellow runner, and I hope to repay the favor someday.
The Mind: a beautiful servant, a dangerous master - Osho
It’s been a week since I rounded the corner onto the track at Pacer High School in Auburn, California, and completed an ultra-running dream. I finished the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run! As I hold the much-coveted buckle in my hand, as I look at my name engraved on its back, I know I ran with my heart. And that made all the difference.
In order to fully explain my journey to Western States, I must take you back to June 2015, when I ran the Kettle Moraine 100, my Western States qualifying race. I ran Kettle with a few others and, at the time, didn’t really hold out hope of earning a spot in “the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race.” Putting my name into the lottery pool was more of a “why not?” The probability of me actually getting selected with a single ticket was 4.7 percent. No way I was getting in, so there was nothing to worry about.
As it turns out, I was the poor, unfortunate soul whose name did actually get picked. WOWZA! And to top it all, before I could wrap my head around the news, my phone and Facebook feed were being blown up by congratulatory notes from fellow runners who had been stalking the live results while I was busy separating my dirty laundry and handling the all-important Saturday chores.
It was pretty surreal to put it mildly! Anyway, what followed were six months of precise training, multiple freakouts and doubting my ability to finish.
Goal & Training
I’m not fast, and I don’t live in the mountains. So, Western States was uncharted territory for this flatlander. The best climb I can get over the course of a mile here in the good old St. Louis is just under 400 feet. By comparison, the Western States course caps at more than 18,000 feet of climbing and nearly 23,000 feet of descent. That’s big time, so I figured a conservative 27-hour to 28-hour finish would do me good.
As for training during the six months leading into Western States, I was forever chasing vertical. I nerded out on every possible climb and decent at Chubb Trail, Rockwoods Reservation and Greensfelder County Park, along with the straight ups and downs at Castlewood State Park.
Now in my third year as an ultra-runner, I’ve gotten away from pounding out miles and the long back-to-back runs that most traditional training plans call for. In fact, I haven’t followed a strict “training plan” since the end of 2014. So, for Western States I decided to stick with what I do best: in short, run trails.
I focused on running by feel, training on hills, mastering downhill technique, power hiking and consistently running long, slow distances. My average weekly mileage was 55 miles, with a minimum of 8,000 feet of gain; my peak weekly mileage was 70 miles at a little over 10,000 feet of gain. During each training run I’d shoot for a minimum of 100 feet of gain per mile.
One other thing that has helped me immensely is using other races as training runs leading into a goal race, so I picked Yakima Skyline 50K in March. It was a slap in the face, with 9,500 feet of ascent and 9,500 decent — but so worth the experience. In hindsight, running Yakima was the best decision I could’ve made, as it gave me a taste of what I was about to encounter and told me things I needed to work on leading into Western States.
My second training race was The Ice Age Trail 50 in May. Though not quite a “mountain race,” there’s a decent bit of up and down to temper those quad and hip muscles.
I’ll briefly touch on my crew and pacers before I dish out the dirt. I had Denzil pacing me for 20 miles from Green Gate to the finish. I like to call him my BFF, mostly because he hates the term. He and I have shared many miles together on the trails; not only has he been a constant presence for a few years, but we share similar philosophies on life and trail/ultra-running, and I wanted to share this epic adventure with him. Along with Denzil I gained Megan, his wife, who would be along crewing!
My second pacer was Julie, which occurred by chance — or perhaps destiny. I’d never run with Julie before, though I’d known her from her participation in the races I RD. We happened to be running Ice Age together in May when I jokingly mentioned not being able to find a second pacer for Western States. One thing led to another, and the following Monday I had myself a pacer from Forest Hill to Green Gate!
Yes, I was a little apprehensive about having never run with Julie before. To have her pace me with little to no knowledge of my running style or my highs and lows…well, we’ve all heard the horror stories. But I knew Julie was a strong runner and a solid advocate for trail/ultra-running, so the decision was made. Along with Julie I gained Romy, her wife, who would be along crewing!
Last but not least was Brad, who had never crewed for me in the past, is not a runner, has never seen me at my worst when running a 100 miles and, to top it all off, happens to be my husband. Recipe for disaster? Not quite!
Our pit crew came in from all different directions and met in Tahoe City. I had Brad, Julie and Romy with me on Friday, the night before the race, to review gear, drop bags, driving routes and what have you. Denzil and Megan were scheduled to come in late Friday/early Saturday, so I wouldn’t see them until Robinson Flat, about 30 miles into the race.
