Discover more from Colorado Mountain Running & Living
My Greatest Accomplishment
A High Lonesome 100 race report, Part 2
It’s taking me two installments to tell the story of the High Lonesome 100 run July 22 - 23. Thanks for sticking with the narrative. If you missed it, please read Part 1 first. I’ll move on to other subjects next time!
I left the Mile 49 Aid Station in the dark, just after 9 p.m., relieved to have Gretchen Brugman at my side as a pacer. She’s a teacher from Truckee, and she’s everything you need in a pacer in a mountain 100-miler: self-sufficient, reliable, experienced, positive, calm, and unfazed by farting.
We met at the American River 50 in 2011. People shouted “Gretchen” when they saw me because they mistook my braids for hers. When she passed me midway, she shouted, “Pigtail power!”—which I took as shorthand for, “We’re in this together, let’s support each other.”
But I had put so much energy into getting to that last aid station before dark to meet my family, and I had been on such a high in their company during that 20-minute stop, that my energy suddenly drained as if suffering a sugar crash combined with caffeine withdrawal. I choked down a GU gel with caffeine to compensate. But it’s only 100 calories.
I had been burning 500 - 600 calories per hour for the past 15 hours and consuming, on average, at best 150 to 200 per hour. I was bonking from not enough carbohydrate intake, forcing my body to rely more on burning stored fat for energy. I knew I had blown my fueling plan—to eat around 200 calories per hour on the trail, mostly simple sugars, supplemented by hearty real-food snacks with higher calories at each aid station—and I would be in an energy deficit the remainder of the race. But my stomach and throat weren’t cooperating to eat. At least I was staying hydrated and likely getting enough electrolytes from the diluted sports drink mix and energy gels. I could keep going while “running on empty” like the song in my head, but my performance would suffer. Which was happening, for sure.
Gretchen and I made our way past Mile 50, over Chalk Creek Pass, and then descended toward Lost Wonder Hut, hopscotching over talus fields where the trail looks and feels like wobbly flagstone and trekking poles nearly break when caught between rocks. The Mile 55 aid station at a backcountry hut is known for serving fresh-baked pizza, and I promised Gretchen I’d eat some.
But when we got there, the deck of the hut felt annoyingly crowded with other runners and volunteers, and I couldn’t settled down enough to eat more than a few bites of cheese pizza. I tried, but a gag reflex kept fighting me. I started catching a chill as we sat there, and I wanted to get moving.
Watermelon worked, however. I could chew and swallow watermelon, but hardly anything else.
I felt nervous about the segment ahead, because it’s where I struggled mightily the prior year. I had done a training run on it in June, to demystify it in the daylight, but that outing only confirmed that this is perhaps the most difficult crux of the course because the body is fatigued from 55+ miles and challenged by darkness. The trail rises some 2000 feet, to a high point of about 12,200, in only about 3.5 miles. The final push is up a mountainside nicknamed “The Headwall.”
We got up the first tier of the climb, to Boss Lake, and I admitted that I was struggling to keep my eyes open. It’s the drowsy feeling I get while driving or watching TV—my eyelids feel weighted, my mind slips toward weird visions that preface dreams, and I fantasize about lying down right then and there. Shaking my head or slapping my cheek doesn’t help. If I’m driving, I pull over for a 10-minute nap, then wake up ready to roll.
“It’s only a little after midnight,” Gretchen said, her polite way of telling me it was way too early to be this sleepy. This kind of fatigue should set in around 4 a.m.
“I know, I don’t know what my problem is, but maybe if I just shut my eyes and lose consciousness, I’ll be refreshed for the climb.”
“OK,” she relented, sounding skeptical. I whipped out my emergency bivvy, crawled in, and within a minute passed out. In the brief time it took to fall asleep, I savored the feeling of being horizontal on the forest floor and resting my eyes.
The alarm went off, I popped up to sit, scrunched up the bivvy into my pack, and we moved on. We tackled The Headwall as best we could, putting on jackets when fierce wind blasted sideways and a light rain fell. But each upward step took effort. Our pace slowed to about 30 minutes per mile, like a crawl. “Gotta run to make up time once we’re up there,” I mumbled.
