High Lonesome 100: It’s a long story

Prologue: It’s very dark, mile 55, and I hear something in the woods. Something big and close.

Me: “What the F!@# was that?”

Karl: “Probably just a squirrel. I didn’t really hear it.”

Me: “No way. That was huge.”

The trees rustled again, this time closer and louder.

Karl: *stops running “Huh… That does sound big.”

Me: “HEY BEAR, HERE KITTY, HEY MOOSY MOOSE!!!”

The trees rustled again, this time even closer and branches were snapping. We shined our lights in the woods, but couldn’t get a good look.

Karl: “Damn. It’s really close. What should we do?”

Me: *uses intimidating shout while sidestepping suspiciously down trail

The whole race, there had been people near me and within sight. However, for the last few miles, Karl and I had felt quite lonesome. Now, we were buzzing with a shot of adrenaline and ready to face what was crashing into the trail in front of us.

End Prologue

Rewind 38 hours. It’s 1:00 PM on Thursday and we had just driven to Buena Vista. Caley went out to lunch with Craig (pacer, coworker, friend from grad school), Rhea, and their 1.5 year old daughter. Meanwhile, I sat at the dog park with our 3 dogs and stared at Mt Antero’s sharp summit looming above the valley, masked by smoke from California forest fires. I felt nervous. I felt anxious. I felt butterflies. I felt excited. I felt terrible. This rush of feelings confused me because I expected it sooner. In the weeks leading up to the race, I was surprisingly calm, nonchalant, relaxed, and excited with anticipation, but not nervous. While sitting on that bench in the shade in Buena Vista, looking at the mountains, trying to identify the 13,000 ft pass we would be climbing, it all became real. Ready or not, High Lonesome 100 was happening.

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Chillin’ at the dog park in Buena Vista the day before the race.

Warning: In the following passage, I recount this adventure with extreme attention to detail that may seem superfluous or excessive. This is the long version, the ultra-marathon version. I hope you find it interesting, but if you don’t, just look at the pictures and wonder how Mile 90 Photography does it so well. The text is all just filler between the photos anyway.

After eating a pasta dinner at my boss’s house in Buena Vista, Craig and I rushed to packet pickup and the pre-race meeting. We arrived at the sign-in table at 5:58 PM, 2 minutes before sign-in ended and 2 minutes before my spot would be given to the first person on the waitlist. I received bib number 10 because months ago, I was the first person to sign up for the race, and the numbering for first time runners started at #10 based on sign-up order. They say in 100 mile races you learn things about yourself. I learned that I am inconsistent in my tendencies and unpredictably punctual. David (volunteer at counter and also my good friend and pacer for the last part of the race) busted my ass a bit, and it was well-deserved as always.

After the pre-race meeting, Craig and I decided while passing the brand new high school track that we should run a quick 400 meter shakeout. So we did it in 2:20. Not quite an “elite” time, but good enough for me. Flashes of pulling a hamstring on the track the night before the race slowed the pace quite effectively.

Back at our rental cabin in the small unincorporated community of Garfield near Monarch, CO and very close to the Fooses Aid Station around mile 70, I finished the race night preparations. I plugged my headlamp, InReach, phone, watch, and extra power bank all to charge, played the beat up guitar in the cabin, and settled into bed around 10 pm. I never sleep well when I have early morning commitments, and that night was no exception. It rained periodically all night, and with the window open, it was very peaceful. I felt excited, not too nervous. I probably summed about 2.5 hours of real sleep.

At 3:45, I hopped out of bed, threw on my running clothes, and in the blink of an eye, Caley and I were loading into the car, and I was now headed to the start line of my first 100 mile race. I felt thrilled. I felt ecstatic. I felt giddy. Caley yawned.

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Headed to the start line at 4:30 AM

We parked the car and walked to the port-a-potty. After a quick win there, I applied some sunscreen at the car and it happened again. I felt butterflies, nerves, anxiety and an urge to go back to the port-a-potty. Deep breath, walk to the start line, say hello to my friends, jokes, laughing, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, who gave Caleb a gun? We were running. Except for a few stumbles on the clumpy grass in the starting field, the first few miles were uneventful. I felt calm. I felt relaxed.

