I remember running a series of marathons in the 1980s and hearing about the first running of Western States 100. I was awe-inspired at the difficulty and epic-ness of such a journey and fantasized about someday trying it myself. Life got in the way of such aspirations, but ever since, it’s been in the back of my mind that I wanted to do a 100-miler. I’m now also interested in exercise physiology, and diet and exercise effects on health, and am intrigued by how the body manages energy, so experiencing the highs and lows of energy in ultra events is fascinating to me. So kind of on the spur of the moment, I decided to give Rio del Lago a try.
Now tackling a 100-miler for someone like me is no easy matter. In addition to having a bum and finicky foot, I’m not particularly fast, robust, or tolerant of heat, and my feet get easily blistered (OK, I’m old, frail, slow and whiny, especially if it’s over 70º F). I consulted with Don and Gillian http://www.zombierunner.com/ about strategy and was told to 1) get lots of sleep prior to the race, 2) be comfortable with night running, 3) keep the pace down, walking the hills, and 4) resolve not to give up. Don warned me it would be warm, but I was still glowing from the unseasonable cold front that had just gone through a few days prior. The pace chart indicated that the paces necessary to complete the race are not even that fast—for more than half the race, an 18-minute pace is good enough to make the cutoff times. I felt pretty confident I could manage those factors and that pace and decided to go for it. David agreed to be my crew and pacer if needed, even though his Achilles was not really up to running long distances, but he felt that with the pace I’d be keeping late in the race, it would likely be easy enough that he could pace me without aggravating his injury.
Since I signed up on the last possible day (Thursday) before the race, I didn’t have a lot of time for the reality to sink into my head. As a consequence, Thursday night I barely slept—I dutifully lay there inviting sleep, but my mind had other ideas, namely processing the shock of actually trying to “run” 100 miles (Ok, we all know it’s not all running, but lots of hiking or walking too). This insomnia was unusual and was the first strategic error of many. We drove up on Friday afternoon after frantically trying (and failing) to find our night-running lights, arriving late for the check-in, and then had to go shopping for flashlights. I was such a wreck that my blood pressure and heart rate were abnormally high at the check-in. Of course they were—I was about to do a really challenging and stupid thing, I was terrified! (But at least my valves checked out healthy.) We found several cheap LED flashlights that seemed suitable for the night running portion in a hardware store and proceeded to dinner and finish preparations for the morrow’s race. Dinner was at Denny’s (I had tilapia and mashed potatoes—that and some yogurt with fruit and granola was the extent of my carb loading on Friday). We got my breakfast for the next morning (eggs, sausage, hash-browns and pancakes) as take-out so we would be all set to go.
After dinner, it was time for a shower and foot preparations. I opted for kinesio tape around the balls and heels of each foot and a couple of toes each (but no tincture of benzoin). The middle toe on my left foot seems to blister without fail of late and I was most worried about it, so I taped it and the adjoining one for good measure, and did the same for the right foot. We were in bed by 9:30 and I fell asleep quickly, being already sleep deprived, only to wake up at midnight unable to fall asleep again. Not only could I not sleep, I began to get a nagging headache that I could not ignore. By 4 AM I started in on ibuprofen, and by 5 AM when I was supposed to be eating my hearty breakfast, I was nauseous and unable to eat more than a couple of bites of egg and hashbrowns. This was unpleasant, but not necessarily terrible, since I am used to running fasted or having eaten little. I would have to make do with the Gu in my bottle for fuel (and a few gels) until the aid stations.
