Sunday, February 13, 2011

No HURT Feelings

This last weekend was Orcas 50K and 25K, which is by far my most favorite event of the year. Thanks to James Varner and Rainshadow Running, about 500 runners get together for socializing, eating, beer, a bonfire, fashion selecting and a bit of running. It was a great chance to see many people and show off my new HURT belt buckle. People congratulated me, but they were also upset on my behalf. In my last posting, I talked about the bandana incident—Meissner had a purple bandana tied to his pack and I held onto it as a way to keep me focused and on trail. We were seen by the course sweepers who misconstrued the situation and reported us to the race directors. In their eyes, I was either tied by or holding onto a rope and Sean was towing me. When I came into the aid station at mile 92 we were pulled aside by race director Jeff Huff who asked us what happened and informed me I was facing disqualification. Although I also wrote about the fact Jeff apologized, I don’t think I emphasized it enough. People told me they couldn’t understand why I’d been accused and why the race directors chose to tell me when they did. While I appreciate their indignation, it is wholly unnecessary. I want to clarify things and explain there are no hurt feelings (I’ll stop using that pun, I promise).

When Jeff Huff was told what the sweepers thought they saw, he wasn’t sure what to do. They, Jeff and John Salmonson never faced this sort of thing before and didn’t know how to handle it. There are rules against towing and certain kinds of assistance, but there aren’t any guidelines as to how to deal with violations or any defined consequences. They couldn’t simply ignore the accusation no matter who I am or how much they like me. They needed more information about what happened since all they had was the sweepers’ story. They needed to know my side as well as Sean’s. Should they wait until the finish line and talk to me while I was celebrating? Or should they warn me of what might happen before I finish? It was a difficult choice to make.

Let’s talk about possible scenarios. Scenario possibility one: they wait to talk to me at the finish. I continue the race without knowing anything might be wrong and potentially continue doing what might’ve been an illegal act. Then I finish, start to celebrate and wait to be handed my buckle. No buckle comes. Instead they pull Sean and me aside and tell me I might be disqualified. I’m tired, delirious, ready to no longer think about this race and all I want to do is lay down and go to sleep. But instead they’re telling me it’s possible none of my work mattered. Now they have to confer for who knows how long and I have no idea when they are going to decide. They have nothing to go on but our word versus the word of their sweepers. I could tell them what happened and plead my case, but they wouldn’t have any other evidence I deserved an official finish.

Scenario two (actual choice): they decide to warn me before my finish. They told me of the accusation at mile 92 and gave me the chance to tell them my side of the story. We showed them what we’d done and then I said I was going to continue. When I left the aid station I was determined to keep moving, yet knowing I could finish and it wouldn’t officially count was such a heavy thing to carry and it really slowed me down for awhile. It put my finish in jeopardy because I was pushing the cut-off time and couldn’t afford to lose much time. I pushed through, kept moving, sped back up and finished because I knew I was in the right. At the finish, Jeff talked to Sean and me again. He said the moment I stated I was continuing and turned away from him and kept going, he knew I was a true ultrarunner and had the aloha spirit he was looking for. He needed to hear my story and he needed that evidence so he could whether determine my finish should be legitimate.

I think they made the right choice. I can understand they needed to see how I would handle the news and that my subsequent actions would answer their questions. Had I cheated, I think I would’ve accepted defeat and quit right there. Yet I knew I’d done nothing wrong and showed them by going back out onto the course. Yes, their decision to talk to me during the race rather than after made the last miles that much more difficult to do because my spirit had taken a hard hit, but that’s what these races are all about. We fight for that finish line through everything that comes at us. I didn’t really need this race to be any tougher, but if I am indeed a true ultrarunner I’m going to fight even through emotional adversity. Hearing Jeff say I had the aloha spirit was almost as good as a buckle. I often question my motivation and whether I’m emotionally tough enough for this sport. It felt like being given the ultimate confirmation that I belong here, that I’m supposed to be doing this, physically and emotionally. I’m oddly grateful for the situation.

