Once upon a time, I was kinda good at multi-days.
Then, job challenges, moving, big life changes, and, well, COVID year.
After a previous slew of multi-day successes, I DNF'd a 48 hour at ATY in December of 2019, had a really challenging 6 day race at 3 Days at the Fair in Fall of 2020, where I developed the lean early on day 4, and subsequently DNF'd a 48 hour at Jackpot in April of 2021, leaving the brutally hot course to go hiking at Red Rock Canyon. (Quote from my on-course call to my brother right before dropping out: "I don't want to be an ultra runner - I just want to be a regular runner."). So, going into ATY , it had been almost 2 years since any sort of successful multi-day. Added on to this was my DNF at Spartathlon, failing to make the cut-off at 41 miles. My confidence was not what you would call high
Still, I've had a couple of successful races this year. Got first place female finish at Silver Moon 100 in the spring, followed by first place female at Angry Owl in Oregon along with the course record. Finished Javalina in about 26 hours, and had a great joy run at TGNY in June. So, 2021 was a mixed bag.
My first 6 day at ATY was 2018/2019, where I set the female course record and hit 453 miles, for a world age-group record. I went into this 2021 race with a few goals. Super super stretch A goal (call at A+++), was 500 miles. Pace plan for this was 95 on day 1, followed by 81's every other day. It sounds good on paper, but anyone who has run a 6 day knows that 81 on the later days of the race is pretty tough to achieve. Goal A was 475, which would be a female road record, and B goal was anything over my previous 453 - or a personal best. C Goal was anything over 400.
Really, all of these represented success to me as long as I stayed on the course and did my best.
My biggest physical concerns going into the race were the possibility of getting the "lean" again, and the question of whether or not my nagging plantar fasciitis would become an issue. Other than that, I was in good race shape, having just run a fast almost PR marathon a few weeks prior, and feeling healthier and stronger than when I went into Spartathlon in September.
Sue Scholl was originally going to crew me, but she had a work project unexpectedly come up, so I was going to be on my own. This is doable, but requires more organization and planning. I was going to be sharing an RV with Seattle beast Jill Hudson and her friend Jennie. This set-up allowed all of us to both have a bed, as well as a bunk or shelf where we could have all of our race things laid out.
For a 6 day in the desert, where weather can (and usually does) include hot, cold, and rain, you need lots of clothing. Essentially at least 6 sets of hot weather clothes, medium weather clothes, and cold weather clothes - plus rain gear. I always bring at least 3 pairs of shoes, and also brought about 5 different types of inserts in order to switch things up if my feet started giving me trouble.
Travel to the race was a nightmare. My plan had been to arrive early on 12/26 which would give me that day to relax and sightsee, and then more of the same, plus race prep on 12/27, followed by race start on 12/28. Alas, that was not to be. I ended up spending 14 hours in the San Francisco airport and did not arrive to my hotel in Phoenix until close to midnight on 12/26. My plan was to sleep until I woke up the next morning naturally, snag breakfast and a shake-out run, then get organized for the race.
I slept well, breakfasted well (my hotel had a little pancake maker! Love those!), and met my new friend Cole for a 5 mile run. He lives in Phoenix - I'd met him after Javalina, and we went to a local park. Normally my first run after an airplane ride is crap, so I was stunned and thrilled to average a 10 minute per mile easy pace with bouncy legs.
I touched based with RV bunkmates Jill Hudson and Jenny Appel. Their flight, like mine, was now experiencing delays, so I was charged with meeting the RV people when they arrived on the course. The RV arrived and got set up, and I focused my nervous energy on organizing my race things in the RV for easy non-crewed access. Soon enough, it was time for dinner, and my last hotel sleep before race start.
I've done enough of these now that I was able to get decent sleep without thinking too much about what was ahead. That is my general coping strategy: ignore my imminent reality until the race starts, and then, well, it's too late.
Breakfast included more adorable pancakes, and an early arrival to the race course. I hung with Jill for a bit, got dressed, and went over to the starting line about 20 minutes prior to Go-time. It left just enough time to say hi to all my old friends, without too much getting nervous time.
|Hanging at the race start|
Day 1 was smooth and relatively easy. I had gone in well rested and the miles just ticked off. I put my feet up for a few minutes when I hit 50, at about 10 hours. I got off course at 90 miles to rest, with a plan to get in the last 5 after the sleep. I managed that plus 3, all while feeling I wasn't going too hard. The hardest thing about day 1 was the rain. It drizzled all day. The drizzle itself wasn't a problem, as the temperature was mild and the rain wasn't too hard. I generally don't mind running in the rain, and didn't this time either. The problem was the mess that it made of the course. The course is largely packed dirt - which means that run turns it into a muddy slippery mess. There were also many potholes that turned into little lakes. Many runners were trying to assiduously avoid the puddles, but I just splashed right through them. There was really no point in trying to keep my shoes dry - it was impossible, and in fact sometimes the cool water was soothing on my feet. Still, it meant that my shoes were caked in mud, and my socks were trashed. I'd need to pay more attention to foot care to avoid blisters, and would definitely need more socks than I had brought.