A blur of one of the fast runners
Standing around before the start, I said hello to Stacey and Misty (they looked so cute in their race outfits) and looked around for other people I knew. But conversation would have to wait because in moments we were out the door with our flashlights in the pre-dawn gloom. The first section was nice and cool, and easy with rolling hills on wide trails. I tried to walk the hills, but occasionally ran them anyway since they were shallow and I was way too excited to slow down. It began to warm up as soon as the sun peeked over the other side of Folsom Lake, and I realized then that it was indeed going to be HOT, not just warm. My T-shirt came off and I decided to pick up the pace a little to get as far as possible before being reduced to melting slug pace. This worked for the first few miles, and I ran with a few other runners, trying to navigate the poorly marked section (someone had been removing ribbons). The Twin Rocks section proved difficult—stepping up and over boulders and roots, then back down, never too much elevation change, but tricky footing nonetheless. I ran with Tracy Youngstedt for a while and commented that I knew I was supposed to get through the first third of the race without doing anything stupid (according to Olga), this after nearly doing a face plant from kicking a root. Finally the Twin Rocks section was finished and I finally saw David for the first time at Rattlesnake Bar (mile 11.9). He offered me breakfast, and I took the rest of the eggs and hash-browns in a cup, and attempted to eat them during walking breaks (of course after dropping the cup and spilling the food a couple of times, didn’t manage to eat all that much). On past the power plant and toward Cardiac, all seemed well until the trail began to really heat up in the strengthening sun. At one point I came across a stream and just stared at it incredulous—coolness. I untied by T-shirt, dunked it in the water and draped it across my shoulders—instant relief! At another creek crossing, I refreshed the wetting and so was kept somewhat cool until reaching the aid station at the foot of Cardiac (where ice and Coke was provided). It was now full blown HOT and all I could do was trudge forward toward the flume trail, chewing on bits of ice. The flume provided more shirt wetting and relief, and I managed to jog a bit now and then toward Maidu and then Auburn Dam Overlook. At Maidu (mile 21.2), the aid station volunteer gave me a juicy PB & J sandwich, of which I again only managed to eat half (though it was delicious).
Maidu aid station and the flume trail
I reached Auburn Dam Overlook (mile 22.7) well within the cutoff time (well, 40 minutes to spare), got weighed and was maintaining weight ok, so presumably hydration was ok. David handed me V8 juice in my water bottle, well diluted with ice. I took coke with ice as well, wetted my T shirt again, and proceeded down what I expected to be an easy bit of downhill to No Hands Bridge aid station. Unfortunately, this stretch of trail was not all downhill, not easy, and HOT. There are numerous uphills which appear as innocent little jiggles on the course profile. I was amazed to see both Jean Pommier and Sean Lang already returning from Cool at this stage! They looked so light and fresh trotting up the hill to Auburn Dam Overlook. I set my Garmin to re-charging on this section and so could not see how long it was taking, but it seemed to take forever even though it was net downhill (800 feet).
I finally dragged myself into No-Hands Bridge aid station (mile 26.7), barely able to muster a trot on level ground over the bridge in the oppressive heat. One fellow runner sitting at the aid station looked to be suffering from heat exhaustion, as he was trembling and pale and limp. The sympathetic volunteers loaded me up with ice—in my hat, bra and bandana—for the long climb up K2. I got more iced V8 from David and took some grilled cheese sandwich pieces (which I again did not manage to eat). I was prepared for this steep climb and its numerous false summits, and it wasn’t too bad. There was some shade at least and my ice kept me cool enough to keep moving, but slowly. I did pass my first “conquest” at this stage—a man who had been nauseous for the last ten miles, he said. He described himself as an “urban polar bear” and bemoaned the fierce heat radiating up from the trail (if only the clouds from the few days prior had remained), with which I agreed wholeheartedly. I was still moving ok, though mostly just at a walk towards Cool, and passed S Baboo on his return from Cool, all smiling and making it look easy. At this point, my stomach too was beginning to feel funny. There was a suspicious pain and when I pushed on it I realized that my entire belly was distended with liquid—I wasn’t processing fluids anymore! Trouble seemed to be brewing.
Finally at Cool (mile 29.8), I switched to ice water only and sucked it down like a fiend. I’ve never experienced thirst like that, and could not get enough water. I also got this idea in my head that I might be getting too much potassium from the V8 juice and was worried about developing a heart arrhythmia (don’t know where this idea came from but it was probably wrong). I tried again to eat some solid foods when David gave me a cup full of “beef bowl” (beef, broth and rice that we brought with us) which I badly needed for fuel. I left this aid station nursing my cup of coke and ice (mostly ice), then drinking ice water. There was very little shade, and at one point I just sat down on the trail in the shade of a tree for a moment. I believed I had plenty of time and just needed to get through the loop without mishap, and hopefully things would be cooling off by the time I had to head back to the hot canyon. There was one other runner that I played leap frog with here. He got ahead of me after the aid station, because he ran while I walked (lazy me), then when I was getting desperate for more water, I ran and passed him again. Finally refilled with ice water at the Knickerbocker Hill aid station (mile 35.3), I ran briefly on the 1.5 mile road section, but just couldn’t bring myself to keep running, even though there was a nice breeze by now and it was plainly cooling off. I practiced a power walk instead and was pleased that it wasn’t too bad.
