“There’s nothing better than being fit, running in the mountains.” David Horton, quote from “The Runner.”
And that’s what it felt like last Saturday. A group of fun, wonderfully funny, like minded women working together so beautifully to accomplish the goal of getting to the finish and claiming a few Golden Tickets. It was the first time meeting Bethany Patterson and Maggie Guterl, but somehow the 3 of us clicked in our pacing and in our efforts immediately. We left the start line within 10 seconds of one another and that continued on a tough, mountainous course for over 8 hours and 30 miles. In all the racing I have ever done, this was a first for me. Usually, even at the front of a race, there is some separation- maybe a minute, maybe 20. There is lots of back and forth until someone feels a bit better and pulls ahead and then usually that’s the race. But this was a day I will never forget.
I was feeling incredibly good. I decided to play the first 38 miles easy and then put the hammer down and do what I like to do which is run harder the second half. The course was set up to do this as well- hard, technical, climbing stuff up front, more fireroads and easier running on the back half. I was eating, drinking, laughing, talking, and all the things that are important to putting down a good race. The effort was consistent and conservative. At mile 21 we saw we were back about 18 minutes from lead woman, Sarah Woerner, but I just knew in my heart that she would come back to us.
Sometime after that, I began experiencing quad cramping in my right leg. The muscle would spasm and then lock up and this only happened on downhills. This was a first for me. I have never “blown my quads,” or so much have had even a quad cramp before. I took more salt thinking it was a humid day and I was just needed more electrolyte. I would stop, stretch it and continue. But as we found our way to our first crew spot at mile 28, I was getting more concerned about it as it kept happening over and over. I told JB in the aid station, but he got me out of there really quick. Onward and upward the 3 of us ladies went. The sky was clouding and cooling off more and the chatting and discussions about all things in life continued. It felt like I was having a phone conversation with my best girlfriends. Talking running, kids, marriage, work, everything.
But the quad was beginning to spasm and though I didn’t say too much at the time, I began to actually worry. The mobility in my whole right leg was changing. Pain up the IT band and into the hip flexor radiating at this point. Somewhere around mile 32/33/34, the skies opened up and I got cold. Maggie was feeling the same way and so she and I pulled over and put on jackets. I was hoping to stay even in body temperature and it felt like a good idea. At that point Bethany kept going and that was the last time I saw her. Maggie and I tried to stay even effort, but my leg was beginning to slow me down. There was a clicking or popping sensation from the medial quad over across to the IT band. I think I yelled out loud and pulled aside. I let Maggie go ahead of me.
I saw JB and Dominic Grossman around mile 44. I was hurting and I think I knew I was done, but I wasn’t ready to give in yet. I had taken around 5-6 advil at that point, stretched the quad and was praying to God that this wasn’t happening right now. I wanted the golden ticket. I was fit and running the race I wanted and thought about over and over again. But the tears were flowing and JB and Dom were trying to pep talk me to continue.
I limped my way up to mile 47 where I was met with Maggie just leaving the aid station, Bethany a reported 7 minutes up and my leg not letting go. I had such sweet help from the beautiful Ashley Walsh and from JB. We were ROC taping to no avail and then I just began wrapping plain old athletic tape around my quad hoping to give it support to bring it back to life.
There’s no doubt that this was the lowest mental place I have ever been in a race in my life. I simply had no emotional well to go to anymore. I got out of the aid station and was overcompensating with the left leg to move my body along. The problem was that it was 4 miles of downhill. I consider myself to have a pretty high pain tolerance, (think 32 hours of childbirth), but this was more than I knew what to do with.
We finally got onto some more level singletrack and due to my leftward lean, I fell hard. Hit my head and began bleeding from both nostrils. I stood up and dug around in my pack and found some cotton. I was now limping down the trail with blood pouring out of my nose. This was the icing on the cake. I think I was laughing and crying at the same time. A runner came up from behind me and was like hey- you don’t look so great, can I get you some wet wipes? He insisted and tried to help me. So much kindness from this sport.
But my day was over. At that point I also thought perhaps my running career was also over. I had nothing left to give. That’s when I realized the last 12 months of my life all caught up to me on that trail and in that moment. When life got tough, I thought I could gut it out- when my daughter was in the hosptial for 2 weeks, I rebounded by running American River 50 a week later. When my brother died, I ran Flagstaff Sky race the very next day. But I have never taken the proper the time to heal, to let my mental side get better. To really deal with how hard life has been. I have just kept the relentless forward motion.
I got in the car with JB at the next moment I saw him. We went to the finish and waited for Bethany and Maggie to claim their well earned top two spots and Golden Tickets. But, I have cried everyday since. It actually feels like that is the right thing to do. You have to feel the lows so you know how to get back to the highs. I will take the time to be in this space until I can heal my heart. My amazing Coach, Jason Koop said he would be really concerned if I wasn’t feeling this way. To be on the brink of your dreams and to have something go wrong is a tough pill to swallow. But Koop also told me- Jen, this is sports. And you know you just lost the race. But you also know you are capable.
So I ask myself- Now What? Now its about getting this leg rehabbed and healed. It’s still really painful and I have to stay patient. This is my first real injury. I also need to re-set mentally. Life has thrown some tough things my way. I need to process that, make peace with it and then I can move on. It’s impossible to ignore those things- it will catch up with you in the long run. That’s a huge lesson for me. Take the time to grieve, to find joy in simply being, in simply running without an agenda or maybe in not running at all.
I will wait for the epic comeback to find me. I will wait for Western States 100 as all good things worth having are worth waiting for. It will be there when the time is right.
Congratulations Bethany and Maggie- you girls are amazing and I will be cheering you on full force for your Western States runs. It was an honor to share such a magical time with you. And thanks to RD Sean Blanton. This man is a passionate RD who gave his all to us runners. I definitely recommend running one of his races. The course was marked beautifully and the volunteers so helpful.
Thank you Jason Koop for your wisdom and advice and for getting me in the best shape of my life. Thank you to my husband, who’s heart has been with me on this road. Thank you to my two sweet little kids, as you are everything to me.
Thank you Hoka One One and Drymax for the constant support.
Stay tuned… the summer plans will find a way to be wonderful!