On September 12th, I signed up to run my first 100k, the Javelina Jundred in Arizona, to take place Halloween weekend. Hmm, I guess at the time I completely forgot that every fall feels a little like what I most attempt to avoid in my life – CHAOS. School starting, kid sports and activities starting, work and work activities ramping back up after the summer – so of course I’ll just sign up for my longest race to date! As expected, the fall was full of chaos, albeit a happy chaos, but chaos nonetheless. So, by the time the week of the race came, I was feeling a little blank about the whole thing. I was a bit on autopilot that week, and had been fighting a cold, and then next thing I knew, I was leaving my house in Colorado and making my way to Arizona. This helped, because traveling sustains me, and no matter where I am going and no matter what I will be doing there, the actual acts and movement of traveling feel natural and exciting to me.
Still a little on autopilot…arrived in Phoenix, got my car, headed over to Fountain Hills to get my race number and back over to my hotel to unpack, ate dinner at 5 pm so I felt like a senior citizen instead of an extreme runner, watched part of the Cubs game and was off to sleep by 8 pm.
Now, more on staying in a hotel before a race. The past few races I have stayed in a hotel while other runners I know camp. Now, as much as I love camping, I also am generally sleep deprived as the parent of two young children, so I have this idealized vision that a hotel bed will serve me better than sleeping on the ground the night before an ultramarathon. However, the last two races I was kept awake by loud and inconsiderate hotel neighbors and told myself I may as well have camped and saved money in the process! But apparently I either do not learn my lesson or I am extremely adept at blocking out negative things that happen, so here I was in another nice hotel room. So basically I could only laugh at myself when at 1:45 in the morning, my hotel neighbors were….I don’t even know what the hell they were doing, but it sounded like they were moving furniture. The difference this time was that I decided if I get too mad or anxious, that will keep me from going back to sleep. Pillow over my head, some ruminating over how bizarre people are, and back to sleep for what amounted to a full night’s sleep. Hurray!
The race was taking place on three loops of trails in McDowell Mountain Regional Park. I made it to the start line and watched the sun rise over the Sonoran Desert. Little did I know that I would see the sunrise the next morning as well….which was not part of my plan, but 62 miles of running in the desert leaves many unknowns. I did not know anyone else running the 100k distance at this race (there was also a 100 mile distance) so I was just milling around when I saw my friend Kevin from Denver, which is always a good thing to happen before a race. I also saw the Tarahumara runners from the Copper Canyon in Mexico, some of the world’s best runners and the subject of the book Born to Run. It was about this time that I realized, Huh, it is 7 am, and it is already really hot! The weather was supposed to be in the 90s, unseasonably warm at this time of the year, even for Arizona. I was worried about the heat, but the aid stations were not too spread out, so hopefully heat would not be too much of an issue. It was actually a little confusing to me throughout the morning…because it was so hot, it felt like it was the middle of the afternoon.
The race encouraged costumes and my friend Andrea had loaned me some fairy wings, you know, so I can float through the race…so I wore those along with a sparkly skirt. I was thankful for them, because Andrea is one of my ultra runner inspirations so they seemed like they would be good luck or something. It was fun having this get up on, although I wasn’t really interested in trying to attract conversation about them either which seemed to happen a lot.
Everything was going great for the first 18 miles…I was cruising through the desert and having a great time and most importantly, feeling great. Then, just as altitude sickness can come on suddenly, something was happening to me in the form of heat exhaustion. I had just run 18 fast miles in the Arizona desert with no shade and no cloud cover and the temperature was in the 90s. I was so dizzy I had to sit down. Luckily for me, a group of other runners was around, and they were looking out for me. It was four miles until the next aid station which was also the headquarters where the medical tent was…and these amazing people said they were not going to leave me and literally marched me in to the end of the first loop at mile 22. Think about this – complete strangers who are trying to accomplish their own 100k race, stuck with me to make sure I was safe. They all said, “Oh, we are doing this for fun, and you would do the same for us. You’ll be fine after you hang out in the medical tent for a bit.” One in particular, Esmail, a gentleman from northern California, kept making sure I was staying hydrated and offering me sips of his liquids. Esmail delivered me to the medical tent and went on his way after I gave him one too many hugs. I never saw him again, but he did find me on Facebook and I was able to thank him!