We made it to the portion of the route that gives “High Lonesome” its name for being so high and so remote—the Continental Divide Trail above tree line. Bear-sized cairns mark the way, morphing into monster-like figures as fatigue progresses through the night.
I ran, a bit. Mostly I shuffled and glided, something in between a jog and a speedwalk that must look unattractive and certainly feels pathetic, but it’s the best I could manage for extended periods without triggering a sudden and unpleasant cramping in my gut.
Discouraged and feeling my eyelids heavy again, I sat to try to eat. Instead I rested my head on arms folded on propped-up knees and closed my eyes. Gretchen gave me two minutes, then told me to move.
“Fuck, I’m falling apart,” I said.
There comes a time in the 100-mile struggle when you give up forcing yourself to stay positive. You call it what it is—a blowup, a shit show, a downward spiral, a death march—but that only makes things worse and becomes self-fulfilling.
My plan was to do better than the prior year and prevent this post-nightfall slowdown. Instead, I was running behind last year’s times and exaggerating the nighttime troubles. Disappointment set in. Gretchen said all the right things to cheer me up, but I felt glum and withdrawn. I shuffle-glided-stumbled-hiked until finally, around 4 a.m., we reached the Mile 65 aid station, appropriately named Purgatory. I vowed to eat.
There’s a First Time for Everything
The aid station captain at Purgatory apparently has a culinary background and goes to great lengths to make a delectable spread. Charcuterie and cheese boards lay on tables next to more typical aid station fare. A barbecue grilled mini burgers served on slider buns.
I sat down and told a friendly medical staffer I was nauseous, so he suggested a Tums. Sure, good idea. The antacid has helped me in prior 100s by producing loud belly burps to release gas. I chewed on the chalky Tums he brought me and declared, “I’ll be brave, I’ll try a burger.”
Let me interrupt to say that I have never, in 27 years of long-distance running, thrown up. I don’t really understand why ultrarunners heave and retch. I lost my appetite and developed a gag reflex in my past two 100s but never came close to vomiting.
The volunteer brought me a paper plate with a perfectly cooked burger on a soft bun. I took a little bite and inhaled the smell of greasy meat.
“I think I’m going to be sick!”
The volunteer, apparently practiced in how to respond, exhorted, “Get up, get up, go that way, that way!”
I leapt from the chair, took a few giant strides, and hurled next to the aid station tent. A wave of liquid colored red from watermelon ejected in an arc as if electrified. Then a second wave burst forth, this one more chunky, as if my body were tossing out a restaurant’s 5-gallon bucket full of compostable scraps.
“Wow,” said Gretchen. Some runners and volunteers around a nearby campfire cheered.
“I’ve never thrown up in an ultra,” I said, disbelieving. “How did I have so much inside me?”
Puking is supposed to make an ultrarunner feel better by resetting the stomach, but I felt punched in the gut. I knew I needed to eat. I mumbled to a volunteer, “Watermelon. Ginger ale. Please. Thank you.” Someone thoughtfully got me some broth and noodles to try too. A few bites and sips were all I could handle. “We gotta get out of here! I should be at Monarch”—the next aid station 3.5 miles away—”by now!”
I ran on adrenaline until the trail widened to a dirt road through a ski resort area. Then, as if suddenly deprived of oxygen, I felt faint. “Nap,” I said to Gretchen, and within seconds I pulled out my bivvy, crawled in, and immediately passed out for Nap Number Two.
She woke me up in 10. I got moving. My stomach spasmed with cramps. “This is not what I planned,” I wailed. Gretchen reminded me that the sun would be up soon, and I’d feel better then. We picked up the pace, rain falling in a refreshing shower, and dropped down to Monarch Pass.
At the aid station, Gretchen loaded up on bacon and offered me some. I shook my head, couldn’t handle the smell. Then she offered me a bag of barbecue-flavored Doritos. I shook my head with a grossed-out expression and said, “Are you serious?!”
Watermelon. Ginger ale. That’s all.
At 6 a.m., 24 hours into the event, I was around Mile 69, all of the significant vert on the route behind us. We faced a more runnable 31 miles below tree line on the Colorado Trail. I had 12 whole hours to do a 50K until the 6 p.m. event cutoff. On a normal day on fresh legs, this 50K segment would take me less than 7 hours. I had plenty of time.
