Zion 100-DNF Part II Miles 35-52.5
Part I can be found here
“But there is suffering in life, and there are defeats. No one can avoid them. But it’s better to lose some of the battles in the struggles for your dreams than to be defeated without ever knowing what you’re fighting for” –Paulo Coelho
About a half mile after leaving mile 35 aid station, we hit a beautiful single track, very runnable and fast. The views were amazing, but I couldn’t take in anything. Not even a mile into the run with Matt, everything started to feel very off. My stomach was having major issues and I was suddenly hit with a wave of nausea. I pulled off to the side a couple times to try to throw up, but I couldn’t force anything out. I would cough and dry heave, but no luck. Finally the dizziness and headache hit and I had to really stop on the side of the trail and lie down. I found a rock to rest my head and laid there until I felt a little better to keep going. There was no use running anymore, everything was spiraling downhill at a rapid pace that I had no control over. It felt like driving a car with no hands and finding yourself getting closer and closer to the edge of the cliff.
I was starting to get really worried, we were only 1/3 of the way into the race and I was already feeling so bad. I was taking care of myself at all the aid stations, going out really slow, so why was I feeling like this? I told myself this was just a normal bonk that I will get over. Although I have never felt so much fatigue and dizziness before. Things never got better after I got up from the rock, we continued to hike and get passed by runners who were also walking. We were literally baking away in an oven with no door to escape. My clothes were dry even though it was so hot out. My shorts were hard and crunchy from all the salt I had lost. My skin was cold even though I felt like I had a fever raging inside my head. My body just wasn’t sweating anything out and working really hard to keep my core temperature cool. We walked almost the entire way to the next aid at Mile 42.4. I stopped and laid down on the trail many times during this death march. At one point, I just couldn’t take it anymore. I have never had the need to sit down on a trail so much before, yet I felt the need to lie down. All this time, I had built myself up in my head to be strong and carry on. I chanted all the motivational quotes I could remember to myself, but I still felt so sick and had no idea how to make myself feel better. I didn’t care that runners were walking by us as I sat on a rock bawling my eyes out. I felt sorry for myself and embarrassed for taking a whole crew out here just to see me like this. I thought about all the friends I had back at home that were tracking me and wanted to see me finish. It was at this point I knew reaching the finish was going to be a really hard struggle and I wasn’t so confidant anymore that I would make it. I have never felt so broken in my life before. It was during this meltdown I realized how much I wanted this and when reality set in that I might not see the finish, I couldn’t handle it. It’s amazing how quickly you can go from feeling high to low in a matter of minutes. One minute I’m cruising through 35 miles, the next I’m desperately looking around the barren desert for a rock to lie down on.
Matt was there to give me a shoulder to lean on and rest my head, he knew how badly I felt but couldn’t do anything to help me physically. I was having all the symptoms he had last year when he ran Grand Canyon Rim 2 Rim 2 Rim. I looked clammy, drained and just downright sick. He talked me through it and eventually I pulled myself up from the rock and continued on. For some reason, I was just so sad. Even as I walked, I was still having a hard time fighting back the tears. I thought about the last 6 months of training up to this one event. I thought about how I wasn’t as tough as I hoped to be. I imagined Meg and my mom wondering where I was and what happened to me during this section. The range of emotions that were rushing through me was overwhelming. It felt better emotionally to get everything out. I hated looking weak, especially in front of others, but that was exactly how I felt; pathetic and hopeless as I trudged forward baking away in the oven.
Matt kept my mind off how miserable and sick I felt, we talked about anything and everything and my spirits started to lift and I rather enjoyed this slow hike we were doing. I knew I would make it to see the next aid at Mile 42.4. He made sure I kept drinking water, taking salt and eating my gels which I did diligently.
What seemed like a day’s hike, we finally made it to the next aid, Virgin Desert, in 10:38. That last section destroyed me and I was way off my estimated goal arrival. I came into the aid surprised by how many runners were taking solace under the tent and sitting down. As another runner put it, “When we arrived, it looked like a triage center. Every chair was filled with a savaged runner. The aid station workers were overwhelmed with the workload. Suffering runners were scattered everywhere.”