Refilling with food, ice and water at Cool again (mile 36.9), I left at a leisurely pace crunching on ice, drinking coke and slurping a small cup of beef bowl (only had two hands or I’d have carried more food!), then upon reaching the downhill, trotted along as expeditiously as possible, watching for the trail markers, afraid I would miss the turn like one runner I saw coming the wrong direction down K2. This section was relatively fast and easy, but upon reaching the No-Hands Bridge aid station (mile 40.4) realized that I had run out of buffer time and was going to have to run my tail off back up to Auburn Dam Overlook, 4 miles with an 800 foot climb in a little over an hour! While this section was my least favorite on the way out, it became my favorite on the return trip. Even though it was a long climb, it was broken by brief downhill segments (uphill on the way out), and much of it was of a runnable grade, plus it was cooling off by now. I pulled into Auburn Dam Overlook aid station (mile 44.3) as the volunteer was yelling a three minute warning at me, quickly weighed myself (only 2 pounds down), then had to leave immediately for Maidu. I followed the flume trail feeling good, jogging and passing a couple of other runners, then met David again for another refill on food at Maidu (mile 45.8). This time he added coconut milk with chicken broth to my beef/rice bowl, and the feeling of actual calories going down my throat was amazing. To this point (45 miles) I had eaten a half PB&J sandwich, 3 gels, a few bites of egg leftover from breakfast, 2 bites of grilled cheese, a couple bottles of Gu, 3 bottles of V8 juice, and several small cups of Coke, and I had been on my feet for 13 hours! I guess I was starting to get tired and hungry. David offered to pace me, but I told him I felt surprisingly good and declined his offer (this would turn out to be a mistake). He asked me if I wanted to take a dry T-shirt and I said I was still hot, but at least I didn’t need to wet the T-shirt anymore!
Off along the flume trail again, I turned down the wrong trail (getting behind again) and had to backtrack. It was now becoming dark and the flashlights were necessary, and it was really hard to see the marking ribbons. Going down Cardiac in the dark was also much, much harder than the climb up had been. I couldn’t see far enough ahead on the twisting rooty trail to have any confidence in my footing, so inched down slowly like an old lady (which I guess I am!). There were numerous trail junctions that I hadn’t even noticed on the way up, and each required careful searching for ribbons, which took additional time. At the bottom, all I wanted was to sit and doze for a few minutes as the effects of the sleep deprivation suddenly hit me. But when I got there, the trail sweepers were waiting for me (last again!), and I had to keep moving. I tried to keep the pace up, jogging along occasionally, but the blisters on my feet, which until now had not really been much of a factor, suddenly became noticeable. I was trying to jog along on this overgrown trail, which I could see only poorly with my ghostly LED illumination, when I stumbled on a few rocks and several blisters tore open at once on my right foot. The pain was excruciating, and I suddenly realized for the first time in the whole race that I might not be able to finish, might not want to finish. The pain slowly faded, but now I was afraid of the slightest misstep setting off more blister pain. My jogging became more intermittent. Still, I managed to pass a couple of other runners and tried to keep my pace up, but this section seemed interminable, even though I had been looking forward to it as one of the more runnable sections from before. Finally after passing the power plant again, I encountered David coming in from Rattlesnake bar AS to find me. I had lost track of time, because my Garmin power had run out again and since I neglected to charge it again, it shut off. I didn’t realize it until he told me, but I was too far behind schedule and would not be able to make the cutoff time at Rattlesnake Bar (mile 55) and continue past the AS to finish the race.
I wasn’t too disappointed to have to quit because exhaustion and pain have a way of changing one’s priorities. We left Rattlesnake Bar aid station and returned to Cavitt School for some food (all they had that seemed remotely appetizing was watermelon) and a real bathroom (I was tired of peeing in the bushes). Then David just wanted to get us home. The drive home was uneventful and I slept pretty hard. Upon arriving home, I needed to use the bathroom as soon as I got out of the car, and discovered what exploding diarrhea was all about (just in time to the bathroom)! I don’t know what caused the diarrhea—whether it was a side effect of heat exhaustion and dehydration or a sign that my stomach and intestines just couldn’t absorb fluids as fast as I shoved them in. Perhaps the fiber and minerals in the V8 juice were the problem. A comment from one of the AS volunteers seemed to presage the event, as she pointed out that tomato juice gives her diarrhea. Finally home and cleaned up a bit at 3 AM, I had to eat some real food and opted for a large chicken breast poached in the rest of the coconut milk and chicken broth remaining from our supplies. It was delicious and nourishing and I finally slept, with my burning feet on icepacks.