Day 2 plan was a total of 81 miles, but I had already banked 3 in the 8-9am hour, so really, just 78 before rest. Again, this came relatively easily. I was starting to get fatigued on day 2, but nothing I couldn't work through. The course was starting to dry out, which was nice. However, Friday (day 4) was forecasted to be a downpour all day, so we were all painfully aware that the dry course would likely be temporary. I was thrilled that after 2 days, I was still solidly on pace plan. Day 2 is always rough emotionally, and it is hard to say why. Maybe it is because the newness of day 1 has worn off, and you still have so much time to be out on the course.
The morning of day 3 felt great. I'd had a solid nap about 10 miles before the end of Day 2 miles, and that plus foot care, ibuprofen and some caffeine made the morning tremendously happy. I ran solidly for what felt like hours, just in the zone, listening to my music. I was, however, definitely slowing down a bit. This is not at all suprising - negative splits in 6 day races are rare, and slow down is to be expected. This was probably the day I mentally slipped from A+++ goal of 500 to A goal of 475. At this point, I was solidly on track for that, and was still feeling confident. And, one of the cool things that happened on Day 3 was hitting the 200 mile mark. I was fortunate to be close to some of the fun runners I'd been spending time with, and they escorted me across the timing mat for my 200 lap.
|The 200 mile crazy train|
I think it was the evening of Day 3 where my first major issue occurred. I was playing around with my sleep schedule and I decided to go down for my long nap a bit earlier to see if it might help. This turned out to be a really bad call. First of all, I wasn't sleepy enough to sleep. So, after taking the time to address feet, change clothes, and do all of the things you do in the long break, I lay there unable to get the restorative sleep I needed. Secondly, I checked out Facebook and saw a post about the status of the 6 day race, and comments regarding specifically my performance as compared to that of the runner who was currently in second. The gist was that I might be in first place now, but that due to my dodgy sleep strategy, I likely wouldn't be by the end of the race.
This did nothing to help me sleep. Nor did it do anything for my confidence. Regardless of the fact that I knew my sleep strategy was fine (as long as I GOT the sleep I went down for), it was disheartening to see that forecast.
After 2 restless frustrated hours, I went back out on the course to get the rest of the day's miles. Because I hadn't slept, the speed burst that normally comes after a good sleep didn't come, and the miles were slower and fewer than planned. Day 4 dawned and I was just feeling tired and hurting.
Day 4 was the day it was supposed to pour all day. It dawned cloudy and cool, and because of the forecast I stayed in my tights and long sleeve shirt. However, sometime mid morning instead of raining, the sun came out and it got unexpectedly hot. So instead of getting soaked and maintaining a comfortable temperature, I was battling heat and some relatively brutal sunshine.
Because I kept expecting the rain, I never actually changed my clothes to deal with the unexpected conditions. The best I could do quickly to deal with the heat was to take off my long sleeve shirt, so I found myself running in black tights and a jog bra. Stupidly, I also forgot my hat, and I never put on sunscreen. These are all things a crew might have kept my on track with, but on my own, my brain was getting mushy. I therefore spent the morning of day 4 getting progressively more overheated and sunburned. Adding to the discomfort was the overall "unwell" feeling that occurs after breathing through your mouth for over 250 miles in the desert. I felt flu-ish, hot then cold, having a horrible time maintaining any steady body temperature. I was headachey with some cold sweats. These symptoms in the time of COVID suck, because they could be anything. I knew it was perfectly normal to feel this way during a multi-day, because I've felt it every time. Still, there was a lingering question of whether or not I truly was getting sick. (Jump to post race - tested negative).
The miles on day 4 came agonizingly slowly. It was as if this horrible day was in slow motion. I had pretty much resigned myself to losing first place. I didn't see how I could maintain it, feeling the way I felt. My coach texted me earlier in the day with a pep talk, giving me the splits I'd need to hit to stay on goal for the 75. I knew they were impossible, so I just gave her a thumbs up and ignored her.
