So I registered for a 100 mile ultramarathon...
I was a week away from completing my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, and thinking about what happens next. Here I was in the best shape of my life, and I wanted to try crushing something I'd never do otherwise. I also needed something else to look forward to, to smooth the transition from trail life.
On the top of a mountain where I had a tiny bit of cell service, I googled some things and landed on ultramarathons. The deadline to register was that very day, so with a great big "I'll figure it out later," I hit submit.
I've never done a marathon before, and I don't remember the last time I ran at all. Running has never been on my radar as an activity. But a 100 miler (161 km) is like the thru-hike of marathons; there's a lot of walking/hiking involved because it's so long, and it's ultimately a test of endurance more than speed. The cutoff to finish is 33 hours. I'd pretty much been hiking a marathon each day for 4.5 months, and I figured if I could hike 2,650 miles with a pack, I could probably jog/hike 100.
I picked an ultra that was soon after my hike so I'd still have my trail legs - I hadn't even been home yet. I didn't have time for any real training (my thru-hike was my training), so mine consisted of jogging the 2 or 3 miles back to the van after Colin and I floated down a river in tubes. That pretty much makes me an athlete...
I didn't know how it was going to go, but I'd be the only woman under 30 on the 100 mile start line at 7am, and it was surely going to be an adventure.
And I did it.
Only 20 out of 50 entrants completed the 100 mile race, for a 40% finisher rate. 4 were women. I can hardly believe it, but I was one of them. It was the most insane, and hardest thing I've ever done in my life.
My goal was to pace myself to finish - I came in at 32 hours 13 minutes. I won for my age group as the only woman under 30.
Many times I thought it was over for me - I was in so much pain, extremely mentally exhausted, and thought I wouldn't make some of the time cutoffs. But somehow I kept going, and had huge swings from feeling like I was dying to feeling like I was on a great long hike. I didn't know what to expect, but I certainly could never have imagined how difficult it would be. I cried, a lot.
I couldn't have done it without my crew, my dad and brother, who rotated to each aid station to help get me in and out as quickly as possible with everything I needed. On top of that, my brother unexpectedly jumped in as my pacer at 3am when I was struggling, in his jeans and a sweatshirt, holding a flashlight in one hand and a bottle of Gatorade in the other. He did two 8-mile stretches with me, plus a few bits in and out of aid stations, adding up to at least 26 miles (an entire marathon). ♥️
Word spread through the crews, volunteers, and runners about the crazy 100-miler that had never done a marathon before, hiked 2650 miles, and was diabetic. Everyone was cheering me on, checking in, and the support and encouragement from everyone was incredible.
Here's how it went.
Each lap was just over 33 miles (54 km). 100 mile runners do it three times, 100km runners do it twice minus one leg, and 50km runners do it once.
Due to a rain delay, the 100 mile and 100 km runners started at the same time at 9am on Friday. Luckily the course dries out quickly, and the weather was perfect - cool and cloudy.
I mostly speed-hiked the course, and jogged some of the easy downs and flats. The course was beautiful (I took some pictures early on), almost entirely single track through the coulees, along the tops of the hills, ups and downs, then along the river and through some trees. The first 2/3 ish had a lot of elevation gain and loss (3600 ft per lap), and then it flattened out by the river with a few big climbs for the last 2 legs. Parts of the trail were very narrow along steep dropoffs, and I was surprised to see little cactuses too.
It didn't feel like a competition, it felt like a ton of people taking on a challenge together. People chatted, and said hi to friends. Whether someone passed me or I passed them, they would give encouragement - "Nice climbing!" "Doing great!" "Keep it up!". I've never really experienced this before, maybe it's normal in running, but it was really cool and I quickly tried to pick up on the trail etiquette.
0-33 miles / 0-54 km
I started with some slow jogging as the course followed wide gravel paths, walking the ups. I needed to make sure I didn't push too hard at the start, there would be lots of time for that later.
Then it got into the coulee hills. I did really well on the uphills, powering up them feeling light without a backpack. Aid station stops were quick, less than 5 minutes, to refill water and snacks. I was having a blast, pumped to be back on trail.
After about 20 miles I started getting pain in my hip flexors - since I hadn't trained for jogging and going quickly down hills they got really tight/inflamed. At the end of the first lap I applied a ton of KT tape, but the pain got consistently worse from there.
33-66 miles / 54-108 km
I couldn't jog at all because my hip flexors hurt too much. I hiked as quickly as I could, but was slowing down.
As the sun set and the night progressed, it got down to 3 degrees C, and it was hard to go fast in the dark along the steep dropoffs with less visibility.
Leaving the northern aid station around midnight, this 10 mile leg was the hardest and longest. I was really exhausted, and my eyes were closing while I walked as my body tried to sleep. I cried a lot, but always kept moving, separating my mental exhaustion from what my body was doing.
My hip flexors got worse. I could barely lift my legs, and was convinced I was done because I was in so much pain and so tired. The last thing I wanted to do was quit, but I felt like I couldn't make it happen without injuring myself. If it was this bad halfway in, I couldn't possibly do another 50 miles even if I did make the cutoff. All I wanted was to go to bed. I ran through entire conversations in my head, accepting failure, that I'd finally hit my limit, and coming to terms with it, like I was giving myself a Ted talk. 😂
Rene came backwards to pace me a couple miles from the aid station. Once there, I sat, had an energy drink, a couple Tylenol, and a shot of pickle juice. I'm thinking, what's the point of suffering to finish this lap if I can't do the third? But I didn't want to quit before I was forced to, and resolved to see if I could make the cutoff and then decide from there.