I have never experienced such a thing before. I found an empty chair under the tent and knew I would have to spend some time here to feel better before going back out. A lot of the runners had already been there for 20-30 minutes. We were all silently suffering in our own ways. Words didn’t have to be spoken to convey how we were feeling, you could just tell by the vacant look in everyone’s eyes that we were all going through the same things. Everyone was fighting their own war of emotions and it was a mutual understanding amongst us runners. I don’t know how long I sat here for, probably 20-25 minutes, I couldn’t eat anything as usual, and nothing looked appealing. Matt re-filled my Nathan pack with ice and water as I just stared out into the desert. I watched two girls come in, one was shouting to the volunteer that her friend needed immediate help and was suffering from heat exhaustion. There were no chairs left for her to sit in so a volunteer had to ask one of the runners who had been sitting for a long time to give up his chair. It resembled a battlefield at this station. I was sitting next to a guy who was caked in salt and he told me he just couldn’t get his body temperature down.
I knew what was ahead, we had 3 miles to go until just a water station before we started the steepest scramble up onto the mesa. It would be another 10 miles to go before a fully stocked aid. We were in the heat of the day and runners were dropping all around. I knew Meg was waiting at this water station at Mile 45. Since it wasn’t accessible by car, she had to hike in a mile and I knew she was just waiting for me for a long time not knowing where I was. She ended up asking runners as they came through if they had seen me on course. Many people said they saw me sitting on the rock or laying down on the trail. Yeah, that sounds like Andee alright.
Matt and I continued to walk, he tried to get me to run just a little, but every time I would attempt to run more than a couple feet, I would have to hunch over and catch my breath and lie down again. My dizziness and headache just wouldn’t go away. Every time a runner passed us as I was sitting down, they would offer me their own concoction of drinks and remedies that have helped them. I have never had so many unusual food and drink before, but I figured it couldn’t get any worse. At one point, my feet were so swollen and hot it hurt to walk. Fatigue was settling in from heat exhaustion. I sat down and took off my shoes, Matt rubbed my feet and shoulders while I sat there like a zombie wondering if someone would come get me. In any ultra trail race, there is always that insecurity of not having medical aid right when you need it. Unlike a road race, if you wanted to drop, you could always find someone to help you or flag down a car to take you somewhere. I have never ever felt so sick before during a run. Slowly, I was starting to realize this wasn’t a usual bonk. I had been fighting this feeling for hours now and couldn’t see myself getting better. My only hope was to make it to night fall and with the cooler temps, hopefully I’ll start feeling better. I told Matt to please find out if I could get checked out by medical at Mile 45. I wanted to get weighed again and have my temperature taken. Unfortunately, Mile 45.5 only had water and no aid and if I wanted to make it back to town, I had to hike there in the opposite direction.
I sat on the cooler since there was no place to sit and just rested my head on the cooler unable to continue. The station was manned by a volunteer who was also an ultra runner. He talked me through my suffering, gave me some of his own concoction to help me get calories in. I prayed he would look at me and tell me I was unable to go on because of my condition. I was mad when he looked at me and said I looked okay and that he’ll see me at Mile 70, so I trudged forward miserably and sick. I knew it wasn’t his fault, that’s a sign of a good volunteer. He wouldn’t let me give up so easily and gave me hope that I would at least make it to Mile 70. I didn’t even make it a quarter of a mile in before I had to lie down again. This time I found a big rock in the shade and had my second meltdown of the day. During this time, I had both my pacers with me; Meg was just going to hike a little with us before turning around to go back to the hotel to rest before her night leg at Mile 70. It was at this moment that I knew my day was coming to an end. No matter how hard I tried to fight back the emotions, I couldn’t see the finish anymore. I took off my hat and sunglasses and cried to them that I couldn’t do it anymore. Nothing I did or tried was making the sickness go away. Furthermore, I couldn’t imagine feeling like this and walking it in for the next 50 miles. I lied on this rock for a long time while my pacers talked me through the options I had left.
