I have been wanting to do the Across the Years race for quite some time and this year seemed to be the perfect year. Granted, I was not in the shape I really wanted to be in, but the race is the perfect chance to chase that elusive 100 mile belt buckle and also challenge myself to new levels.
A simple mistake a little more than a week before the race left my chances of even running dropping pretty low. I walked to work in a snowstorm in wool socks and running shoes and rubbed blisters onto the back of my heels. The left foot was the worst, with a sock full of blood and lots of exposed skin. Through lots of care, walking barefoot, prayers and miracles, two days before the race I was able to wear running shoes again and by race day I had no pain in either heel.
I flew down to Phoenix on December 28th. My daughter and son-in-law (Jennifer and Jeremy Merkley) were driving up from El Paso, Texas to meet me and support me in the race. I had written up multiple lists and even shipped a box of critical supplies off a few weeks earlier and they were bringing other items on the list. My carry on backpack and suitcase also contained other race gear – I put nothing in my checked bag that I would need at the race. After an uneventful flight, I was met by my kids and we headed off to find our hotel. We stayed in a Holiday Inn within 20 minutes of the race and it was a great location. I had a sleeping bag in the corner and they shared the bed (the plans were that I would be spending the next two nights at the race course).
We met several other racers for dinner at New York Pizza Department and it was nice to get to know some other runners as well as actually get to know several Facebook friends. Then we swung by the race course so that I could check things out and we could offload part of our gear into the tent (with a cot) that I had reserved.
Sunday morning arrived with lots of excitement on our parts and we loaded up the car and headed off to Camelback Ranch in Glendale for the start of my 48 hour race. After picking up my packet and taping my feet, I was ready to go and we milled around with other 24, 48 and 72 hour runners for the 9 a.m. start and watched the racers currently on the track. My plans were to run 2.5 minutes, walk 2.5 minutes for as long as I could. I forgot my GymBoss, but had a watch and knew this had worked well for me in my past several races. Jenn and Jeremy were going to head off after the start for several hours since I knew I could pretty well fend for myself through marathon distance. (Famous last words). I was also going to avoid listening to music or audiobooks until after marathon distance so that I could save that assistance for later when I knew I would be suffering.
The race started and we all headed off. Ultras are a different beast and many of the participants just started off walking – because you have a long time to go and there is no point in pushing yourself too early. A lot of us were there to accomplish the 100 mile finish and knew we had to pace ourselves. Others were looking to set US or World records or push themselves to new limits. The first several times around the track I just enjoyed taking in the atmosphere, seeing many people I had heard of before but not met, and learning the course. Lots of gravel, some asphalt, and a few concrete sections made my home for the next days.
The day started off well and I was running and walking easily. I made sure to keep up on my food and water intake as has always worked in the past. Then I hit 20 miles. Other than one race when I had food poisoning, I have never had stomach issues in marathons. I did today. At 20 miles my “stomach went south” and I started feeling horrible. No energy. Trying to decide if I needed to hurl or hit the Port-o-potties. This went on for six long miles. I laid down a few times to rest and cool down from the heat. I rolled my legs and back with the Stick. Nothing was really working. J&J came back around then and I told them of my misery while resting again. They had brought some more food and I thought I could handle a King’s Hawaiian Roll and an orange. I slowly ate them and then decided to start up again. At this point – I had completed my slowest marathon ever (7 hours and 30 minutes). It was pretty discouraging and I knew that unless I could improve my time, my dream of 100 miles was starting to fall apart.
Jennifer had conspired with my sister, Marcia Nielsen, as well as my Aunt Mary Steck and my friend Leslie Petersen and put together some motivation bags for me. I was given my first one at the marathon point and enjoyed opening the bag and reading the messages of encouragement and support. There were also mini minions in each bag (I love these!) as well as some treats and various glow-in-the-dark items for the long nights I was to be facing.
Back on the track, a miracle occurred. After a long stop in a POP, I suddenly felt great. I hadn’t been able to run in a while because I was battling IT Band issues in my left knee and my stomach felt better and my knee quit preventing me from running. I had four blissful miles where things were starting to look up again.
Then, at 30 miles, the real challenges began. My left foot started to cramp. I can’t really explain the sensation, but it felt like a muscle cramp or something in the middle of my foot. I tried rolling it out with a lacrosse ball and massaging it, but it didn’t seem to help. I had changed into my orthotics at mile 26 – but that had never caused problems before. I didn’t know what to do. This took me to a real low and I was battling the emotions from knowing 100 miles had slipped away. Jenn was doing the job I assigned her and trying to keep me motivated. At 50K I was ready to quit for the day but she encouraged me to go on to 35 or 40 miles and reassess.
At 35 miles, I spotted Jenn in the warming tent. I stopped there and sat down at the table in defeat. This last lap had been emotionally and mentally draining as I battled tears from the pain in my foot. Jenn had me sit down to get warm in front of a heat blaster and I just laid my head down on a table in surrender. I had been mentally calculating things out during the past several laps (about 1.1 mile per lap) and told Jenn that I thought the pain in my foot was probably a stress fracture. I think at this point she realized I needed to take a break or I would drop out completely, so we decided to go back to the hotel and rest for a while. Jeremy was going to be back at the race from 1 a.m. to 9 a.m. to volunteer and I could come back with him (it was about 9 p.m. then).