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1 minute before race start. Quinn with some last minute preparations…

On the first climb on the first part of singletrack trail, I was power hiking with my friend Ryan Case in front setting the pace, my friend and racing buddy Sarah Carrasco behind, and a group of maybe 6 others. Sarah and I have ran several races together and were planning to spend a lot of time together for this race. I asked Ryan about the breakfast burrito he was eating and he explained each ingredient in great detail. The people behind us thought this was hilarious, but this is pretty normal for me and Ryan. I savor every time-passing detail as we travel through the cheese, the potatoes, the tortilla, the bacon, etc.

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Ryan Case with his legendary breakfast burrito at Mile 4. Sarah and I follow in the background.

Caley was waiting at the first aid station (a common theme throughout this tale) and I spent about 2 minutes chatting and munching on some cookies. Then, we were running again. It started to feel like an ultra once I  realized that I wouldn’t see Caley again until Cottonwood Aid Station around mile 30. I met Wade at this point and we chatted. On the climb up Antero, Ryan finally left me and Sarah behind in pursuit of his own goals. Spoiler alert, Ryan finished in 4th place. Now what exactly was in that burrito??

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Entering Raspberry Gulch 1. The first aid station at mile 7.5

We could see Quinn (Sarah’s husband) up ahead plowing up the hills. The goal was to be conservative and save some legs and lungs for later. The 4,000 ft climb up to the high point of the race at Mt Antero was smooth and steady. I felt normal, at home above treeline. I felt good.

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Near the summit of the Mt Antero climb. Elevation approx. 13,000 ft. Mile 13

We descended the road at a pretty good pace, and we could see the next aid station with my friends David, Maddie, and Kelsey in the valley below. At the second aid station, I saw one of the pictures of Hannah placed near her favorite snacks that were presented at each aid station. This heavy dose of reality made me thankful for everyone who was able to be out there with me. I was reminded that every second we have is a gift, and to cherish even the mundane, frustrating, and dark moments. Hannah was the winner of High Lonesome 2017 and she died in an alpine fall weeks before the race. I didn’t know Hannah, but like everyone else in the race, I felt Hannah’s spirit.

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One of the tributes to Hannah throughout the course.

On the descent from the aid station, Sarah tossed me an earbud and we jammed to some Whitney Houston, Journey, and of course, the Hamilton soundtrack. I remember thinking how your perspective changes based on race distance. When I race 5ks, the last mile seems to take forever, and the same is true with any distance. The last 5 of a 50 mile hurts just as bad as the last 5 of a marathon. At mile 20 of a 100 mile race, we were cruisin’ with reckless abandon.

The temperature was rising, and after a good emotional boost from Kate and Zack’s aid station at St Elmo (Mile 25) we were off onto the 2nd big climb of the day up Law’s pass above 12,000 ft. This climb is similar to the Antero climb in grade so we took it slow and steady. Once Sarah, Wade, and I peeked above treeline, it started raining. The rain was welcome because it knocked the heat out of the air. I fell behind the group a little while I was messing with my rain jacket, and Mile 90 Photography snapped some sweet photos in the rain. This is when my body started to react to the miles above treeline. This surprised me because it was very early in the race. I was breathing harder than expected at a lower heart rate than expected. I had to slow down to maintain a constant effort and I lost sight of my friends. I crested the peak of the climb and saw Sarah and Wade had already descended to near tree-line level. I felt myself fading. I felt my morale decrease.

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Climbing up Law’s Pass around Mile 27 in the rain. Elevation 11,500 ft.

I love downhill running, but this descent to the Cottonwood aid station is not very fun in my opinion. There are lots of fist sized rocks, and it is pretty washed out and eroded due to motorcycle activity and poor trail building. I tried to pick up the pace to catch up, but I couldn’t. I began to worry, but relaxed my mind and plodded into the aid station where I saw Caley, my boss, and his daughter waiting. This was mile 30 and I didn’t feel energetic anymore. I didn’t feel excited. I was dragging. Seeing Caley was a great boost, but I could also sense concern from her. She noticed that I was minutes behind Sarah, and she noticed that my enthusiasm had waned. But she stayed positive and got me out with Sarah, and we were running again.