Before Zion, I told them that I wasn’t giving up unless I was seriously injured and that they had to keep pushing me even when I felt like breaking down. Even though nothing was injured, I was struggling with heat exhaustion, dehydration and dizziness; all factors that were out of my control. Meg gave me a back rub while Matt spoke encouraging words to me. I will never forget their gracious efforts to keep me going when everything was falling apart around me. I felt like I never wanted to leave the rock. I wanted to lie there for a very long time and contemplated if I should take a nap and possibly feel better when I wake up. A runner came up and gave me some papaya extract pills to help soothe my stomach. I told him it wasn’t my stomach I was dealing with, but figured I was so desperate for help that I would take in anything. When I had no more energy to cry, I decided to get up and tackle the climb ahead. I didn’t even say anything to my pacers who were all waiting for my final decision to continue or go back. I hopped off the rock, dusted myself off and hiked forward. My fight wasn’t over just yet. Meg went up a little ways before we parted ways, I couldn’t even lie that I would see her at Mile 70, I already knew I wouldn’t make it that far.
One last picture of all of us together
The death march begins
We started a steep scramble up onto the mesa, ascending over 1,500 ft in less than a mile. At the base of the hill, I asked Matt if I could grab onto his hand. He took my hydration pack and literally dragged me up that hill one step at a time. I wouldn’t dare look up to see how steep we were climbing. It was a vertical uphill with no switchbacks to make it any easier. I focused on putting one foot in front of the other as I held onto Matt tightly afraid I might slip and fall backwards. There was no place to stop to rest until we reached the top, a couple times I had to ask to stop for a little bit so I could catch my breath and drink some water.
Here are some pictures to try to describe how brutal the climb was.
Runners ahead of us. Photo credits
Runners behind us. Photo credits
I would have never made it up that climb myself without Matt there to pull me. We saw a guy sprawled on a rock halfway through the climb and asked if he was okay. He looked just like me a half mile ago at the base of the climb. We caught up to the same runner who had given me the papaya extract and he was having a hard time climbing to the top as well. A volunteer was coming down the mountain and we told him about the runner on the rock so he could help him. There was a section of the climb close to the top where it was so scary to cross. We unhooked hands and I got down on my butt again to scoot across the trail. It was a sheer drop off with slippery gravel making my footing very difficult. I was so tired and very unbalanced. Matt told me not to look down so I faced towards the mountain and grabbed onto anything I could, a branch here, a leaf there, just in case my footing slipped. It wasn’t even that long of an exposed section, but my heart was racing out of my chest. We had a couple scrambles on the rocks where we both agreed it was better to have both our hands free to grab onto the rocks. The temps were starting to get cooler the higher we climbed. When we got to the top, we were greeted with the most amazing views ever. It was worth it.
We looked over the mesa and couldn’t believe how high we had climbed.
We were greeted with a water station only, but the volunteer had electrolyte shaved ice and Gatorade. It was the best water only station so far, I was feeling better for once and wanted to run. I haven’t had the urge to run since 8 hours ago. I washed down some electrolytes and Gatorade as we made the trek out to the next aid at Mile 51, 4 miles away. I started running again as we skirted the edge of the plateau taking in the gorgeous views. The sun was setting as we ran on top of the mesa. I relished in this moment that I had made it to the top and night was falling. I was going to make it to the end after all.
The mesa on top was a little hard to run on since it was all rock, it was like running on pavement. As we ran along, the cooler the temperature dropped, but 2 miles in, I started to feel sick again. We resorted to a fast hike knowing we had to make it to the next aid where our headlamps were before it got really dark. It seemed like forever before we got to Aid 51.5, Gooseberry Point in 15 hours. Even though it was nighttime, I was fatigued from baking in the sun all day. I thought that I would immediately feel better once we hit cooler temps. I made it to the nighttime, but it was too late to do anything at this point. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t salvage and mend myself back together.