All of this calls into question what is and isn’t illegal for runners and pacers during a race. I think about when I paced Rich at Tahoe Rim 100 a couple of years ago. Because it was a USATF event, pacers weren’t allowed, but “safety runners” were okay as long as they stayed behind the runner at all times by a distance of 30 yards! Had anyone enforced that rule, every single runner using a pacer, including the winners would’ve been disqualified. I think about the numerous times someone handed me a gel from their own pack or how aid station workers put things in baggies and tell pacers to carry it for their runners. Is that muling? Pacers have steadied me on the trail when it looked like I was going to topple over. I’ve had my runners put their hand on my shoulder for awhile so they could close their eyes and walk for a bit. At Cascade Crest my pacer, Jamie had to pull me over a few big logs on the Trail From Hell. That’s all physical assistance, isn’t it? We’ve all done things like this, right? I’ve discussed some of these questions with many people and some have thought it should only matter for the winners. Is there a difference between those who are trying to win and those who are just trying to finish? Maybe, but where do you cross the line to determine the competitors and the mere finishers, top 5? Top 10? I don’t have the answers for any of these questions, but they’re something to think about and consider whenever one does a race. How much assistance can we feel justified in accepting and allowing?

I know they’re questions the HURT race directors are now considering. Jeff had explained how this was a learning experience for them and it showed them they needed to review their rules and guidelines so they’d be able to handle things better and differently in the future. He apologized for needing to use me as their learning experience. At the awards banquet it was very apparent Jeff and John wanted to let me know they were sorry and proud of me. I received multiple hugs and kisses on the cheeks from them. Sean and I were both given the documentary about the race. I got a big gift basket, another running shirt and the award for “which girl runner guys most want to see with tattoos on her body”—I’m most proud of that one! I love these guys and this whole community. It was a difficult situation, but it got worked out in the best way it could. Hopefully in the future they’ll be better prepared if something like it happens again. I fully accepted his apology and left feeling vindicated and completely satisfied with the entire experience. I bear them no ill will, so please everyone out there don’t feel you should for me.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

HURT 2011

This post is obscenely long. No apologies.

When I signed up for HURT 2009 I was doing so as a way to get me through an injury. Big Horn 100 2008 left me with a fractured hip and I needed a goal to help me look forward to training. Still, I was woefully underprepared for HURT. I wasn’t strong enough and didn’t have enough experience to understand what I needed to do. I finished the 100K and thought I’d never return. As I lay in shock at the aid station, I was encouraged to attend the post-race banquet. I decided to go and talked with so many motivating people. It seemed everyone tried and failed at this race multiple times and kept coming back for more. I was inspired to do the same and seduced by the aloha spirit the HURT community possesses.

2010 I was much better prepared. I knew what I was in for and had put in the training. But damn it, three weeks before the race my foot started to hurt very badly during a training run. I imagined the worst, but my doctor and one of my crew, physical therapist Tonya Olson assured me it was only tendonitis. I didn’t run for three weeks except for a three mile test two days before the race. It hurt, but I thought I might be able to get through. However, by mile 60 my foot was so swollen it looked like it might burst out of my shoe. My pacer, Daniel Probst had to keep his arm out for me to hold so I wouldn’t crumble. Turns out, foot was broken and I have the lump to prove it. Another 100K in the bag.

2011 had to be it. Three years is a long time to think about something. As I explained in my last post, training wasn’t easy. I was dogged by injuries and fatigue, but I remained positive and determined. Arriving in Honolulu, I felt as ready as I could possibly be. I know this course, the weather, the people, the atmosphere. It helped I was surrounded by my best crew to date. I don’t want to take away from my previous crews. Jessica Mullen was fantastic in 2009. I thought I was lucky with Tonya and Daniel last year. But this year my crew seemed to grow and grow and was filled with people who I can’t believe I even know personally. I’m going to brag and blatantly name-drop now: Jeremy Henkel (only non-runner, but could kick your ass physically and philosophically), Chris Rennaker of Rogue Valley Runners, Montrail boys Sean Meissner and Gary Robbins (HURT course record holder), and Michelle Maislen (total bad ass sexy hot mama). Thank you, all of you, for everything!!