Start to Robinson Flat (29.7 Miles)
I was nervous, and the main culprit was the dreaded “what if I DNF?” Unable to answer the question, I found myself at the start line with Brad, Julie and Romy cheering me on. POW! The shotgun blast announced that the time had come, and we were off.
The first climb to the Escarpment and over Immigrant Pass is brutal — straight up several tiers of ski slopes is as best I can describe it. As I topped the first climb, I looked behind me only to realize that I was bringing up the rear. Only eight other runners were behind me. No big deal, I told myself, the race is long and patience is the key. As we dropped into the Sierra high country, I relaxed a bit while taking in the scenery. Hot-footing the downhills, I passed several runners within the first 10 miles. I was holding a steady pace as the sun rose. Temperatures were holding in the low 70s, and I rolled through Lyon Ridge and Red Star Ridge aid stations on the way to Duncan Canyon.
At Duncan Canyon, I stopped to fill up my water when the young kid at the aid station said to me, “Where’s your handler? You need to get out of here.” Handler? Huh? That’s when the woman helping me called out, “I’m here! Getting her bottles topped off.” Ah! It occurred to me that at each aid station I’d stopped at there was one person who would get me all I needed — and get me in and out of the aid station fast. That was my handler!
I left Duncan Canyon with some cold water dumped on my head and a quick sponge-down. The heat was on the rise. I was feeling pretty good with 24 miles down, but as the temperatures continued to climb over the next 5 miles, I started to feel sluggish. I wasn’t sure if this was a combination of altitude and heat, or something else?
By the time I got to Robinson Flat, it felt like I was in a sauna — and I knew the worst was still yet to come. I saw my crew for the first time since the start, which helped take my mind off the heat. A water refill, banana and Coke later, I turned to Denzil and said, “This feels like Yakima all over again, just hotter.” And I was off running.
Devil’s Thumb (47.8 Miles)
The next few miles were a blur. All I remember is stopping at every water crossing, no matter how big or small, and pouring water on my head. I continued to move forward, the sun bearing down, drinking purely to thirst. Things that ran through my head were “don’t over hydrate,” “keep yourself cool” and “drop pace to lower internally produced heat.” It was HOT, and I didn’t want to find myself in a situation that required fixing.
I ran steady until I hit Last Chance Aid Station. My handler here was a 70-plus-year-young lady who totally rocked. She filled my bottles while we chatted about where I was and I was being sprayed down with ice-cold water.
My Handler: Did you get something to eat?
Me: No, I’m feeling a bit blah.
My Handler: You should eat a potato or two. It will help with the acid in your stomach.
I reluctantly took two bites out of the potato that was handed to me. I remember giving this woman a hug and thanking her for all her help as I turned towards the trail again.
My Handler: Do you know what’s coming next?
Me: Nope, tell me.
My Handler: Couple of miles or rollers, then you’ll drop into the canyon and there’s a steep climb till Devil’s Thumb Aid Station.
Me: (completely involuntary) Ugh!
My Handler: You better finish. I’ll be tracking you 227!
The next 4 miles were a rude awakening. I remember running when out of nowhere I was suddenly spiraling down technical, single-track trail with a steep drop on one side. From behind me, I heard a runner approaching — fast. I stepped to the side to let him pass, and he turned to me and said “First time running Western States?”
“All hell is about to break loose, and you’re not going to like it.”
Before I could say anything, he was gone. “How bad could it be,” I asked to myself. My quads were screaming from the decent as I reached the bottom of the canyon. Along with a couple of other runners, I doused myself with water from the creek, then started to make the climb up Devil’s Thumb.
Let me try again to explain the climb. Imagine yourself being thrown down into a fiery pit and the only way out is to make an ascent that spirals, steep and relentless all the way to the top, which, by the way, you can’t see or even imagine reaching.
This is when I reminded myself not to rush and to take my time. And take my time I did — all 28 minutes of it to climb 1 mile to Devil’s Thumb Aid Station. I focused on my heart rate and stopped to regulate my breathing multiple times before I started to hike up again.
Finally, I found myself at the aid station, and I wasn’t sure what had hit me. A little disoriented, I made a B-line for a chair. Wow! I sat there collecting myself as more runners made their way to where I was. One female runner came up and sat to my right while two volunteers huddled over her. All I heard was this woman bawling uncontrollably and refusing to continue as the volunteers tried to calm her down.