Reaching Gooseberry Point was similar to the last aid, 10 miles ago. Runners were taking up all the chairs, nursing themselves back to health and licking their wounds. They had soup cooking with rice so I decided to sit down for a while and decide what my next move would be. I drank some soup, ate a quesadilla and some boiled potatoes and almost immediately I could feel my energy lifting. The runners who were all sitting down were all dropping out right there, they were just waiting for a car to come pick them up. Since the aid station was in a very remote area, it was hard to get a car to come up at a moments notice.
I started to get really cold just from sitting there, my teeth were chattering and I couldn’t stop shivering. Even though I had my headlamp at this drop bag, all my warm clothes were at Mile 70. No way I had imagined I would be here at Mile 51 when it was night fall. I didn’t even think I needed the headlamp at this aid. I couldn’t fathom going any further without proper clothing. A volunteer saw me shivering and took off his sweatshirt for me to wear. There was a half mile out and back to the edge of the mesa before coming back to the same aid station. I told myself I could at least do that. Since it was so dark out and we were climbing rocks, we had a hard time finding the trail markers which were painted white dots on the rocks that we had to follow. We could hear runners and see headlamps, but it seemed like most people were confused where to go. We walked a quarter of a mile in before I had to rest again.
I sat down and just stared at the darkness ahead and the stars above. The race would be over once I came back from this turn around. For once, I was content in this moment. We rested, gazed at the stars and I realized how far I had come to get to where I was. I climbed two big mesas, saw some amazing scenery, ran on beautiful trails, and traveled further than most people would run. I was glad to have Matt out there leading the way, keeping me company and helping me look for the trail markers, I would have probably fallen right off the edge had he not been there. There was no sign once we reached the turn around point, it was just a LED light taped to the ground. I asked Matt to go further ahead to see if there was anymore trail to continue on. He told me up ahead was a sheer drop off the ledge, oops. I looked around in total pitch darkness and couldn’t believe they wouldn’t label the turnaround point. I didn’t realize how high up we were. The way back went a lot quicker and we hit the aid again, this time there were new people there. I saw a Tony Krupicka look-a-like who was in 2nd place in the beginning of the race and wanted to be done before it got dark, which he ended up doing by dropping at 51.5. I sat in the chair, covered myself up with a sleeping bag and just listened to all the runners coming through and all the different reactions people were having. I felt relieved to hear that others were having just a hard time on the course, that this was no easy course. For some reason I thought I was the only one suffering as much as I was out there, almost positive I was in last place when in fact there were many runners behind me.
A lot of us were deceived by this course, by the lower elevation gain and thinking this would be a very fast course. It was the only reason I signed up for this race as my first 100. I didn’t even care that the cut off was 36 hours, there was no way I would still be out there close to the cut off time. When in fact, the RD had a good reason for making the cut off so generous, he knew how brutal the heat could be to runners. We talked to one runner who had run 25 100 milers and had finished every single one. He was dropping at 52.5 today, his only DNF in a 100 mile race. We talked to runners who had run much harder races than this, Leadville, Hardrock, Chimera and were all dropping and having a hard time. The heat killed off a lot of runners and I was sadly one of the victims.
