What Running 100K in the Desert Taught Me
100 kilometers is a fair distance and attach the word “running”, it seems like an impossible feat. But, it’s not, it just may take a while. A few (or more) hours of a while. I recently completed my first 100K race, Javelina Jundred in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Yes, this Canadian Prairie girl was running her first race in the land of a gazillion cacti in the desert.
Each race, no matter the distance, has some valuable learning if one chooses. I choose to learn what I can from each race so I can improve for the next. I love this quote by ultrarunner Dean Karnazes “If you want to run, run a mile. If you want to experience a different life, do a marathon. If you want to talk to God, run an ultra.”
A point to note is that an ultra is longer than a marathon (26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers) in distance and is usually vastly different in terrain from the road. Usually most ultra distances start at 50K. Typical ultramarathon distances are 50K, 50 Miles, 100K, and 100 Miles. Terrain varies from road to single track trail to river crossings to whatever the race director has in mind. Usually there are hills involved.
Getting back to talking to God and running an ultra. During a race of distance, one is on the course for a long time, quite often by one’s self and sometimes for miles at any time of the day or night. You become your own best friend (or not) during the race. It’s not uncommon to start talking to “someone” during these times. I will add that the talking may include anything from admiration to “I’ve had enough of this sh!t!!” Other descriptives can (and usually are) inserted at this point.
“Let the race happen” is one of the most valuable tidbits of advice given to me by my friend Warren, another ultrarunner. There’s many times that gem of advice has saved not only my bacon, but my race and now “let the race happen” is my mantra. When the race starts I position myself at the back of the pack, press “start” on my Garmin, and go. This is my time to put one foot in front of the other, look at the scenery, and have the most amount of fun I can have from now until the finish line.
During my Javelina 100K, I learned quite a few things which I will share. Some are potential game changers and some are just plain ol’ good to know!
- Change the Garmin from kilometers to miles. Canada uses the metric system so pretty much everything is in kilometers. The US is still with the Imperial system, therefore course markers are in miles. Yes the “simple” math of “1 mile equals 1.6 kilometers” can be applied and does work. But, factor in heat, blood sugar muckery, and fatigue yeah that’s just not happening. Another close point to note is that when a distance is determined, look at the Garmin for a reference point!! It’s amazing how crucial that teeny factor is.
- If something is irritating, stop and find out what the cause is, tend to it, fix it, and carry on. This is not the time to get stubborn, numb or clueless. During loop 2 something was picking my back from the bottom of my hydration vest. Yes I tried to dislodge the irritant, but it persisted. What I should have done was take off my vest, inspect, rearrange my shirt, and put my vest back on. I would have avoided the “pack rash” and the discomfort of the shower hurting for a few days after. Talking with my crew after the race we also concluded that my crew are the only ones to put my vest on and make sure there are no shirt wrinkles.
- Speaking of crew, the value of a rock-solid crew that I can trust. OMG!! Paramount!!! There was so much relief knowing that when I came into checkpoint, my crew was there, next loop gear was ready to go, refreshments were ready, and my crew was focused on me, how I was doing, and getting me out for the next loop. All I had to think about was running my race.
- In the desert heat watermelon and watermelon-lemonade rocked my world. Seriously!! I knew it was going to be a hot race so I made sure cooling foods were on hand at checkpoint. Watermelon, lemon, cucumbers are all cooling foods and I feasted on those. At night the sweet potato baby food pack was my hallelujah.
- Sun at high noon in the switchback laden canyon was where God and I had a conversation or few. All was going pretty good until the canyon, then that’s when the heat went from “bake” to “broil”. Add in the never-ending switchbacks. Not funny any more!! And really not funny when one can see the highway right there and highway means checkpoint should be nearby now where the hell is it?? I can tell you that in that heat all I was thinking about was the watermelon that was waiting for me at checkpoint.