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Rinnen Borton, official crew chief commanding the team at Cottonwood Aid Station, Mile 31. I was not feeling too good when this picture was taken. At least I look pretty.

This section is out-and-back, and the aid station is the turn-around point. We started climbing the pass we just descended. Before long, we spotted Rob up ahead and Sarah caught up with him. I could not keep up with Sarah, and my breathing kept getting worse. I couldn’t push my heart rate above 150 because I couldn’t breathe. During this section, I began to have negative thoughts. I mentioned before that the last 5 miles of a 50 mile race or the last mile of a 5k are “supposed” to feel hard. With 70 miles to go, I was very worried about the effort I was expending for climb 3 out of 6.  I started to ask questions, and questions are not good unless the questions is “How do I feel so good right now?! *sunshine *birds chirping”. I also realized that I hadn’t urinated since Mt Antero aid station, about 3 hours ago, and I could tell that my body was retaining water. At this point, I need to thank Anthony Lee’s race summary from last year in which he described smiling therapy. I had never tried it until this moment. I forced a big smile on my face, and I magically started feeling better. I started chuckling to myself. I felt crazy.

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Climbing back out of Cottonwood. Trying to force a smile. Mile 33

Rob and Sarah waited at the top of the climb for me, which must have been 4-5 minutes. I was thankful and when I high fived them at the top, I was very happy to start bombing down this very fun descent. Sarah took off ahead, and I descended to the aid station alone, feeling better, feeling comfortable, and feeling fast on the descent. This is what I’m good at. Let’s roll.

Sarah and I left the St Elmo aid station (Mile 37) together and started up the road to Tin Cup. I had scouted this climb, and my friend and unofficial training coach Jon Clinthorne suggested that we use this easy grade climb as a chance to power hike and fuel up on calories. With this in mind, I had filled my pockets with a quesadilla and Oreos from the aid station and slowly consumed them on the climb. Near the Tin Cup aid station, our friend Tyler busted around the curve on a mountain bike in a crazy outfit. Seeing Tyler and Rebecca at this very basic water station was another great boost. We didn’t stay for long, although I thought it would be a great idea just to camp there for the night.

The next section of trail from Tin Cup at Mile 41 (12.5 hours) to the Hancock Aid station contains the highest quality and arguably most beautiful singletrack of the race on the Continental Divide Trail. We consolidated into a group of 5. One of the members of the group told a story of a bald eagle killing a curious pika in front of him last weekend at Rocky Mountain National Park. Then, one of our members claimed that the best part of the run so far was being in this group on this trail, right now. I agreed, but our group soon busted apart as we all set different paces up the climb to heights above 12,000 ft. Soon, I was alone again but within sight of plenty of other runners. I climbed comfortably without the demons that were taunting me at mile 30. I felt okay. Just okay. I also felt stinky. I could smell the musk of a long day in the mountains and it was ripening. I felt some friction in places that don’t tolerate friction.

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Ascending the Continental Divide trail towards the Alpine Tunnel (Mile 43?)

Another piece of trail I had highlighted in the map in my head from scouting runs was the descent from the alpine tunnel at the summit of this section. The descent starts with a steep section followed by a 3 mile straight doubletrack trail on an old railroad that follows a nice railroad grade to the aid station. I thought this section would feel great, but really, it felt flat and required more effort than I expected to keep turning over the miles. At this point, the sun had set, and it was getting dark. I was also too lazy to dig my headlamp out of my bag, so I just ran in the twilight, taking care not to trip over 140-year old railroad ties. I saw the “1 mile to aid station sign”, which was a great addition to the race that I really appreciated. Soon, I heard the party happening at Hancoachella (Hancock Aid Station, festival theme). This aid station featured a bunch of my friends as well, including captain Mark Barnhart. Really, every aid station in this race was full of my friends, which was an enormous home field advantage. I am completely spoiled for all future races.

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My Supercrew, Rinnen and Caley, ready for my arrival and Karl ready to start running at the Hancock aid station (Mile 48).