And yet, I felt increasingly upset about our slow pace and the stomach pains that sabotaged my efforts to run without walking breaks. I forced myself to run through pain on the downhill stretches.
Sunrise brought hallucinations. I saw a blue heeler dog sitting quietly and wondered who he belonged to, until I realized the dog’s head was the end of a fallen tree stump. I marveled at an elaborate dome tent tricked out with camping gear, such as folding chairs and an ax suspended from its sides, and wondered why people would pitch a tent on such a steep slope, until I realized the tent was a rock outcropping. I caught a glimpse of my white horse, Cobalt, galloping through the woods.
I began to overheat in my long-sleeve shirt and tights as the morning sun warmed the landscape. We hustled along a forest road to get to the next aid station where I had packed a drop bag with a fresh set of daytime clothes. At last, we reached this Mile 75.5 aid station, called Fooses.
I could tell we were toward the back of the pack because the volunteers, who must’ve already serviced the majority of runners, sat around bleary-eyed and made only a half-hearted attempt to help. I got my drop bag, and Gretchen held up my bivvy to shield me as I changed into fresh shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. The awkward process moved in slow motion. Did I eat anything at this aid station? I honestly can’t remember. Oh yeah, watermelon. I refilled my bottles with a packet Roctane drink mix from my drop bag, so I got 250 calories from that. Finally ready to go, we had to wait for someone to vacate the smelly pit toilet so we could use it. Everything took too long. My patience had disappeared with my appetite.
The next 11 miles of slogging and sweating to the Mile 84 aid station, where I would meet my family, took three hours at an average pace of around 16 minutes/mile. It felt longer than a marathon. The trail through pine forest and scrub brush grew monotonous as I felt hot, tired, miserable, a failure. I want this to be over … I’m going to pass out …
I had instructed my family I’d meet them around 10 a.m., but I might get there earlier, so they should be ready around 9:30. And now, I realized, I’d get there around 11:15—or maybe even closer to noon?—making them wait in the heat for a long time.
“This was a bad idea,” I told Gretchen.
“Dragging my kids here. Asking Colly to pace me. She’s never gone this far, and she doesn’t do well in the heat, and we might actually have to chase cutoffs. Jesus Christ, I might have to push to make the Golden Hour!”—the final hour before the event’s cutoff when back-of-the-packers squeak in to finish. “It’s just too stressful for her.”
Of course I really meant, it’s too stressful for me. I did not utter the words, but I wanted to drop.
I decided that if my family looked stressed and tired, and if Colly seemed ambivalent or nervous about pacing the 17 miles to the finish, I’d say, “enough’s enough, let’s go back to the hotel and enjoy the hot springs.”
And then, there they were, waiting at the edge of the aid station, sitting in the shade of our truck whooping and whoo-hooing.
I started to cry. I didn’t feel worthy of their praise and encouragement, but I was so grateful they were there.
Boot ‘n’ Rally
They brushed off my apologies for being late, saying they had been tracking me online so they knew I’d show up around now. They bustled around as I choked back tears and regained composure.
They looked so happy. “We went to McDonald’s!”
I looked in awe at Colly, decked out for high-country trails—my daughter on whom I never pushed running, but who has developed a passion for hiking. She had been training in the Santa Monica Mountains, running the flats and downhills, to prepare for this morning. Now, in a floppy river hat, braided hair, blue Goodr glasses, pink Ultimate Direction hydration pack, my borrowed neck buff, Hokas on her feet, holding Black Diamond trekking poles, she looked like me. I had produced a mini-me.
“I downloaded Strava on my phone,” she announced. “We’re doing this!”
I knew then, I had to finish as much for her as for me.
“I think I’ll try a Tums,” I said, trying to get a handle on the nausea. I would try to eat trail mix after chewing the chalky antacid. I was listening to Kyle, who was laughing about his bad night’s sleep on the hotel sofa because the sleeping bag I had packed for him was leftover from childhood and only went up to his chest, when I felt the rise in my throat again.
“I’m gonna be sick!” I leapt from the chair, clutched the back of our truck, and emptied all my stomach contents at my feet.
“Whooooaaaah!” Kyle exclaimed, “way to go, Mom, boot ‘n’ rally!”