That was my cue. I got myself up and took off running before my handler came back to check on me. A quote I’d heard earlier rang strong in my head, “You have to run with your heart if you want to finish Western States.”
Michigan Bluff (55.7 Miles) to Foresthill (62 Miles)
As I left El Dorado Creek Aid Station, the thing that pushed me forward was knowing I’d get to see my crew again soon. But first I had to run a section of trail infested with mosquitoes and gnats. Adding to the misery (challenge, I mean) was a nasty climb to get to Michigan Bluff — not as bad as Devil’s Lake, but you won’t be running up it, therefore becoming a dinner buffet. I was hiking as fast as I could while swatting at the bugs on my arms and legs, and I guess I was cussing at them, because the runner behind me called out, “I have bug spray in my pack.”
Say what?! I ran back to get the bug spray out from his pack, sprayed myself and him, placed the spray back in his pack and was soon hiking up the trail with a thank you and good luck.
As I pulled into Michigan Bluff, all I remember saying was “those stupid mosquitoes.” Next thing I know, I was being sprayed down with bug spray, getting hooked up with some soup and bread and checking in with my crew. It was three minutes past 8 p.m., which meant I could pick up my first pacer if I chose to do so.
I slapped on my headlamp, and with Julie by my side, started up again. We’d see my crew again at Forest Hill (62 Miles). I got an update from Julie on who was leading and where all the other elite runners were in the race. I ran every downhill with Julie close behind me. A couple of miles later, it was time to turn on the headlamp. I cruised through the last canyon before making the climb up Bath Road. We came to a fork in the road, and Julie and I went right, completely missing the course marker. Thankfully, a voice behind us called, “Ladies, you’re going the wrong way!”
Major mishap averted, we turned to get back on course and hiked up Bath Road while admiring the clear starlit night. As we hiked further along, I noticed writing on the road in the light of our headlamps. There were cheers, funny sayings and inspirational quotes written in chalk. The one that stuck with me was “Run With Your Heart,” a déjà vu moment for sure.
Rounding out on to the pavement as we made our way to Forest Hill, I was feeling a bit sluggish again. I had some soup and bread, refilled my water and gels and grabbed two portable chargers for my lamp instead of a portable charger and an extra battery — a mistake that would cost me before I’d get to see my crew again at Green Gate (78.9 Miles).
Rucky Chucky (78 Miles) to Green Gate (79.8Miles)
Between 60 and 80 miles into a 100-mile race is typically the worst period for me. I get sluggish, and slowing down is inevitable, as was the case here.
Somewhere around 70 miles, my headlamp began to flash, signaling a low battery. This is when I realized my mistake. I’d forgotten to grab the extra battery pack at Forest Hill and instead had grabbed two portable chargers. Panic set in. I turned to Julie, explaining what had happened. She calmly replied that she had a flashlight that would get us to Green Gate. Unsettled, I decided to run hard until my headlamp gave out, Julie following close behind me. Neither of us missed a beat as we powered through the next 3 miles. Then, my headlamp finally went dark.
How could I be so stupid? How could I have forgotten to grab my battery pack? I had two extra battery packs. Gah!
As fatigue and frustration set in, I was reduced to hiking and jogging here and there in the low glow of the flashlight. When you go from 575 lumens of light to 250 lumens which felt more like 10 lumens, running becomes more treacherous, especially in the thick of the night on a trail with loose rocks, roots and dirt.
I was so caught up getting mad at myself that I barely noticed our arrival at Rucky Chucky. Within seconds, we were put in life vests, given glow stick necklaces and told to hold on tight to the rope spanning the American River. Julie led the way as the volunteers guided us across. I can’t say for sure if it was a combination of fatigue and the shock of stepping into the cold water that came up to my ribs, but I was overcome with emotion. For the first time it became real. I was 78 miles in, crossing the iconic river at Rucky Chucky. I was freakin’ running Western States!
Everything else was a blur until we got to Green Gate.
Green Gate (79.8 Miles) to Robie Point (98.9 Miles)
I swapped the dead battery in my headlamp, changed out my wet shoes and socks, ate some food, refilled everything and swapped pacers before getting on with the final 20 miles, this time with Denzil leading the way.