Sometime late in that awful day, I caught up with Marie Boyd and had a chat. I told her I was exhausted and that my speed was suffering. Which is to say... there was none. If I stayed out on the course without getting some restorative sleep, I'd just steadily lose ground to the other women who currently were significantly faster. Marie agreed that at this point sleep was imperative. I might lose a couple of hours on the course, but it was crucial that I refill the energy tank.
After I hit the 50 mile mark on what I had originally hoped would be a 75 mile day, I resigned myself to a long rest. With a huge sense of relief, I went into the RV, and did all of the self care things. Foot care, clothing change, food/drink, and finally, blessed sleep. This time, unlike the previous night, it came quickly and soundly. I set my alarm to allow myself 3 hours, but after a little over 2 hours of sleeping like I'd been drugged, I woke up wide awake, alert, and optimistic. I can't even begin to describe how much better I felt.
Downed some caffeine, pulled on my clothes, and headed out.
Oh. My. Goodness. This was happy making. So, too, was my knowledge that the other 2 lead women were still sleeping - so as long as I was out on the course, I was banking miles into the lead.
The hours on day 5 just ticked by. The weather was sunny but cool and breezy. Really, the first perfect running weather we'd had for the entire race. Tom Jackson's wife M'Lee generously bought me a hat and some aloe, so I was able to both prevent sunburn that day and address the burn I already had. The biggest issue that started to occur on day 5 was the steady deterioration of my feet.
I'd struggled with plantar fasciitis in the months prior to the race, and although I kept it manageable, I never really chased it away. By day 5, I was starting to experience some pretty significant heel pain. Also, I was getting some impressive nerve pain in both feet - they constantly felt like they were on pins and needles, with some numbness in my left toes. It felt like there was grit under my socks, even when I had a fresh change of socks and shoes.
Because of the previous day's poor mileage, and because of how my feet felt, I'd ratcheted down my goal to just exceeding 400 miles, and maintaining the women's win. This was looking pretty doable on both fronts, but I was starting to get concerned about where Sandra was. Sandra had been steady on my tail for 4 days now, and I had every expectation for a while that she would pass me - but as of 11:00 on Thursday morning I still didn't see her out on the course, and I was getting worried. I texted her but didn't hear back.
Sometime in the next hour, I saw her. We hugged, and both cried. Turns out her day 4 was as shitty as mine. These things are all mental, and she'd had a rough night. But, now she was back to do what she was here to do, and I was glad to see her get in her zone.
For anyone who doesn't know her, Sandra Vii is a world class badass. She won Badwater in 2017, and has the female record for a transcontinental crossing of the United States. She podiumed at the Dome in 2019, and then came back and won it in 2021 with 422 miles. Also... she is a truly amazing human being. On day 5 we spent a bit of time running laps together, and I got to hear a bit of her story. She is humble, powerful, and one of the best runners I've ever seen. If there is anything I am truly grateful for about this 6 day race, it is having had the privilege of running with this wonderful woman.
|Sharing a lap with Sandra Vii|
This is not to diss the other amazing woman pushing me to continue. Andrea Mehner came into ATY without any previous multi-day experience. I had raced against her before, at FarmDaze 24 hour in Georgia. She won by a couple of miles. She came into ATY with the absolute right attitude for a first 6 days - which was, to just be out there for as many miles as she could do a day - and then get solid sleep at night. She was regularly off the course for 6-7 hours each day - far more than me. However, when she was ON the course, her miles were incredibly fast. She was ticking off regular 14 minute laps, while I was trying to maintain 16-18 minute laps. Truly a remarkable performance.
Some of the other folks who I was thrilled to spent time with include Aussies Marie Boyd (73 yo, 10 day) and Annabel Hepworth (72 hour winner), Seattle babes Jill Hudson, Jenny Appel (72 hours), and my bud Rachel Entrekin (48 hours), Florida phenom Lisa Devona (OMG! speedy! 48 hr winner); Terrie Wurzbacher (73 yo and in for 10 days!). I'd gotten to share laps with Tom Jackson, a Spartathlon teammate and with whom I will run the Berlin Wall 100 in August, and with legend John Geesler. Witt Wisebram, who also shared the podium with Andrea and I at Farmdaze, was in for 10 days and going through his own spiritual journey. Van Phan is an ultra legend - she was the women's leader in the 10 day, and was here with Mikey Sklar - a truly wonderful human being and Van's SO whom she met 2 years ago at ATY. My new friend Chad, my friend Steve Tuttle, my new friend Eddie Fackler who was running 200 miles after losing 200 pounds. So many wonderful people. I'm sure I'm missing folks and it is unintentional - I love you all.
|A lap with Rachel Entrekin and Mark McCaslin|
|Scott Thompson, Rachel Entrekin and I|
Anyway, back to the race. Mid-day Day 5, Sandra's husband went out and got us lunch from Culvers, and Sandra and I took 30 minutes off course to chow down. I had a double burger with cheese, onion rings, and a huge diet coke. It. Was. Heaven. I had no problem stuffing in a few more french fries since Sandra didn't want all of hers. I was thinking I'd take a quick 20 minute power nap after the big lunch (sleep does great things when combined with food) but realized that my phone was in the charging station in the warming tent so I had no way to wake myself up. Charging devices was another thing that was a little more challenging without crew, as I had to managing getting devices hooked up, unhooked and back in my possesion - which took a bit of time. Anyway, without my phone, I had to keep going and stay on course.