When I entered the aid station, I saw Caley cheering and I waved. Immediately after this, I stepped on a large rock and almost fell. I caught myself in a good save attempt and continued, but this caused some concern for Caley, who thought I looked delirious. I explained that I was fine, but she still showed a lot of concern. I told her all I wanted was to change into some fresh smelling dry clothes. I grabbed a fresh shirt, underwear, shorts, socks, and shoes out of my bag, and disappeared into the willows. I stripped completely naked and stood steaming in the dark in the willows for a long moment. My skin tingled in the crisp night air. I took a moment to soak in the mountain air. My body continued to steam as I generously rubbed aquaphor over trouble spots. When I pulled on my dry clothes, I felt reborn. I felt fresh. I felt revived.

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Jon: “You sure you don’t need a warmer shirt.” Me: “My shoulder looks warm.” Or maybe I was testing my whistle.

When I emerged from the willows, at least a dozen of my friends who were volunteering, spectating, crewing, or pacing were all waiting. My boss Chris and his 9.5 year old daughter Rinnen were there way past her bedtime. I can already tell that she’s caught the ultra bug; it’s just a matter of time now. Karl Oetjen, my pacer for this section, was ready to go in full pants and long sleeves, but I decided to head out in short sleeves and shorts. I forgot my power bank to charge my watch and wasted a good minute or two digging for it. But, I found it and we were off. Karl was noticeably excited and maybe a little nervous. We headed up the road at a casual power hike and I told him about my day. The lights and sounds of Hancoachella faded behind us, and soon the Milky Way exploded overhead. It was very dark and we could see a train of headlamps headed up the next pass over Hancock lake. We followed the headlamps to the top of the pass, around 12,000 ft, with little difficulty. At the top, we turned off our headlamps for a solid minute and looked at the stars. There was no moon, and the sky was black, but the mountains were softly illuminated in starlight. I could see the shape of the continental divide and the bare, exposed, gentle slopes of the Sawatch mountains.  This was a magical moment, and I was happy Karl was there with me to share it. I felt welcomed into a new frontier of ultra-marathon night running.

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Hancock aid station is near the halfway point of the race depending on how the GPS measures the course. While only 1 big climb remains, much of the next 6-8 hours will be above treeline.

Many of the headlamps we saw climbing the pass in front of us had paused at the top of the pass, or were walking down the descent. As usual, I decided to run the downhills, and we soon gained a lot of open space to ourselves. After a few miles of downhill running in the dark, I heard a crash in the woods beside us. Enter the Prologue Teaser paragraph. The sound was big and Karl started to express concern when it moved quickly up the trail beside us, breaking sticks along the way. When I finally caught it’s yellow eyes in my headlamp, I recognized it as the best animal that could possibly be making all of this commotion. It was a spotted mule deer fawn that could barely balance on its shaky legs. It crossed the trail in front of us, and we heard its mother in the woods near us. In the best interest of the deer, we scooted along the trail and laughed out loud. If a baby deer made that much noise, what would a bull moose sound like?

The Lost Wonder Aid station appeared in a few more miles. I was excited about this aid station because it is a ski hut/cabin with a kitchen and lights and hot food. However, when I arrived, what I experienced was a bit eerie. At least one runner was wrapped in blankets, shaking. Other runners had their emergency blankets wrapped around their bodies, while nervous pacers talked in hushed voices to medical staff and aid station volunteers. I am prone to getting chilly, but I was feeling hot in just shorts and a long sleeve tee. I think my metabolism was turned way up or something because I was cooking inside the hut and I had to sit outside. I felt terrible for the runners in distress, and it left me feeling a little sobered. I took a moment to talk with Daisy, the medic at this aid station. Daisy and I both volunteered at High Lonesome last year at Monarch aid station and witnessed plenty of runners in bad shape. When Daisy had a free moment, I solicited a quick rub of some icy hot on my achy left hamstring. In 30 seconds, Daisy loosened the hamstring and it felt limber with little or no pain. Daisy- I owe you one big time! #doitlikeDaisy

Karl and I headed out of the hut and up and down some rollers to the start of the most intimidating climb of the race starting at around Mile 56 and 18 hours. This climb is intimidating because the course spends about 6 miles above treeline in the middle of the night. In 2017, the weather was terrible and runners entered the Monarch aid station disoriented, hypothermic, and in bad spirits due to low visibility freezing fog. This year, the air was crisp, but the wind was calm and the skies were clear. Mars was shining bright red over the mountains above us, and a warm yellow half moon had risen at our backs. We caught up with Sarah and her pacer Liz Sasseman on the on the climb and stuck together for the whole section.