So, here I am in the medical tent at mile 22. It was at this point that I knew “There is no need to rush.” I could even stay in the medical tent until later in the afternoon when it might get cooler and still have plenty of time to finish the race. Lucky for someone like me, the time cutoffs were incredibly liberal. The medics were awesome – my vitals were fine, pickle juice apparently is the end all be all for dehydrated people, but my body temperature went up to 100.5 and they were not going to let me leave until it went down. I think I wound up being there for about two hours. I ate some food, joked around with the medics, my friend Kevin came to visit me, I was texting with several people to keep me going, and kept trying to tell the medics I was fine.
There is no need to rush, except for one reason. I HAD TO GET OUT OF THAT TENT! I was in the best shape of anyone in the tent, and frankly, I was seeing things I did not want to see. So, I knew I had to rally. So, this was the first time I rallied! I am sad to say that someone had to get airlifted out that day, someone was taken away in an ambulance and many, many people dropped out of the race, approximately 50 percent of the runners.
Off I went again into the hot Arizona desert… I had ice in my hat, ice around my neck, ice in my backpack, and I wasn’t too worried. I decided not to push it during this next stretch because it was still hot and “There is no need to rush.” I listened to music and was having a good old time again. La La La La La. I even ran into some guy I had met in Fruita last year when running the Kokopelli Trail. It’s so fun seeing random people you know on the trails! The sun was starting to go down and the light and the colors of the desert were changing, so beautiful. As I was approaching the big aid station at my mile 30, called Jackass Junction, I started to feel a little weak again and was looking forward to settling down for a bit at the aid station.
Unfortunately, I got there, and started shaking somewhat uncontrollably. I had no idea what was going on. Here we go again. So…the awesome people there sat me down with a plate of food, covered me in a sleeping bag, and basically told me I wasn’t leaving the aid station until I ate all of the food on the plate… but I was eyeing the massage table and thinking, “Actually I am not leaving here until I get a massage.” Oh, they made me drink more pickle juice of course! Eventually I did feel better enough to consider continuing, although it may have felt questionable for a bit. But I rallied, and then started calling myself the Comeback Kid. I really felt like if I could rally twice, I could get this thing done. Plus I still had a ridiculous amount of time to complete the race.
Oh wait, did I mention there was a full blown party happening at this aid station? Dance floor (with hanging skeleton of course), loud music, full bar I think, etc. I would visit this aid station again in the middle of the night and I think the party just got bigger. This is the aid station where a volunteer lent me part of his Run-DMC costume – which for whatever reason I thought was completely hilarious. Although really it’s another example of the awesome people I have been able to come across in my running travels.
So, it was hard to leave this fun station, because, really, there is no need to rush. I kind of got kicked out of the aid station, which was probably a good thing. One of the guys, “Mojo” who gave me a lot of time and attention, basically told me I had spent too much time at the aid station and it was time for me to go! He suggested I keep moving and not spend so much time at any of the aid stations in the future. Also, I was hoping my dear friend Bry would be at the race headquarters to accompany me on my last loop! So off I went into the desert with a Run-DMC jacket on and my headlamp. It was pretty cool to see all the runner headlamps in the night in the middle of the desert. I had about 11 miles to conquer at this point to get back to headquarters and start out on my last loop. My feet were hurting and I knew I had some blister issues, but I continued on into the night.
There is something special about being on your own in the middle of the desert under a star filled sky, even if you’re just walking when you should probably be running. I think I really did think about the word “tough”, because even though I know I have been “tough” in my life (I’ve even been called “scrappy” before), I have to say this might have been the first time I felt tough after getting through two potential medical situations and continuing on in the desert. With a Run-DMC jacket and a purple sparkly skirt!
When I arrived at headquarters, I could not find my friend Bry. I gave her a call and it winds up that she had gone out on the course to look for me and unfortunately had not gone the right way. So she was headed back, but would have already put in 8 miles by the time we even started out together. I felt bad about this, and proposed a few scenarios, because I know she was not planning on running/walking 27 miles that night, on top of the whole thing already being delayed due to my lingering in the medical tent and the aid stations. But Bry was up for starting out with me at Mile 42 and seeing where that would take us.