The next morning, my weight was down a full pound and a half (it was down a pound before eating and drinking more before sleep). The real problem was my blistered foot. Only one foot was in a bad way, though I had taped them both the same. It was hot and inflamed and I finally resorted to just soaking both feet in cool water with a little salt and ice added—for TWO days! The blisters were two layers of skin deep, which is more than I usually experience. The plantar fasciitis as expected was not particularly noticeable. I discovered I had chafing over much of my body, wherever I had neglected to put Vaseline. So I had odd scabs on much of my back from the chafing from the water bottle and clothing. Finally three days after the event, my weight had spiked up two pounds, before the compensatory fluid retention passed. Once my weight declined again, I had lost a full pound of body weight, presumably fat, which stayed off. (For some reason, I’ve continued to lose weight in the aftermath and am now down to 138, a new low since going “low carb.”) However, I don’t recommend running 50 or 100 miles just to lose weight!
I now understand the addictive quality of 100-mile races. The lower key pacing throughout (for us back-of-the-pack-ers at least) was just fun and low stress. I only felt I was close to running hard on one segment (making it back to Auburn Dam Overlook)—the rest was easy going (with heart rate at least 10 bpm below my usual race paces). Instead of a race, it felt like an epic adventure, or a trail party. I always think about Aragorn and company chasing after the Orcs and captured hobbits in ultra events. It always feels like a challenge and an adventure, 100-milers even more so. So even though it was much hotter than I hoped, I had a great time.
Running in the heat is still a huge weakness for me, and even though I’m a lot lighter than I used to be, that problem remains. See the Science of Sport posts for some interesting discussion of the effects of heat on performance. Basically, your brain controls how much muscle gets activated when exercising: it senses the heat accumulation and sets the pace accordingly so that your core temperature doesn’t exceed ~40 C (~102º F). Slender, lightweight people can cool themselves much more efficiently, and accumulate heat more slowly, and so can perform at a higher intensity in the heat than heavier people. I guess I’m still too well insulated to perform well in the heat! It shouldn’t have been a deciding factor in this race, however—if I had managed all the other factors better, I could have made all the cutoffs and finished despite the slower pace. Someone like David with a BMI of 25 still performs much better than me in the heat even though theoretically he should overheat more, but perhaps he has the advantage of so much additional muscle that he only needs to activate a fraction of his muscle fibers to keep a comfortable pace.
I was completely prepared to feel crappy at some point in the event, then to come back to life with the sunrise or coffee or something. I wasn’t prepared at all for how quickly my energy levels could go from “I feel surprisingly good” to “I just wanna take a nap.” Neither was my crew. Advice for crew/pacers out there: don’t listen to your runner when they tell you everything is great. They are in denial and a bad patch is inevitable. So do the thinking for your spaced-out runner and try to foresee what they will need before they fall in a hole.
Even though I only made it to 55 miles, it was much harder on me and especially my feet than any 50 mile race I’ve ever run.* I attribute this to the total “time on the feet” fatigue from the slow pace, the drain of heat on salt and energy stores, and the accumulated damage to the feet (blistering is much worse in the heat), not to mention the sleep debt before the race. It’s also possible that I had not eaten enough calories to keep my energy levels high, since I estimate I’d eaten at most 2230 calories during the whole day (less than half the calories burned). Some of that difficulty was due to extreme thirst during the hot hours of the day, when I craved water, pure cold water, and my stomach was having trouble processing the input as it was.
I am intrigued with the energy requirements of these events. I’m not advising anyone to eat as lightly as I do in ultras, but I wonder why we need all this food. I wonder if it’s not mostly just to trick the body into thinking all is well and to trigger reward systems in the brain (like the study that found that just swishing a sweet drink in your mouth, but not actually drinking it, can improve performance). For myself, I know that when I get hungry while running, which certainly happens, eating some small amount of food fixes the problem, but if I don’t eat, nausea will occur and will not be easy to fix once started. Salty or starchy foods, sodas, protein, even fatty foods such as smoked salmon, cheese or nuts—they all seem to help. But this is more to keep the stomach happy than to provide fueling (though I was once revived by a tamale). Not everyone needs huge amounts of calories to get through ultras, for example, Jean Pommier wrote an account of Skyline 50K where he basically ran on nothing but sports-drink and Vespa (which is supposed to enhance fat burning). But again, fast runners just aren’t out there that long, and perhaps that is an important factor in total energy needs in an event.