- Cooling sleeves are made by angels, I swear! Filling the sleeves (as in top to bottom, not just a few cubes) with ice is nirvana in the heat and yes, the ice bruises are worth it. Add in the ice filled cooling hat, neck bandana, and ice in the hydration bladder kept my temperature a lot cooler. Speaking of ice, there’s a good reason to wear a sports bra. And no, I’m not inserting a picture here.
- If I had to thank just one thing in my training for this race it was heat training. Very close second would be incline training. All of the buckets of sweat with runs ending in stinky, sweaty clothes and all of the heaps of laundry was worth it. I didn’t find the heat as bothersome as in the past and I’m a person who can’t stand the heat. Actually I found the heat quite tolerable,which, was a very pleasant surprise. The downside is that I’m now more sensitive to the cold and am now avoiding outdoor running like the plague. The snow and frost sure are pretty when viewing from inside next to a fireplace.
- Even though I was electrolyte hydrating well (or so I thought) via Gu Roctane and NUUN tablets, my fingers and feet swelled causing a big-ass blister on my left middle toe nail bed and my feet to get owly. In reading the book “Fixing Your Feet” by John Vonhof (highly recommend this book!!), blisters, swelling, and cranky feet are an electrolyte hydration issue. John gives electrolyte tablet recommendation, which, I will be following up on. I had electrolyte tablets with me, but didn’t take them. Lesson learned.
- The race briefing video mentions that the desert does get cold at night. Hey, I’m from cold country, how bad can it be? Spoiler alert: a bonfire is welcome sight. I did ensure that I had an emergency blanket and rain poncho stashed in my vest , a change of warmer clothes for the night, and a good warm puffy jacket at the finish. Smart move, all of them! The desert does indeed get colder when the sun goes down and there are also pockets of cold air dispersed throughout. Jackass Junction Aid Station was in one of these cold air pockets. Even though I had warmer clothes on, my teeth were almost chattering when I left the aid station. From broiling to freezing in one day.
- Even though I changed into warmer clothes for the night, I should have changed one more piece of clothing: my shorts. I had compression shorts on during the day and and they were working great so I kept them on for the night. Mistake. Why? I had to pee what seemed like every 50 feet due to not sweating anymore. Compression shorts are a workout in themselves, therefore, next time change into less constricting shorts to avoid the extra curricular workout. Either that or insert a catheter with drain hose so I can make pee snakes like the guys. Some of the “snakes” were quite impressive! Note to self: next time take a picture. Just kidding!! Maybe.
- The value of having someone to run with. I started the race solo, chatted with a few people along the way until I caught up to Doug on loop 2. We were going the same pace so we stuck together for encouragement, company, and fun times. For loop 3 our pacers were going to come out with us, so we bode each other farewell and a good rest of the race. It ended up that neither of our pacers came out and Doug caught up to me before the first aid station on loop 3. I think we both were relieved. Through cold spells, hurting feet, and ramen feasts we both finished our first 100K race. Not only finishing, but smashing our goals! It was nice to have someone to share part of the journey with. And also say that we are so not ready for the 100 mile.
- Steady not only wins the race but also passes a lot of people in the process. Yeah I’ve heard that “slow and steady wins the race” but whatever!! Until Javelina 100k, then I understood. I started off slow, got into a pace and basically stayed there. In my steady-state process I passed a lot of people who either slowed down or stopped. There’s some thing to be said for “keep on trucking.”
- Stubborn is a virtue. Growing up being stubborn was a “bad” thing, a down side to the personality. Not in an ultra! An ultra is a haven for stubborn. I found my “home.”
Reflecting back on the race, I not only achieved a goal, but I learned a lot about myself and about this whole sport of ultraracing. What works, what doesn’t, what to fix, what to adapt, and what to throw out. And nothing is set in stone. I can say that an ultra is more than just a race, it’s also a personal development course combined with an expedition. So much to see, so much to learn, so much to discover of what really is possible.