At this point, I didn’t feel much like running, and I was so excited to see her and catch up and talk (which can be difficult to do when I am running) so we walked to the next aid station, catching up, telling stories, laughing, and on. You can learn a lot about a friend when you’re hanging out at night together in the middle of the desert. At the next aid station, I knew she wanted to run faster than I was capable of at that time, so I told her I thought she should go on. She toughed out the 27 miles and was able to go home to her family before sunrise. Many, many thanks to Bry.
It was 6.5 miles until I would make it back to Jackass Junction aid station, the party in the middle of the desert, and I was getting tired. I did some calculations in my mind and figured I could take a nap there for about an hour. There is no need to rush. However, I thought I would never get to the aid station. NEVER. It took forever. It is not like you can see the aid stations from two miles away. It is actually like they are not even there until you are upon them. My GPS had died by then too, so I had no frame of reference. And I learned not to ask people how much longer to the next aid station. One, I am sure that’s annoying, and two, no one seemed to really know the right answer anyway. Plus two miles can still seem like an eternity! But thinking of a cot and sleeping bag and ramen noodles can keep you going when you’ve been going for almost 50 miles, it’s the middle of the night, and your feet hurt BAD.
I arrived at Jackass Junction again (party scene with the loud music) and headed straight to the cot…the volunteer asked me when I wanted to wake up. I told him one hour although “I doubt I’ll be able to sleep” and he says “Oh, you’ll be surprised”. Even though I thought I probably shouldn’t be stopping like that, I can’t tell you how good it felt to take off my shoes and just lie down for a bit. I only stayed 15 minutes after all, and steeled myself for the last 11 miles of the entire race!! Less than a half marathon to go!
There was no need to rush…I think I had close to 8.5 hours to finish the 11 miles. The first place 100k runner, a woman from Colorado, ran the entire 100K in that time! I got this! Many 100 milers were passing me! It’s almost over! I can relax for sure! And relax I did, plodding along, running and walking. I joined another runner who had a pacer and marched along with them for a bit to the last aid station. It was there that I ran into someone who had seen me during the miles 18-22 march to the medical tent. He asked – were you the one wearing wings earlier? Yes, that was me. “What? I cannot believe you are still going. I can’t wait to tell my friends that you are ok and that you finished.” Definitely made me feel tough.
3.7 miles to the finish. Wow. It’s really happening. I got to witness another beautiful sunrise while running in my life.
I could hear the music from the finish line. I practically feel like crying while I am writing this. I ran into the finish, got my first buckle (which is typically a 100 mile race reward), and basically burst into tears. Good ones. I am not sure I have ever finished a race and not known anyone at the finish line. And I did not know this until later, and thanks to text miscommunications, my family thought I had quit the race the night before at mile 32 and had no idea I was running through the night in the desert! Crazy! So it was pretty great when shortly after finishing, I received a text from my friend saying “How’d the race go?!! How ya doing?!” The timing was perfect since I was on my own. Many, many thanks for that.
Mother Nature did not disappoint me during this race (except the heat was a little much). I love the mountains, but have a newfound appreciation for the desert as well. I have never run in the desert, day or night, and the scenery was beautiful and calming.
I didn’t leave this race thinking about signing up for a 100 mile race. That would take another race with ridiculously liberal (hey, like me!) cutoffs and some serious speed work and training. But you never know what is going to happen.
I was excited I could celebrate my birthday the next week (halfway to ninety!), not only with HUGE quads and calves, but with a sense of accomplishment that I can tough out 62 miles in the desert. I want to thank everyone who played a part in this accomplishment, including my family, friends, running family, all of the volunteers…and there are too many to name here because I am one lucky person. Many, many thanks.
I am happy that I kept telling myself “There is no need to rush” because I was truly able to relax and savor the experience. There is really no need to rush anything in life. And do not forget to be tough.
Ilene Bloom is a mother/evolving ultrarunner/lawyer who lives in Denver. Despite what she said in this post, she does plan to run 100 miles someday. Ilene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions about this article.