We got to the start, took pictures and traded hugs. Judy Carluccio, a training partner and previous finisher threatened me with physical harm if I ran a first loop faster than 5:30, so I sought out a few familiar people who might hold me to that pace. Sarah and her sister Mirian said they’d help me out and offered to put a tow rope on me to hold me back. (That statement will prove very ironic later.) I still took off, but didn’t go crazy. I ran to feel comfortable as I chatted with Gary Marr and Johnny Landeza. When on my own, I let my thoughts wander and before I knew it, loop one was done, pretty close to 5:30. Gary, in spite of being on crutches insisted on getting my drop bag. He warned me not to stop eating after I complained of the Clif Vanilla flavor (so gross!) and gave me my first power hug in the hopes the previous year’s tactic would work for me this year.

Side story—last year at the race briefing a few of us were discussing the little things that can give motivation. Gary mentioned receiving a hug at an aid station that gave him juice for hours. I half-jokingly suggested we hug every time we saw each other. Because of the lay-out of the course, I knew we’d see each other several times so figured Gary might hug me once and call it good. Instead he really did hug me every time he saw me. I stopped counting after 7 hugs and batted him away on his last attempt after he’d stated he was ahead of course record pace telling him he could hug me later. It seemed to work because he did indeed break the record. None of this is in his race report, but he assures me it will be amended to give me the props I am due.

Second loop was more of the same. I slowed down deliberately now that I’d banked some time. Though not horrible, the course was muddy and mucky. It was the most troublesome coming down Manoa Falls where there are big boulders that became slick and precarious. I got slower and slower on this section each lap and discovered I was faster going up here than down. I saw Chris and Sean, who were crewing both Amy Sproston and me at a couple of the aid stations where they were very helpful getting my bags and dealing with my Carbo Pro. As I was heading toward mile 40, I ran into Amy who looked worried. When she’d last switched her pack they’d forgotten to give her salt tabs, so I gave her a few of mine and told her she looked great. I continued on anxious to get to pick up my first of two pacers, Michelle.

Michelle and I have a reputation for our, um, interesting conversations. We embarrass people and have to censor ourselves in certain company. Otherwise, no topic is off limits. We don’t see nothing wrong with a little bump and grind, or at least talking about it. In prep for this race, we’d stopped talking much so we knew we’d be full of conversation. The tactic worked. There was a lot of giggling and a lot of wondering if certain things were overheard and what people possibly thought of us crazy girls. I was excited to show Michelle the course and knew she’d love the terrain. She’s no joke—mega adventure racer and 3rd female finisher of Plain 100 ever. I could tell she was enjoying it.

It was dark and I wore Alvin Crain’s heavy-duty Remington headlamp he’d so graciously loaned to me (in the hopes I would “see the light”). A few runners commented on its brightness and I appreciated how much it lit up the roots and rocks and other things. “Look!” I exclaimed to Michelle, “A kitty!” “Are you hallucinating?” she asked me. I was not. There was a little gray kitty staring at us through a fence, her eyes shining in our lights. We saw either her or another kitty just like it later. I swear it. Michelle swears it. Believe it, Meissner. The bugs and crickets were deafening and not pleasing Michelle’s ears. Otherwise, we continued to have a great time together. We hammed it up at the aid stations, made people laugh and trucked on. I noticed the ground was getting slicker and decided I needed a shoe change come mile 60. I adore my Montrail Masochists, but have always found them to lack traction which I desperately needed.