As decent as my mood was on day 5, I truly was having trouble with my feet. The pain was relatively constant - it was just a matter of how severe it was at any point in time.
Still, I was on pace for the women's win, as long as I stayed the course.
Day 6 was all about foot management. Once again, the miles came painfully slowly. I knew I'd be hitting 400 miles sometime on day 6 and expected it to be sometime around midnight. But even slow 20 minute laps were eluding me. I think I probably changed my shoes 20-25 times day 6. Pretty much every lap. I'd dart into the RV, pull on some other combo of shoes and inserts, and hobble back out. Really, nothing was working. The heel pain was awful, as were the pins and needs of nerve pain. Finally, I pulled on my oofo sandles and started walking in those. Those were the best miles I got during the day. I was actually able to jog/walk for a bit in the foamy flip flops. I just needed to watch my footing to ensure I didn't trip or stub my toe.
|Shoe surgery day 6|
I took a power nap about 6 miles before 400 miles. As much as I wanted to power through to 400, I was just too exhausted. It was my plan to get a decent 2 hours of sleep after 400, and then go straight through until the race end. And this was what I did.
Jill gave me a pair of her Hokas that were a size bigger than mine. They proved to be the magic bullet in that I didn't have to change them every lap. My goal after waking up from my post 400 mile nap was to land somewhere between 410 and 415.
|With Jill Hudson and Rick Haas|
I think I forgot to mention just how cold it was nights 5 and 6. Once the rain was gone from the forecast, the temperature at night plummeted. Night 5 was below freezing, and night 6 was in the 30's. So one of the challenges was clothing choice. If you wear clothes that are comfortable for a walking pace, you get overheated if you run. If you dress to run, then you freeze your ass off if you are reduced to a walk. There is really no winning. I chose to wear pretty much every piece of warm clothing that I had, and every once in a while would burst into a jog just to warm up. Although my feet at this point felt well enough to run more laps, there wasn't any need in order to meet current goal, and I didn't want to do any more foot damage. At this point, due to Jill's larger shoes, I had a significant hot spot on the bottom of my left foot that was transforming into a sizeable blister. Sometime in the middle of the night my strategy became "a lap an hour". During this special time, I walked with John Geesler, with Tom Jackson, with Sarah Emoto and Dennis Williams, with Marie Boyd, and with Jill. And, I did end up getting in more than a lap an hour. The time in between laps was spend thawing out in the warming tent, and eating all the food. The starving kicked in. At 4am I had 2 blueberry pancakes, followed by 2 more the next lap.
Rachel Belmont arrived in the morning hours with a breakfast sandwich and hot chocolate, so enjoyed a bit of second breakfast with her arrival. Rachel and Cole had come to the course several times to bring me sustenance and cheer. Cole works at a pizza parlor, so earlier in the race I'd been gifted with a pizza. Rachel also brought a box of magic donuts (magic because they improved my speed by 4 minutes per mile for several hours!) earlier in the race. Mucho thanks to their race support, as they were also busy with events in their own lives!
|Rachel brought me lots of goodies!|
As the last 2 hours often are, they were magical. There is something in knowing that you will soon be off of this hamster wheel and back in the real world again. Doing things like knitting, and baking, and showering, and sleeping in a clean bed! Being... a normal person. There is a quiet joy in knowing that you have done what you set out to do - maybe not in terms of total mileage, but in terms of giving it everything you've got. You have faced every problem that has come before you in the 6 day period and come up with the best solutions you are able to devise in the moment. You gain inspiration and stength from your comrades in arms. You share stories, and wisdom, and heartache. You cry with each other. You laugh, oh so much, with each other. You get silly; you get serious and somber. You get reflective.
I am happy to say I left only 8 minutes on the clock, and I ran it in to the finish line. 414.911 miles, first woman. It was done. My 3rd 6-day. Not as strong as my first, but nowhere near as broken as my last. Good enough to make me think I need to give it another go.
|At the award ceremony with Andrea Mehner|