I dwelled on my final decision for a long time, but this time, I knew it was real. I felt another wave of emotions coming as I struggled to fight back the tears. I have never cried so much before in such a short amount of time. I never realized how emotional I would get that day. It was like everything I did leading up to Zion felt hopeless. I was dropping and quitting at Mile 52.5, a distance I was fairly familiar with. I thought about all my friends at home who would soon find out what had happened when my times stopped being updated and my name was placed on the Drop list. I thought about how many 50 mile runs I’ve done and how great I’ve felt in those runs. I thought about all those times I wanted to quit on a training run and how I managed to pull it together and finish. Why was this happening to me only at 52.5 miles? This was the longest I have ever run in a single day, spending 16 hours on my feet. I would have felt better if this was mile 70 or 80 or somewhere other than 52! Once again, I felt weak and helpless, but knew it was my time to go. I had no more fight in me, I couldn’t imagine going another 47.5 miles feeling like this even though I had 36 hours to finish. Runners around me were saying at this point, it would be sun up again and we would have to fight the heat before we finished. There was no way I was going to deal with the heat again. It was 10 miles to go until the next aid at Mile 62. 10 miles sounded so far away and I knew at the pace we were going, it would probably take 4-5 hours in the night, but I knew I would feel the same way once I got to that aid and have to drop. When I realized I wouldn’t see the finish, I decided to pack up here and turn in my number. Since the aid was so hard to get to, we waited for an hour or so before we got a ride back with the other dropped runners. The ride back was silent. I sat with two other runners, Matt had to take an ATV back since there was no more room in the car. There didn’t need to be words expressed about how each one of us felt. It was a rocky ride on the rugged trail as we drove down the course, passing brave stragglers making their way to the next aid at Mile 62. We reached mile 62 and saw more chairs lined up with runners filled in every seat. After getting back to the hotel, I found out a lot of people had dropped at that aid. The 10 mile stretch was more than a lot could handle and many got really turned around, tackling on an additional 5-8 miles.
Back at the hotel, it was after 1AM. I silently showered and got ready for bed. The battle was over. It just wasn’t in the cards for me to win that day. I surrendered to the weather, fatigue, and exhaustion.
These past few days after the race have been really hard on me. I’m slowly regaining my strength and confidence and mending myself back together. More than physical fatigue, I’m emotionally drained and spent. It’s so true you are your own worst critic. I’ve received an overwhelming amount of support since the race and I am so grateful to have everyone in my life. It is still such a strange feeling to work so hard at something and not being able to accomplish it. Trail ultras are completely unpredictable, I realize that, and I couldn’t fight the climate or what happened to me that day. I tried to stay hydrated, I ate and made sure to take extra care of myself, but nevertheless, nothing was working. My performance faded at a rapid pace from feeling pretty good until Mile 35 to feeling the lowest of the lows until the dropping point. Every aid was packed with hurting runners, some dropped earlier, some dropped later, and others continued on to see the finish. I have much respect for those that finished. I’m sure no one expected the course to be this hard and for the heat to have that kind of affect on us.
As we returned to the battlefield the next day to pick up my drop bags, I talked with a lot of other runners. Most I had seen out somewhere along the course. Some just finished, others dropped after me. We shared our war stories and everyone agreed this course was much harder than anyone had imagined. Most stories evolved around the heat, slick rock, technical trail, getting lost and cold overnight temps. One runner commented that I made the right decision to drop where I did. That 10 mile stretch was brutal, technical, rocky and not well marked. Runners were off trail and those that felt really good at Mile 52 ended up dropping at the next aid. I also heard runners were seeking shade under rocks on the trails, curled under little bushes just to save themselves from the heat. The finishing times definitely reflected a tough course. I give major props to Matt Gunn who put together this first year race. There were some hiccups along the way, but he designed a course that was not only challenging, but provided us with the utmost scenery Zion had to offer.
I know I’m strong and my experience at Zion has nothing to do with my performance as a runner. My long training and dedication was the real test of endurance. What happened race day was out of my control. I had the legs to push forward, but my body was fighting back. It hurts to want something so badly and not have it in the end. I imagined myself crossing over that finish line so many times. I could taste victory before I could even come close to grasping it. Through all my training, I learned visualization can be a very powerful tool. I trained so hard to push through leg fatigue and I knew I had it in me to finish 100 miles. Unfortunately, it wasn’t my legs that gave out, I dealt with something much more serious and something I had never experience or prepared myself for. I put my heart on the line and surrendered to defeat.
I’ll take this experience with me for my upcoming races. I know I fought as hard as I could and gave it my all, and that is really all I can do in this sport. We just have to try our best and know that is worth more than finishing. I came to Zion not only to finish, but to find my limits, which I did even if it meant pulling out when I needed to. Realizing where your limits are is the true test of an endurance runner and someday I’ll come back and fight this battle again.
Today is a crossroad where everything you want will collide with everything standing in your way.