Colly explained it means to puke and keep partying. “Don’t worry, we’ve seen way worse.”
“Oh my god, it’s the Tums,” Gretchen said, recalling how the antacid also triggered the first round of vomiting. I think she’s right. The tablet detonated a bomb in my stomach.
I told Colly we had to push to cover the 17.5 miles to the finish (the course measures 101.5 miles, not 100) in the remaining 6.5 hours—which seemed like plenty of time, a hiking pace of around 3 miles per hour—but I lacked confidence in my ability to move steadily without additional breaks. I hugged and thanked Gretchen, said good-bye’s to Morgan and Kyle, and Colly took off in the lead with me trailing.
My girl can hike fast. I had to jog to keep up with her. Then she broke into a jog on a flat stretch, and I had to run harder to catch up. “Hang on, honey, I’m dragging. I’m sorry," I said.
“You’re doing great! Every little bit of running helps.” She was parroting me, dishing out coaching advice. I told her I felt lightheaded, and she told me, “Try a gel. Take your time to get it down.”
Her effervescent energy dazzled me, and I moved faster to prevent a gap developing between us. I pumped her for information about her life to take my mind off my discomfort. She described the gown she bought for the red carpet at a fashion awards show in New York City, to be held the following weekend (she designs handbags for a fast-growing brand), and then she told me she’s collaborating with an artist for a gallery show in Miami, because she’s interpreting his art onto leather to make original bag designs.
Again, I felt dazzled. Ten years ago, the summer after her 8th grade, I was driving the 14-year-old version of her to rehearsals for her circus arts troupe and taking her shopping for high school. What do I have to offer her now?
I told her, “Brace yourself for people offering lines of coke. Be ready to say, ‘No thanks, I’m good.’”
She laughed and said I really didn’t need to worry about that, not her thing. But the big-city fashion world scares me. I hope her burgeoning love for mountains and her athleticism will protect her. I think it will.
When our talking paused, fatigue hit like a wall. Lightheadedness returned around Mile 90—that feeling that my eyes must close, I might hit the ground. “I think I need a little nap.”
“What?! You can’t nap now,” she said, as if I were breaking a rule.
“It’s OK, wake me up in 10 minutes.” She looked at me aghast. I didn’t care, I needed to close my eyes and make the discomfort go away for just a bit. I threw my rain jacket on the ground and laid down on it for Nap Number 3. As I drifted off, I heard footsteps and Colly whisper to passers-by, “She’s OK, she’s just napping.”
I woke as another runner and a pacer caught up to us. Then another. Their running energized mine. Pretty soon, another runner caught us and said, “Hey!” It was Hilary, the younger faster runner who ran with me around Mile 20 the day prior.
I told her, “I’m so glad you’re here and didn’t drop out!” We laughed—”Can you believe this?”—sharing the disappointment of the race not going our way, hours behind the time we hoped to finish, determined to get it done anyway. Not quitters.
As we breezed through the final aid station, dark clouds gathered, and rumbles of thunder began to concern me. I don’t mind getting wet, but, at this point in the race last year, a drenching electrical storm with flash flooding prompted the race director to hold the race for nearly 30 minutes. I and my pacer had been caught in the temporary hold, forced to sit in a vehicle for safety until the worst of the storm passed. I did not want a repeat of that. “Let’s move before the sky really opens up!”
With about six miles left, a rain shower doused us, but at least no lightning threatened. We were running near several others—”All aboard the pain train!” someone said—making better time. Colly seemed nervous as she looked at her watch, but I told her we’d make it with close to an hour to spare, not to worry.
Finally, I felt I could relax a bit, releasing the stress of making cutoffs (a stress I’d never before experienced). The release of tension made my body feel slightly better. My empty stomach didn’t cramp quite so much.
We popped off the trail to a final four-mile stretch of road. I didn’t know my daughter could run so well or that she wanted to run so much. When we encountered a running friend spectating, and she asked us to pause for this photo, Colly barely stopped and then said, “C’mon!”
High Lonesome ends with a hill that rises about 400 feet in the final 1.5 miles. It looks inconsequential on the elevation profile, but it earned the nickname “Swear Hill” because runners curse how the climb slows them down and feels monumental after 100 miles of fatigue. Morgan promised he’d meet us at the base of it, and Kyle said he wanted to hike it with us.