When we got back to the nature center, I sat for the first and only time the entire race in order to change my shoes (at least the only deliberate sit, not counting the times I slipped and fell on my butt or had to sit to slide down a rock). Michelle worked on my pack while Gary took off my shoes and helped me switch. Then we paused for a message from his sponsor. “These (Montrail) Rockridge will be better for you now as they have better traction and a wider toe box.” Well said, Gary. He started in on the casualty list. Amy dropped due to blistering and tibia issues. Ben Bruno had fully broken his ankle. Last year’s winner/course record holder Tracy Garneau dropped after falling on the evil rocks after Manoa Falls. Gary said it was carnage and people were dropping all over the place and then generously told me I looked better than anyone else out there. I liked him for that and squeezed him extra hard when he gave me my power hug. I was about to move onto mile 67, still feeling good whereas in years past this next seven miles had been my death march.

I was still in a good mood, but fatigue was setting in. Michelle was armed with gads of good stories. Her days in adventure racing provided some hilarity as well as inspiration. We went through Pauoa Flats and noticed a young runner wrapped up in a garbage bag asleep next to Cindy Goh. I’d seen him before and he’d looked strong. Now he looked thrown out with the trash. We hit Manoa Falls and the hated rocks. I lost so much time here and got frustrated. These seven miles had taken me 2.5 hours earlier in the run, but were now taking me four.

Once into mile 67 it hit me this is usually where I come to die. This time, I wasn’t going to die; I was going to continue on. Michelle was dealing with my bag and I found myself standing there in the middle of the aid station alone with this knowledge. I put my hands on my knees and had a meltdown. Thankfully, Judy was there and came right over. She knew exactly what I was going through having attempted this race a couple times before her own finish. I’d held a mental image I had of her from the previous year close to my heart. She had determination in her eyes as she’d taken this massive step up the trail. I knew she was going to finish and that image was inspirational. She cried with me and told me I still had plenty of time to get things done. I was exactly where I needed to be. I nodded and made sure we grabbed me some food (sushi rice chunks, oh yum, it’s those little things). I was in new HURT territory now as I took my steps out of the aid station.

Going up Manoa was drastically faster, but my motivation continued to wane. I asked Michelle to ply me with positive chatter. She batted away every whiny word of mine with phrases of strength and encouragement. She should be a therapist. Once we got back to Pauoa Flats I think she’d had enough of my negativity and insisted it was a pacer’s job to be in front and set the pace. I resisted at first, but succumbed to her better judgment. She put her little self in front of me and in her purple shorts and Hawaiian themed gaiters began trotting ahead of me with her adorable gait. My love of her melted every bad thought away and I began to smile at just how flippin’ cute she is when she runs. “You are so cute, Michelle,” I told her.

We made it to Jackass Ginger and moved right back out. Somehow, the boy we saw in the garbage bag caught up to us and asked if he could tuck in behind and follow our lead. We warned him of our goofiness, but he seemed glad to have company. Michelle took the task of adding another charge to her responsibilities with grace and rewarded the both of us with treats and cookies when we did good. We wuvs cookies. The kid’s name was Sean and he was a 24 year old in the Navy. At one point he asked me, “are you still in school or what?” I fell instantly in love with the young lad. He was moving quite well, but kept refusing my offers to let him go ahead. It was quiet for a little while so Michelle asked, “Have you ever licked green ants?” “That’s a very odd question,” I responded. I had and still have no idea where that question came from, but it seemed reasonable to Michelle to ask and put all of us into a fit of giggles for a while. Laughter makes you forget pain.

I was struggling internally. Michelle refused my request for a five minute nap and I’d stopped voicing any negative thoughts. I somehow thought that if they remained in my head rather than being vocalized, they wouldn’t get the chance to solidify. Secretly, I didn’t think I had another 20 miles in me. I’d only have eight hours to do that last loop and the previous two loops had each taken me that long. That meant I either had to speed up or maintain the same speed in order to make cut off. Anxiety was weighing on me, but the desire to finish was still there.

