Monday, April 29, 2013

Epic Running: Outrun 24 Hour Trail Race

I had an objective. In the days leading up to the Outrun 24 hour trail race, I had only one real goal: retain my mental faculties in the early morning hours before the sun rose. No mental collapse, crying and sputtering desperate pleads to quit. No staggering along the course in the dark, mentally defeated and agonizing about how many miles I had left. This was my breaking point in my first 100 mile race, one that cost me hours, and nearly cost me finishing the race. However, as the days turned into mere hours, my nerves were somewhere beyond the stratosphere, and suddenly I realized I did not want to settle for 100k anymore. I didn’t even want 95 miles, definitely not 99, 99.5, 99.9. I wanted to prove to myself that I could run 100 miles in less than 24 hours. It was a Herculean task for someone who had barely covered the same distance in 30 hours just 9 months earlier, but I’d run a half dozen 50k’s since then and watched as they kept getting better and better. Granted, I’m not exactly a superstar, but I’ve moved from finishing in the bottom ½ to the top ¼ of female finishers in long distance events and with that came the kind of confidence that convinced me that my dream was possible.

Starts at the more epic distanced ultras are like a scene out of a comedy: the horn sounds, but rather than take off in a flash, participants jog, laugh, walk, scratch their asses, blow their noses, drink from their water bottles. And, in an event like a 24 hour trail run around a one mile loop, after a mile or two, some are already dipping into the cookies and candy. It’s a sight to behold during the early hours, for one more accustomed to viewing the typical marathon. The first two hours were rather uneventful for me—I was running a little faster than I should have been running, but wasn’t feeling any ill effects. Even walking up the hill on every loop, I was well into my 13th mile as we headed into the third hour.

The temperature rapidly rose between 10 am and 2pm, climbing to 68 degrees in the early afternoon. With no cloud cover or shade from the trees that had yet to sprout leaves, it felt like I was being broiled alive. After three hours, to my horror, I heard an announcement that I was leading the women’s field. Because this happened as I was crossing the start into my 19th mile, the spectators lining the start area in lawn chairs and tents were obviously aware as the man announcing in the timing tent pointed out that it was me. “She just ran by”, he added, making it impossible to miss the stocky creature trotting by in pink shorts with the look of “did I do that?” all over her face. Feeling it was only appropriate to do something, I executed a half-hearted rendition of the Rocky Balboa victory dance with my fists in the air, but was profoundly embarrassed. Never, at any point during the race, did I honestly think I would win.

I began to struggle for the first time not long after this. I felt hot and completely lost my appetite. For anyone who has never experienced this sensation, it is like watching someone handle raw chicken before putting your food, with bare hands, into a dish, sneeze on it, and then tell you to eat it—all after you’d swallowed a pound of watered down flour. Your stomach feels full, but not satisfied from having eaten, and you’re acutely aware that your body needs nourishment because you’re as agitated as you are alert enough to realize you haven’t eaten for an hour and a half; and, it’s hot, you’ve been running for four hours, and will be running for 20 hours more. As a low carb runner, nothing looked less appealing than candy, cookies, Heed, bread, and trail mix loaded with sweets; and after the first 45 miles of Burning River last year, even watermelon had lost its appeal. I settled for a cup of Nuun and a peanut butter & jelly square—the former for the electrolytes and the latter because I knew my body needed something of substance.

I passed the marathon mark in 4:40, coincidentally the same time in which I’d finished my first marathon a few years ago, and passed the 50k mark well under 6 hours. The miles that followed, between 32 and about 44, were amongst the worst for me of the entire race. Not long after passing the 6.5 hour mark, I heard another dreaded announcement that I was still, somehow, leading the women’s field. Having been reduced to walking a lot more than I’d like to admit, the 7th and 8th hours passed in slow motion, it seemed. I took a 15 minute break after finishing either my 43rd or 44th mile, ate a salami and cheese sandwich in the shade, took some Advil, drank some pop, and started to feel better. Having put on a hat, too, the sun didn’t have quite the effect it had hours earlier. I’d been, like always, doing mental calculations while I moved, and had started worrying I wouldn’t reach 50 miles under 11 hours. With this new strength, however, I began banging out 11 and 12 minute miles again, and I started to rekindle the fire in my dream of finishing 100 miles again. I hit the 50 mile mark in 10:25, approximately a 12.5 min/mile pace, so I was only slightly behind where I felt I should be at this point (I’d been aiming for 10 hours or better, with 10:30 the cutoff of where I thought I could feasibly still finish 100 miles).