My breathing was terrible at this point, and I had been urinating about every 15 minutes. The water I was retaining had released, and I tried to reestablish electrolyte balance with salt pills. My heart rate was about 140, but I was breathing like I was sprinting at a heart rate of 185. My lungs felt constricted. I assumed it was some high altitude lung issues, maybe bronchoconstriction or a little pulmonary edema. My spirits were good though, and my legs felt okay. I felt happy to be out in the wilderness after midnight on a beautiful night with three of my friends. Karl yawned.

We reached the summit of this huge important climb and I realized I had reached the top of the race. From this point on, there are hills, but this is the last of the +1,000 ft climbs above treeline. I felt like I was going to finish a 100 mile race.

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It’s all downhill from here. Kind of…

Before the race, I was nervous about this section because of the altitude and the technical, rocky trails. But it went okay. As we descended, my energy levels increased. Karl was reminding me to eat a gel every 30 minutes and I was complying. All day, I had been religious about eating at least 100 calories every 30 minutes and more if I could. At this point, I think it was paying off in a big way. The four of us cruised down the divide into a brief stop at the Purgatory aid station and eventually to Monarch pass.

When I saw the aid station at Monarch pass, I felt a rush of emotions. Monarch pass was the aid station where I volunteered in 2017. It was my first experience with a 100 mile race. I stayed up all night helping runners cross the road and preparing food in the aid station. At around 4 am that night in 2017, I stood alone on the shoulder of Highway 50 with some glow sticks and a flashlight in the freezing rain. I realized at that moment that I would attempt the High Lonesome 100 the next year. I stood in the road smiling because I finally understood the allure of a 100 mile race. It’s not the distance, it’s not the time, it’s not the race, it’s the thrill of the adventure.

This year, as I crossed Highway 50 at 4 am, I thanked the volunteers and soaked in the moment. As I walked up the parking lot to the aid station, I remembered my curiosity in 2017: “What would it feel like to be 66 miles into a 100 hundred mile race in the middle of the night? Would I be delirious? Would I feel exhausted? Would my quads be ground meat?” I felt none of that. I felt high on life. Happiness is a warm gun (or a long run?).

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Final preparations at Monarch aid station (Mile 68) with the crew in full force.

As she had done the whole race, Caley met me coming into the aid station and sat me down with warm, fresh french toast she made at 4 am on a Coleman stove. Caley is a professional crew beast and I owe her big time. Chris and Rinnen helped me with rocks in my shoes and digging stuff out of my bag. For the first time of the race, I was legitimately hungry and I didn’t have to force anything down. I was eating my first real meal in almost 24 hours. After a stop of less than 10 minutes, Karl said goodnight and Craig and I found Sarah and her pacer Arlene and headed out of the aid station. Sarah was experiencing some emotions of her own. Sarah: “I don’t feel that bad, but I can’t stop crying”. We all stopped for a hug break then headed up the hill. Craig and Arlene were full of energy. I’ve been in their position, and I know it’s exciting. Now, from the runners point of you, I know that the excitement is a nice boost. The racers are feeling beat up at this point, and the fresh enthusiasm of the pacers is contagious.

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Craig: “Shoes On! Let’s rock and roll!” Karl: *yawn. Me: “What day is it?”

When we started down the long descent to Fooses Aid Station, we immediately passed a handful of runners that were struggling to find their legs on the downhill. I was really worried that my legs would be hurting at this point too, but somehow Sarah and I both felt good running at a pretty fast pace all the way to Fooses. The sun started to rise around 6 am and we realized we had been running for 24 hours. I felt like running was all I had been doing for as long as I could remember.

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Second sunrise of the run around Mile 71.

Just like every other aid station, some of my closest friends were volunteering at Fooses and they were not shy in busting me for sending a nearly empty Tupperware as my drop bag. My plan was that around this time, I would need to strip off the headlamp, extra layers, pants, gloves, etc., and my pacer would need to as well. They thought my empty Tupperware was a joke, but it ended up being pretty useful.

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Unicorn aid station. My famous “empty” tupperware container is bottom right. Notice how full it is with dropped clothing.