I felt like crap! I was on a mental low as Denzil and I powered through a couple of miles, catching up and recounting the rest of the race. Denzil was so chipper that I was getting a bit irritated. I just needed a few miles to get back on the high.
Having run with me before, Denzil caught on to my mental state and immediately decided to run behind me instead of running ahead of me. I was in and out of the run for the next 10 miles, with Denzil picking up on my highs and helping me power through, then edging me forward during my lows and enticing me to run the downhills.
It was daylight again, and I was starting to feel a little better. With Denzil still behind me, we fast approached the Highway 49 Aid Station (93.5 Miles).
Denzil: Look, a downhill all the way to the aid station.
Denzil: C’mon lets run this. You love downhills. Besides, how many runners do you think they see at this aid station at this hour actually running?
Just like that, Denzil was ahead of me and we were running as fast as we could down that hill. I grabbed a pancake, and we kept moving forward somewhere between a run and a hike as I tried to focus all my energy on pushing through the last few miles.
Denzil: Let’s see, what flavor of gel I should have next? Oooh, salted caramel!
Denzil: C’mon this is the best part of running ultras, trying out all the different foods and flavors.
I was laughing. I’ve never met a runner that savors his gels like Denzil.
We came out of the trail onto No Hands Bridge Aid Station (96.8 miles). I grabbed some Coke and we were on our way, with lots of cheering from the volunteers. As Denzil and I ran over the bridge, I was once again overcome by emotions as the realization that I was going to finish completely washed over me. I was crying.
But it was starting to get hot again. I could feel the sun on my head and shoulders. I poured some water on my head, and we to pushed forward to the final aid station at Robie Point (98.9 miles). This is where we picked up Julie again, as the plan was for her and Denzil both to run me to the finish line at Placer High School. We chatted excitedly about the race, the wins and where I was in the running.
Robie Point (98.9miles) to Placer High School (100.2 Miles)
This was probably the most dreamlike stretch of the race for me. We ran through a neighborhood with tons of people, some sitting, others standing in the middle of the road, excitedly cheering on the runners. The scene before my eyes was completely overwhelming, and not just because of what I was seeing. To hear complete strangers call out your name and your bib number, rooting for you to bring it home…. There was no stopping the water works.
What if I DNF? That was a day-old question as I ran with Denzil and Julie all the way to the finish and stopped the clock at 28:35:57.
There are many 100-mile races, but there is only one Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run. I finished thanks to the solid and unconditional support of my crew and pacers, without whom running this race would not have held much meaning. It was a journey that I will cherish forever!
As I reflect on my run and finish time, I find myself wanting to go back, armed with experience and confident that I can run it better. In my desire to get my rear to the finish, I ran a conservative race. That much I know. The technicality of the course is every bit as relentless as advertised. Add heat and altitude to the mix, and you have a sure shot at a DNF. But the Grand Slam is calling my name, be it 2017 or 2018 or thereafter. Let the lottery stalking begin!
A heartfelt thank you to the unwavering support of my crew, Brad Kovach, Romy Bolton and Megan Jennings, and thanks also to Denzil Jennings and Julie Moffitt for selflessly pacing me. And thank you to my sponsors, Hammer Nutrition and INKnBURN. None of this is possible without all of you.
Garmin Fenix 3, Pearl Izumi EM N2 V2 Shoes, Injinji Trail 2.0 Midweight Micro Toe Socks, Petzl NAO Headlamp, Oakley Crunch and Burn Training Shorts, Hammer Nutrition Women’s Running Singlet, Hammer Buff, Oakley Radarlock Path Prizm Sunglasses, Orange Mud – HydraQuiver Vest Pack 2 Hydration Vest, INKnBURN Calavera Singlet, Hammer Nutrition Purist Water Bottles and Mission Enduracool Microfiber Towel.
Here’s a breakdown of the fuel and supplements I used before, during and after the race:
Hammer Nutrition Race Day Boost
Hammer Heed and Perpetuem mixed equal parts in one 25-ounce bottle; Hammer Gels (Tropical and Espresso flavors); banana and orange slices at aid stations
Every three hours, I took Hammer Endurance Amino, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Endurolytes and a Ginger Root Pill.
After the first 50 miles, I was fueling on a cup of soup with two slices of white bread at every aid station, supplementing with a gel or two as needed. I also dropped the intake of the above-listed supplements.
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.