We spotted Morgan’s truck up ahead, and then as if on cue, the clouds unleashed a drenching downpour. Sheets of rain soaked our bodies. I suspected Kyle would change his mind, but he jumped out to join us.
“You made it! Yo, Mom, you were suffering,” Kyle said as he jogged up to meet us. Immediately, his cotton shirt became saturated. His skateboard slip-on shoes filled like buckets. I offered him a poncho but he said, “Nah, I can suck it up for a mile.” He was laughing, fully aware that a mile in the rain barely counts as a suffer-fest. “Besides, I’m not putting on a poncho—gotta look good for the ’gram.”
The three of us marched up the paved hill while cars honked in support, their tires generating waves of runoff that splashed our legs. The noise of rain and traffic made it difficult to hear each other. The rain poured so heavily, I worried about them getting hypothermic. I worried about them getting hit by a car. “Are you OK?” I hollered repeatedly.
“We’re fine! Just worry about you!” they shouted back.
And so, at last, I let go of worry and soaked in the scene of my two kids, trying to reconcile the toddlers on my hips they used to be with the strong adults hiking now. When at last we reached a big field where the finish line stands, they wanted to start running immediately.
“Hang on,” I said. I needed to compose myself and take a little time to extend the moment of this final run.
This precious experience of finishing a race with both children at my side—which had happened only once before, when they ran to the finish with me at the 2016 Western States 100—filled me with a sense of accomplishment that no ultramarathon alone can give. To finish this hard-earned race was an achievement, for sure. But at the end of the day, this sport is just a hobby, an escapist diversion, a test of endurance, a source for friendships and adventure. It’s a big part of my life and anchors my health, but it’s not what makes me who I am.
My greatest accomplishment and identity, I felt deeply as I broke into a run with them, comes from raising and launching these two young adults into the world. I kept turning to look at their profiles, marveling at the two people Morgan and I made. All my years of caregiving and role modeling had developed two characters who wanted to show up and reciprocate my support. They were there for me.
I had spent the past several years giving care to my own mother as she declined, and I cradled her shrunken body and said goodbye when she slipped away in May. I had made peace with her and reconciled decades of disappointment that we didn’t have a very close mother-daughter relationship, because in the end we were close, and that’s what mattered most. Now my own children were giving back all that care and support, times two, and their love washed over me through the rain.
It was worth it, running 100 miles, not to earn a buckle or a Hardrock qualifier, but to receive the gift of that final 1.5-mile hill climb and finish-line run with these two.
Here’s how it looked:
I finished in 35 hours, 6 minutes, my slowest 100 yet. Out of 96 finishers, I was 78th. But I’m deeply proud to have finished. Of the 143 who started, 47, or about one-third, didn’t make it. (Results.)
I’m not done with 100s. I’m signed up for a fast flat one in May, the Thames Path in England, and hope burns eternal I’ll get into Hardrock through the lottery. So I need to correct mistakes. In hindsight, I suspect I need to:
Get more sleep during the taper weeks. Pulling an all-nighter volunteering at the Hardrock aid station one week prior to High Lonesome took a great deal out of me, and then a few nights later, I had a bad night of insomnia. I wasn’t as rested as I should have been.
Plan to have better food options available from crew, in case the aid station options aren’t appealing. Mashed potatoes and rice, for example. Maybe it’s time finally to try Jason Koop’s famous rice balls.
Tweak my training? Honestly, I feel good about my buildup to High Lonesome. I focused on speed for cardio fitness early in the season, to train for a road marathon, then developed my mountain legs over spring and early summer with two 50Ks, a 100K in early May, and the San Juan Solstice 50 as a final peak run. My CTL (chronic training load, indicating fitness) was as high as it ever gets. I was altitude adapted and trained for the specifics of the course’s challenges. Perhaps the San Juan Solstice 50 was too close to High Lonesome, however, since they fell only four weeks apart. I might enlist a coach next time around.
Thank you for reading this lengthy race report. What are your takeaways from it?
Later this week, I’ll send out a bonus post for paid subscribers along with an invitation to our August online meetup.
Colorado Mountain Running & Living is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.