In my case, a confluence of factors (getting dark, poor visibility, anti-climax from enduring the hot part of the day, accumulated fatigue and pre-existing sleep debt, blisters) suddenly outweighed all the race enthusiasm and improved conditions that came with the cool of night. It would have been helpful to anticipate these energy level fluctuations. We actually had caffeine pills and energy drinks, but elected to save them for later. Unfortunately, they were needed far sooner than expected. I can also say that night-running in a 100-mile race is not like night-running on familiar trails close to home. The dark makes everything more difficult—finding things that you need (especially if you drop something), keeping track of time, seeing far enough ahead to plan running segments and walking breaks, finding course markers.
I recommend this race to anyone contemplating running a 100-miler. The course is excellent, and the volunteers were amazing—experienced runners themselves, they were helpful and truly wanted runners to succeed. Unlike some races where cutoff times are rigidly enforced, in Rio, they are willing to bend them a little if they think it will help runners succeed. However, they could have improved the race by making sure enough trail markers were present, and that glow lights or reflective/phosphoresecent markers were used on the sections run at night, but if you’re not as slow as me or as slowed down by the heat, this problem could be avoided (the wider trails past Cavitt School would have obviated some of this problem too). On the other hand, if you struggle with heat as I do, perhaps you should wait to run this one on a cloudy day.
Drymax socks, Montrail Continental Divides, GoLite running shirt and skirt, Kinesiotape, hat, saltstick caps, sunscreen, bandana, ankle braces, Garmin 405, USB battery and charging cable.
1. Ice in the hat and clothing cavities really helped in the heat- it offset some of the blast radiating off the sunburnt trails, though my legs and feet were always hot.
2. V8 juice really hit the spot, but perhaps less of it would have been better or I should have waited until later
3. Lubing all moving/touching parts
4. Eating food (most anything works for me) to keep the stomach from getting touchy and queasy. The beef with broth and rice went down well and kept the stomach demons at bay. Liquid calories (Gu) and caffeine (Coke) went down well too (though I don’t advocate for their healthfulness—still fructose intake in the context of exercise and low glycogen reserves is likely to rapidly replenish liver glycogen, so maybe in this limited context, fructose is ok).
5. USB battery successfully charged Garmin 405 on the run, and it continued to take data
6. Except for blisters, I didn’t fall down or get injured (I had sore leg and abdominal muscles a couple days later, but nothing extraordinary). I used about 1 Ibuprofen and 1 saltstick cap per hour, especially after 20 miles.
7. I was successful at not wearing myself out on the initial faster portions of trail or early climbs. I was aiming for an overall 12 minute pace on the “flat and easy” portion up to Cardiac at mile ~20, but this section turned out to be anything but flat and easy and my pace was more like 13–16 min/mile, which was still well within the pace estimated by the pace charts. More walking than running in the heat of the day was good enough to keep to the necessary pace.
8. My crew was excellent, attentive and supportive (Thanks David!).
What didn’t work:
1. My taping job sucked, at least on one foot.
2. My brain—I got serious brain fog once it got dark and the accumulated fatigue and sleep debt hit. I couldn’t seem to think straight or solve problems.
3. Signing up late and going into a panic, getting sleep deprived more than usual.
4. I didn’t leave enough time for any deviation from the plan. You need to keep a bigger buffer of time for shoe changes or brief naps etc. even if it seems you have plenty of time, because it can evaporate quickly on you. I should have pushed harder on the loop at Cool and not just waited until the downhills or the evening to do more running than walking.
5. On paper it may appear to be an “easy” 100-miler, but it was (and is often) too HOT to be easy for the vast majority of people. In my case I managed the heat well enough not to get heat exhaustion, but couldn’t quite muster the energy to move as fast as I wanted to.
6. Inadequate night-time lighting. My 60 lumen LED emitted a ghostly diffuse light that provided very poor contrast and texture, making it difficult to estimate distances and surfaces and slowed me down even further. (I had a second better light but was too spaced to think of using it.)
7. Apparently I had some issues with my intestines not absorbing fluids, though I don’t know whether it was due to fiber in the V8 juice or the heat and dehydration itself impeding intestinal absorption. If I had continued on the trail, it could have become very unpleasant.
8. Going it alone when I was getting tired. I should have accepted the aid of my pacer who could have helped me find the trail and keep to the required pace.
9. Not lubing enough skin surfaces—some nasty abrasions and chafing resulted.
* Well, Firetrails this year beat me up pretty bad too.