The climb up to Blank’s cabin was not as bad as I expected. We weren’t setting speed records, but Craig and Arlene kept us in a nice rhythm and we trudged along. We ran the downhills, many of the flats, and even some of the shortest uphills. It felt really good to be running on singletrack in a forest. I knew I would finish at this point. When I thought about finishing and thought of all the people I had seen throughout the race waiting at the finish, my eyes got misty and I felt a boost of emotional strength. This happened over and over. I couldn’t control it so I let it happen.

The four of us ran this section together and chatted the whole time. It felt like any other social run. With the sunrise of the new day, I lost track of how long I had been running. For the next few hours, the whole experience was a bit surreal. At Blank’s cabin, Craig’s assignment was done, and my closest running buddy David was picking me up for the ride to the finish. At Blank’s, I was soaking in the energy of the scene. Caley brought Lucy dog, and Chris and Rinnen were somehow there too. Caley, Chris, and Rinnen showed up at every crew-accessible aid station and got me in an out with unreal efficiency and moral support. Shawn Daugherty was here too (link to Shawn’s excellent race report) with all of his enthusiasm and the whole aid station was exciting. I left with David, Sarah, and her pacer Jesse feeling buzzed.

I don’t remember many details from the next section. I talked with David and I remember running a lot of downhills at a pretty good pace. I remember getting the flashes of finish line emotions, but I mainly just remember breathing and moving my legs. On uphills, I remember the rhythm of my trekking poles, “Click, click, click, click” in sometimes perfect unison with Sarah’s. We were in and out of the last aid station quickly. When I was ready, I urged Sarah to come with me. When some of my friends said, “Just go”, I said “I’m not leaving without Sarah”.  We had been together off and on for more than 90 miles, so there was no sense in splitting up now. We left together. There were 8 miles to go.

On the last uphill of the Colorado trail, my feet started to hurt. Really hurt. I felt my toes swelling. My shoes felt like they were filled with sand and rocks that were scraping into my skin. While there were some rocks, this sensation was just the pressure of deep blisters forming underneath the pads of my feet. On the final downhill, I couldn’t run. I hobbled down the steep switchbacks. They were not that steep on the way up.

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The last descent of the race around Mile 95. Sarah (left), me (middle), and David (right). Photo Credit Liz Turner-Parsons.

Once we hit the road, it was a gradual downhill until the last 1.2 mile climb to the finish. My high finally wore off, and the road was a buzzkill. I tried to run as much as I could, but the pain in my feet was really miserable. Each step was a jolt of deep pain that shot from my feet into my ankles. I had crossed so many mental finish lines leading up to this point that I became impatient. I believe Sarah was feeling the same because we both hobbled on at the same pace and said very little. Traffic was speeding by and there was barely room on the shoulder of the road for us to move out of the way of oncoming traffic. I didn’t mind the road at the start, but after running over 90 miles on trails and forest roads, these roads were not fun. It was also 1:00 pm and the sun was cooking the fresh black asphalt. I felt annoyed.

But that section didn’t last long, and soon we were turning the last corner on the final climb to the finish line. The pain in my feet faded, the negative thoughts of the road section faded, and I felt the finish line emotions well up again. I heard cowbells. Right turn into the field, “Where do I go now??” Oh, turn left here, I guess. I heard screaming, lots of screaming.

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The final 100 meters through the field to the finish with Liz and David pacing.

We jogged over the clumpy shrub grass and crossed the line in 31 hours and 36 minutes. Sarah was the 6th woman across the line, and together, we were the 27/28th finishers of the race.

hl100-2018-2202I was overwhelmed with joy. After a high-five with Sarah across the line, Caley and I shared a long embrace. She honestly worked harder than I did over the night. I hiked and jogged with friends through the mountains while she calculated paces and times and cooked sandwiches and drove hundreds of miles from aid station to aid station. I felt satisfied. I felt cared for. I felt love.

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It didn’t take long for my legs to start aching. My feet and knees started throbbing. The lack of sleep started to settle in. I eventually crawled into the back of my car, wrapped in blankets and my puffy jacket, shivering in the hot sunny weather. I remembered a Vince Lombardi quote, “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the battlefield- victorious.”

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Cheers to the thrill of adventures!!
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