We went back to our hotel and I cleaned up and took some pain medication and laid on the bed. I couldn’t sleep because everything was hurting, so I just laid there and rested and tried to regroup. As 12:30 approached, I told Jeremy that I was going to try to sleep because I still was not able to race at that point and would go back when he got done with his volunteer shift. I took more pain meds and a sleeping pill and fell into blissful sleep.
I awoke the next morning feeling really good. No muscle aches or anything. Then I got out of bed and about collapsed from putting weight on my left foot. It got better as the foot loosened up and Jenn and I talked and I decided I wanted to give the race a try. I had dropped my plans the night before from 100 miles to 100 kilometers (about 62 miles) which was farther than I had been before. I think Jenn was still hoping I would be able to do 100 miles – but I knew only a miracle would allow that.
I started getting antsy and we decided to hire a cab to get back to the race course. I wrapped the left foot in coban on top of the blister taping and was ready to go before 9 a.m. and headed back to the track. Jenn was going to take Jeremy back to the track and then get me a hot chocolate and come back. The first few laps were pretty bad. I texted Jenn and told her to go to the Cabelas we had located and pick me up some poles. I was hoping that this would take enough pressure off my left foot and leg to keep me going. I could not run at all and my ankle was really not bending.
Disclaimer: A lot of my relatives and friends are criticizing me for continuing on at this point. However, my line of thinking was – if it was indeed a stress fracture – it was already broken, so I could monitor the injury and if it didn’t get worse, I wasn’t going to do any more harm than had already been done. It amazes me how people seem to think it fine to worry about someone hurting themselves when physically challenging themselves, but pregnancy and other voluntary life situations are far more damaging (potentially) to the body and people rarely get criticized for those choices.
Jenn came back and I did a couple of laps with a single pole while I inhaled the hot chocolate (Starbucks was a block or so away – I love that place!). Then I switched to two poles and started feeling better. After four or five miles with poles, I decided to try a lap without them and was suddenly able to run 100 steps at a time. No IT band issues the second day at all.
The heat was again an issue the second day and I would stop every 10 K (6 miles) to rest for 15 to 30 minutes. My entire focus was on getting to 100 k. It was nice to pass the 50 mile mark and know I was onto new territory. It was also a bit depressing because I had done so much better in my 50 mile race at Pony Express a few years earlier – but I knew that I was lighter then and in better shape.
As evening approached, Jenn and Jeremy were both back at the track cheering me on and supporting me. As it got cooler, I stripped off my shirt and was down to a sports bra. It was a bit cooler and less restrictive. Again, one of those ultra miracles occurred. I had not been able to run for several miles – but would give it a try at the start of each lap. This time, I was able to run. And keep running. I felt great. No pain. No aches. No tiredness. I decided to see how fast I could make it around the track. I had been doing about 23-25 minutes per lap and as I passed the timing mat I saw that I had done this lap in 13:47. I loved the look on Jenn’s face as I exclaimed, “I can run!”. I pretty well ran that entire lap and a good portion of the next two laps. Here I was, 55 miles into the race and I put together not only my fastest lap of the entire race, but three laps in under 45 minutes.
The wall hit again after those three laps, but they made the entire race so worthwhile. During those laps, I brazenly announced I could probably keep going after 100K. After those laps, energy went away and I decided 100K was plenty. It was kind of discouraging to finish what I thought was my last lap and see that I was .3 kilometers short of 100K. I had to power through one more lap in order to honestly count a 100K finish. I did that and sprinted across the finish line in exultation. My friend, Mark Hellenthal must have come out of the aid station as I passed because he hugged me right then and told me how proud he was of me. We did some celebratory pictures at the finish line and I then turned in my chip and got my official glass mug for the race.
Jenn and Jeremy packed up the rest of the tent and I headed to the car. At that point I started to shake violently. I had the same reaction after my 50 mile race a few years earlier. I think the body kind of goes into shock at what it has done when it knows you have safely stopped. We headed back to the hotel with the heat blasting as I tried to get my body under control. I dragged myself up to the hotel room and did my lovely spasming on the floor as they unloaded the car and brought in all our gear. After forcing some food into me and piling the sleeping bag on top of me, I was finally able to relax and clean up.
I was very pleased after untaping my feet to see that I only had one small blister on my right foot. It was actually caused by the edge of the tape on my big toe hitting against the joint. This was a good sign that my taping was fairly spot on.
After another solid nights sleep, I again woke up and was very happy to not have any stiff or aching muscles. Then I stood up and collapsed. The foot was bad. We decided to head back to El Paso that morning so that I could get into an urgent care facility since my insurance did not cover any in Arizona.
I rested in a nice cocoon in the back of the car all the way down to El Paso. We found an urgent care just before it closed for New Year’s Eve and the doctor diagnosed me with a probably stress fracture and put me on crutches.
Now – I am resting and recovering and reflecting. While the race did not turn out as I had planned, I am pleased with how it did turn out and considered it a successful race and a great way to end the year.