Aid stops are quick and mostly a blur (this one was my longest at 15 mins), so there wasn't much time to think about it. I headed out with Rene - luckily he had trail running shoes but that's about it. Pacer bib in his pocket, flashlight in his hand, and snacks in his hoody.
And then, bam - the Tylenol (and pickle juice?) kicked in and I was alive again. I was feeling better, caffeinated, and able to jog much of the flats. I made cutoff by about 15 mins. Now I just needed to make it to sunrise and hope my body would get a second wind. I still couldn't imagine doing another 33 miles, but I was going to take it one leg at a time.
66-100 miles / 108-160 km
Back from the dead, I needed to push my pace for the first half to beat the aid station cutoff. When the sun came up I felt more awake.
The first leg went well, but the second leg had tougher hills and I was starting to peter out. Seriously some of these hills were so steep they were like walls with footholds dug into them, and on the downs I had to shuffle my feet and try not to slip straight down on the dirt. I didn't think I'd make it, and still had the toughest leg to go.
I forced myself to jog anytime I could to make up for the slow hills, still crying on and off from pain, exhaustion, and my brain's inability to process information and emotions.
The 50km race started Saturday morning, and tons of people passed me. Everyone was encouraging and checking in on how I was doing. My response was generally the same, "Terrible, but I'll make it". At every aid station people were surprised I was "still going!".
I made the cutoff by 15 minutes, and headed out on the 10 mile north leg. There were way more hills than I remembered and it seemed like they would never end. The day was getting hot. I tried to make myself jog but could only manage it for maybe 10 seconds at a time.
I couldn't believe what I was doing, and what on earth had possessed me to register for this. "Type 2 fun" is something that doesn't seem fun while you're doing it, but that you enjoy after the fact. I was sure this must be Type 3 fun - not fun at all, ever. I was digging deep, hitting the bottom, and then digging some more.
I made cutoff by 35 minutes, and headed out with Rene again for the last 8 miles. I could feel my body shutting down. My brain was so foggy, I was exhausted, in so much pain, and emotionally spent. Then the Tylenol kicked in again and I felt better. Rene tried to think of something to chat about, but with the stress of the situation, after 5 minutes of silence he says he literally can't think of anything. 😂
In the last 4 miles I knew I'd done it. I could see the finish, and with one more big climb out of the river valley, I crossed the finish line with 45 minutes to spare.
Was thru-hiking good training?
Thru-hiking prepared me for this ultra in many ways.
Physically, besides the extreme pain in my hip flexors, I was in good shape. I had zero foot problems - I already had callouses and tough feet. My feet weren't even sore at the end (this was crazy, they felt completely normal), and I had no blisters. My knees only started hurting on the downhills in the last 15 miles, and I know they would have been a major problem otherwise.
Hydration & nutrition are also critical, and I'd been warned of nausea and indigestion that would surely come during something this extreme. But it never did. I was used to "scheduling" my water intake and knew how much I needed for a certain number of miles. I drank only water with electrolytes, in small sips, consistently. Food-wise, I ate exactly what I did on the PCT because I knew how those affected my blood sugar, and I ate consistently in small amounts. The "gu" pouches that most runners eat are packed with sugar, so I'd made my own from my trail breakfast in small squeeze pouches. Chia seeds, hemp hearts, peanut butter powder, sugar free chocolate protein powder, and some water. 260 calories, 15g fat, 23g protein, and 4g net carbs per 150ml. I had a few keto protein bars, hard boiled eggs, and a couple well-timed Flat Out Feasts meals split over two aid stations.
Mentally, I was used to the distance obviously. I was focused, and got into that hard-to-explain "zone" of long distance hiking where I was only semi-present, semi-zoned out and letting the miles go by. Night hiking was familiar, and the isolation of hiking alone.
Pace-wise, I knew that every moment I could be moving counted. I kept my feet moving, no matter how slow, because over such long miles it all adds up. Even though my longest aid stop was 15 mins and many were under 5, my stopped time still added up to 3 hours over the 18 stops. I could sense what my pace was, knew what I was capable of, and also knew how to spread out my energy to last.
What thru-hiking didn't prepare me for was my hip flexors obviously, the level of pain I had to push through, and mental exhaustion (there was some of this on trail but not to this level for this long).
Blood sugar wise, I had an initial rise which I expected based on my couple training jogs. It took me a few hours to get it down because I didn't want to overdo the insulin, and once I did it levelled out nicely for the first half. Then it sat a little high for the second half but still reasonable, and afterwards I realized I'd forgotten to take my morning basal insulin which contributed to that. I also didn't have the brainpower to deal with lows and the energy-sucking feeling that accompanies them, so I was okay to stay a little higher, knowing it still might plummet at any time because I was taking small amounts of insulin.
Post-race, as soon as I stopped moving my body seized up and I could barely move my legs. We all went to bed right away, and Rene was pretty tired from his marathon too! It's been 4 days and I still have a lot of inflammation and pain in my right leg/hamstrings/knee, and have mostly been in bed. Surprisingly my hip flexors are recovering fine and I'm having more issues with my right hamstrings. It took me three days to sleep enough to feel less fatigued.
Congratulations to anyone who's ever attempted a 100 miler, and to all those who finished, because this stuff is crazy! It takes an incredible amount of physical endurance, grit, and mental toughness.
I'm so glad I got to participate, finish, and I'm starting to think... maybe it was type 2 fun after all. 😉