There were two moves that sealed the deal on missing the buckle: a 15 minute break at 53 miles, and the hour with which I rewarded myself for having reached the 100k mark under 14 hours. I’d lost my lead during the 15 minute break I took around mile 44, and fell even further behind during the second extended “sit” once I completed mile 53. After taking an hour off upon reaching the 100k mark in 13:48, I’d fallen 6 miles behind the new leader, Crystal Shinosky. I found my pacer, John Delcalzo waiting at the aid station, and now clad in my orange tutu, black pants, and Burning River 100 jacket, I was eager and ready to tackle some more miles, even though I realized I’d sacrificed my dream in taking an hour off. John was optimistic that there was still a shot, even if it was a long one, of reaching 100, and we ran the next few miles at about a 12-12.5 min/mile pace. However, I began to notice a pain in my shins around the same time that John decided I really needed to eat something.

I’d admittedly neglected eating much for a couple hours because I didn’t have much of an appetite, but by the time we hit the 16 hour mark at midnight, it was apparent that I was starting to run into trouble. First, I mistook my own shadow for something moving in the woods and yelled “what was that?” I don’t know what variety of imaginary creature I conjured, but I realized almost immediately afterward that there was nothing there, and it reminded me of seeing a pile of leaves on the way to the O’Neill Woods aid station at Burning River last summer believing it was a dead cat. I also lost my balance twice when I stopped at the aid station. John handed me a bottle of Boost and told me to finish it, which I did, but it only made me feel worse. The soup of Boost, Advil and salt tabs floating in my stomach was like a bad dream that repeatedly threatened to come back out the way it came in. At 72 miles, I sat down and started crying because I was so frustrated. “I just want to run”, I remember saying. “How can I make this go away?”

Overcome with nausea, I told John I was taking a 20 minute nap around 2:30 am. I’d run 76 miles and knew I should still be able to at least get into the 90’s even with the nap. Unfortunately, it was cold in the tent, and though I’d started to drift off to sleep a couple times, the 20 minutes passed quickly. At this point, I began to alternate laps with my sister, Heidi, who had paced me on a few miles between 50 and 100k, and John. I insisted we walk them, mostly because my shins were aching but also because the nausea had not completely subsided. The next 5 miles passed at a snail’s pace. I reached 81 miles with 3 and a quarter hours left on the clock, and headed back to the tent feeling frustrated. I was nauseated, and my shins and feet hurt, and had started to think that it didn’t really care whether I ran 2 more miles or 10. Heidi popped into the tent and said about the same—did it really matter at this point whether I ran 84 miles, 87, or 91? Yes, and no. Obviously, I wanted to cover as much distance as possible. And, there were 3 hours left. I’d registered for this event under the pretense of running either 100 miles or 24 hours (whatever happened first) as a mental training exercise for the 100 milers I’ll be running in the summer. So, stopping early because “it didn’t matter whether I covered 84 miles or 91” felt, in a sense, like I was somehow selling myself short. I knew that, even with aching shins/feet/ankle, I had more miles in me. Freezing in the tent, I made my way to the fire pit where I again began to debate with myself, out loud like a crazy person, whether or not I should continue.

I whittled the 3+ hours down to 2, and couldn’t rationalize stopping when I was coherent and still capable of walking and, I would discover shortly, running. I left the fire pit with a blanket wrapped around me and headed back onto the course. And once I hit the trail, I started running. I was reduced to walking after perhaps a quarter mile, but finished the last quarter mile running. I ditched the blanket, and continued running into the next lap. Heidi was waiting for me after I finished my 84th mile and I let her know mile 85 would be my last. She walked with me onto the course without saying a word. The sun was rising and almost like magic my spirit lifted as we wound through the trail one last time. I felt sad that I wasn’t going to have enough time to finish 100 miles. But, I’d done it.With the sun rising and my body still intact and capable of running, the nausea having passed, and my mind utterly clear and sound, I had accomplished all that I’d truly wanted to accomplish at this race. I felt good about that. We ran the final stretch and through the finish and I sat down and tore off my timing chip. “I’m done”, I said. “Are you sure?” Zack asked. “Yes”, I answered. Somebody behind me asked, “how many miles?” Confident, content, and perhaps even a bit proud, I replied, “85”.

There was still over an hour left when Zack Johnson hung the medal around my neck, and I watched as others continued on their own journeys around the fire pit and back onto the course for another mile. I was pleased. Final results indicate the distance I covered was the 12th greatest in a field of 85 runners, 4th amongst the 35 women. I discovered that my feet fared much better than they had at Burning River, but my ankle was tender to the touch and incredible swollen. More than 24 hours later, I am still struggling to walk.

With six weeks until my first 100 mile trail race of 2013, I am in a good place mentally and physically. I am running longer distances faster than ever before, and feeling better than I’ve ever felt running while I complete them. I’m shooting for 25 hours at Burning River this year, but do not have a time goal for Mohican in mid-June. I’d like to finish under 30 hours, but it’s a tough course so I’m leaving it open. Only time will tell.

Cheers to keeping my shit together. If I can keep it up, this is going to be a great summer.


  1. Super effort Kim!
    Your story inspired me to not keep putting off plans for a 100 miler this year. Best wishes at Burning River.


  2. I always enjoy reading your race reports. Having been there for this one, seeing how hard you worked, makes it an even better read. Can't wait to see you out there again!