The entire world was waiting for me at mile 80. All thoughts of stopping were quickly drowned out by the noise and excitement of my whole crew. Amy had come back to the race to cheer people on. Michelle’s husband Fabian was there and ready to give us hugs. Chris and Meissner took my things and got us ready to go. Gary gave me my power hug and I asked if he would please meet me at the other aid stations. I saw Michelle talking with Meissner as they were preparing for the changing of the guards. My head was spinning and before I knew it I was being swept back out onto the course and heading back up hog’s back. I’d lost garbage bag Sean in all the craziness and later learned he’d only made it a few more miles before settling for the 100K credit. It was his first 100 mile attempt. I’m very impressed with the young boy.

I’d been carrying a ring Sarah Crosby-Helms loaned to me in my bag. His name is Hoary the Owl and I asked Meissner to wear the big fella. Each time I saw him it made me smile to see the clunky owl ring on Sean’s hand. We chatted excitedly about the day’s events and I explained what we would expect out on the trail. I’ll admit it did my heart good to see elite sponsored runner Sean slip on parts of the course. I was feeling stronger than I did on the previous loop, which is what I needed. Regardless, I slowed way down on those damn rocks at Manoa Falls. I assured Sean it would go faster on the way back up. Gary and Amy were waiting at the final bridge before the Paradise aid station. I ran by them and then heard loud clicking behind me. I looked back and realized Gary was keeping up with me on his crutches. I couldn’t have that and heard Chris yell, “She’s speeding up!” At Paradise I hugged everyone, including Judy and moved rapidly out of there before she and I had another crying fest.

After Manoa Falls I was starting to fall asleep on my feet. We tied a bandana to Sean’s pack and I would hold onto it to regain my focus for a moment or two then let go once I’d caught my breath. I didn’t have much time left and I was stressing out. Sean and I got through Pauoa Flats and headed towards Five Minute Hill (poorly named). I want to point out this is the only year I did not sit and slide down this steep hill, but instead stayed on my feet each time. *Applause* I started to mentally lose it. Or mentally focus, I’m not sure. Words became incoherent and noises were mostly cuss words and grunts of aggravation. I yelled “I hate this” over and over. I felt like I’d gone carnal and all the while Sean cheered me on and said he was going to stay behind me since it seemed to be working. He may have thought I’d gone cocobananas, which was pretty likely, but I think he understood I needed to be this way. I mustered all the strength I had left realizing my legs still felt good and only my feet actually hurt. I superman-ed at one point, or I’d like to think I Wonder Woman-ed, and landed almost fully face down. Sean didn’t make a big deal of it because he knew I’d burst into tears. I got back up and kept going.

All I wanted to do at Jackass Ginger was check in, grab food and water, and go back out. No hugs this time because I was running out of time. I traversed the rocks across the creek less gracefully than ever. Gary was waiting by the water and I’m not sure I even said a word to him. I glanced in his direction but kept up the hill to check in. I went to grab some food when Jeff Huff called Sean and me into the tent and offered me a chair. I refused to sit.

I’ve debated writing about this part, but it was such a crucial point in my race. I also I hope it might bring about some consideration by runners and race directors alike. Sean and I had been seen by a sweeper when I was holding the bandana. In the sweeper’s eyes, I’d been either tied by or holding onto a rope and it appeared Sean was towing me. We both looked at Jeff in disbelief as he said these things. I was being accused of cheating and faced disqualification. I couldn’t believe it. I showed Jeff exactly what Sean and I did, how there was no tension, just focus. Jeff nodded and gave me the choice of dropping there at mile 92 or continuing on even though there was a chance it wouldn’t count. I looked at him and said I was going on. “I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong,” I said with complete confidence.

I left the aid station in a much different mindset. I felt like my race was killed. I refused to let Chris take a picture and stumbled back down to the creek. Gary was cheering, but could see something was wrong. I told him what’d happened. He grabbed my shoulders and looked me in my eyes, “this is a culmination of 3 years work.” I knew he was right. I knew I had to keep trying, but I was deflated and heartbroken. I sloshed back through the creek desperately trying to find the fire I’d had only ten minutes ago.

I feel lucky I was surrounded by such incredible people at this point. Gary’s words stayed with me. Monica Scholz, veteran HURT runner, previous multiple time winner and immensely strong woman listened to me explain what happened. She looked as I demonstrated what Sean and I did and she assured me I’d done nothing wrong. Her words of encouragement as someone I know who loves this race and community meant so much. She gave me some peppermints and sent me on. Every time I mentioned how my heart had been hurt, Sean told me to forget about it and focus on what I needed to do. He wouldn’t let me stay down. He was perfect. I kept thinking how I wished Sean could’ve towed me because I’d probably already be done. Didn’t they know who he was? We got closer to Five Minute Hill (such a stupid name!) and I finally said, “You know what, they can kiss my grits (yes, I actually said this). I love this race, I love this community. I would never knowingly cheat and disrespect any of this.” The fire was back and though I didn’t return to the primal version of me, I was ready to chew up and spit out these final miles. I told Sean to keep me fed and we delighted in Monica’s peppermints.

We were doing so well on time. We went up the gigantic thigh high muddy steps and crossed the road. From here I knew I had less than an hour. My feet hurt very badly and I’d felt a blister explode. I decided to cruise a little and push less, “At this point I could sit and scoot and still make it in time!” Realizing I never had to see any of this course ever again, I said goodbyes and F yous to many of the rocks and roots.

Maybe just over a mile away from the nature center, I saw Jeremy coming up the trail in his slippas. He had a message: “You are not disqualified!” Cheers and applause!!! We sped up, or at least I think we sped up. I felt some rejuvenation and enormous relief. Monica and her pace-e passed us about this time and I shouted the good news. Monica handed me some more peppermints and reminded me I had someone to kiss. I laughed knowing I was finally going to kiss that damn sign at the finish line. Just a little way to go and Sean was still enjoying the views on the course. He pointed to the last stream and said, “That’s pretty.” “I’m over it,” I replied and crossed the last bridge for the final time.

I turned the last few corners and heard everyone cheering. I know I high-fived people, I’m sure I said some things, but all I cared about was getting to that sign. I kissed it, turned around and crumbled to the ground and started to cry. Sean lifted me back up to help me to a bench. I couldn’t stop crying. Someone handed me my finishers’ shirt and buckle. I looked up at everyone around me and saw it had started pouring rain. It had waited for me to finish.

Gary claims I cried for 90 minutes. I’m pretty sure it was longer. I was eventually lifted and carried to a table to lay down and calm my breathing. Someone drilled a hole in one of my toenails while I clenched Jeremy’s hand and Chris held me in place. Chris stayed with me for awhile, helping to keep me calm. He’d put an orchid behind my ear and explained orchid translates to testicle in Greek. Very important information.

Soon, Jeff asked everyone to clear so he could discuss their decision with Sean and me. He said they knew how important this race was to me and understood I would never knowingly cheat or do anything egregiously wrong. There is a rule, but it’s not a defined rule and it lacks a defined consequence. Unfortunately for all of us, they had to learn a lesson through me. They’ll go back and figure out better definitions and better ways to handle such a situation. He apologized for laying such a heavy thing on me at mile 92, knowing he’d put my finish in jeopardy. I whole-heartedly told him how much I love HURT and the entire community. I was grateful for the decision and for the understanding of what had happened. We hugged and he told me he was proud of me.

The rest is just more of me crying and being carried around. Jeremy got me up all million stairs at his house. Gary passed out on the floor while I sniffled and drooled on the futon. Everyone else went out for drinks and eventually Gary got up and made me some stir-fry which I think took me hours to consume. Jeremy put on my favorite movie, UP which was still on when the gang returned. I fell asleep listening to Meissner giggle at the cartoon. Even through the nightmares I had that night of the roots and rocks that are still burned into my memory, I felt a final sense of accomplishment and peace. HURT is done. I never have to do it again. I mean it, too. Never again.

Me, Mandi and Mom in Athens, Greece