In this 16th edition of the costumed, “Party in the desert”, the Javelina 100 Mile race is a qualifier for Western States 100 (and offers UTMB points). That in itself draws ultrarunners who dream of toeing the start line of one of North America’s most coveted ultras (second largest in North America this year, woot!), even though the DNF rate for the Javelina 100 mile race hovers close to 50%, due to hot, high desert conditions during the day, cool temperatures at night, and a repeat in the morning for the fifth loop of the five-loop course (unless you are Patrick Reagan, the course record holder, who can run five loops under 14 hours).

So perhaps you are asking, what in the world would attract me, a back-of-the-pack trail runner with a leg injury and pain from 2017, and  who tends to melt in hot weather, to run the 100 kilometer, three-loop course?

All good questions. I am not sure I have an answer for YOU, but I certainly have answers for me. Javelina 100km lines up for a number of features I want out of my first 50+mile race, the biggest one of which being that it has a generous cut off time of 29 hours to run 62 miles. That means that if you ran into some trouble, like a blister or a cholla cactus, you had some time to problem solve your way out of it. I had also heard that the volunteers at this race are awesome, which is good for medical unicorns who find themselves in all kinds of interesting challenges, such as an embedded rock in the knee from a fall (2015) or a dog bite (2017).

But even before getting to the start line of the JJ100km race, I had  another challenge to tackle.

Sign Up for an Ultra If This Is True

After I returned from a two-week vacation with my husband driving across Western Canada and flying to Haida Gwaii and back to Vancouver BC, one thing was perfectly clear: I was still recovering and still injured from the summer’s races. Ironman Canada was one thing, but following it up with Ragnar Rainier put my body in a deep hole of recovery.

My calves were tight, and my tendons cried through every step up and down our home’s staircase. The scar tissue  in between the dog bite scars would ache from Mile 8 and onwards of every training run, and after a year of running with the sensation of that ache, I reluctantly resigned myself to the probability that this pain will be with me for the rest of my running life. Still, I love to run, the weather was fine, and my thoughts began to turn to the hope of running a 50 Mile distance race I had believed I was once capable of completing.

photo courtesy of Howie Stern

A friend had posted a funny decision tree to her Social Media feed. In it, all yes-no decision points led you to one singular thought: sign up for an ultra. Have you run at least 25 miles? Sign up for an ultra. Does the race offer a belt buckle? Sign up for an ultra. [Yes, Jen Bergstrom, you are an enabler. Own it.]

It was an undeniable truth that I wanted to run a 50 Mile ultra, and both my Coach and I had wrestled with what my injured leg had done to by running ability. The pain while running makes me slow down when I don’t want to, and recovery time is longer. Now I needed to ask myself if: 1) Am I OK with the possibility of taking a DNF for not making a cutoff on time, since I’m slower, due to pain? and 2) How willing am I to run with pain in my dog bite leg, even if I could treat the other issues and be ready to run?

Well, I had run at least 25 miles! Could I find a race that offered a belt buckle? It was already late September when I began to contemplate bypassing a 50 Mile distance race and skipping on over to Javelina Jundred’s 100 kilometer race. Not only is it a looped course, which makes stopping your race a little easier, but hey, that generous cut off time! Might as well have honking horns and car alarms highlighting this race — “Look here! 100 kilometers, you know you wanna!”  If I needed to go slowly, this would be the race course to do just that. I was sucked into the ultra vortex.

Hurry Up and Wait

Because I am not interested in an early death or breaking myself, I contacted my Coach and informed him of my interest in signing up for this race. Because of his concern about my recovery, he asked me to consider waiting a bit longer to make my decision. It made sense to see if my tendons and calves could be coaxed into relaxing and having more healing time. Yet, by the time I was more certain I wanted to try it, the race bibs for the 100 km distance had sold out, and I spent a couple of weeks agonizing over whether or not a space would open. Here was a lesson learned: act now on your WHAT, and worry about the HOW later!

By mid October, I received a bib for the 100km distance, and all the preparations I had started to make suddenly felt like it went from double time to triple time. I spent my evenings adding to a long check list of things to prepare: learning how to put together my drop bags, figuring out headlamps and battery packs and special foods,  what the heck goes into the world’s tiniest blister care packet, and then how on earth was I going to keep myself from melting or collapsing in a med tent (*ice, ice, and more ice*).

Oh, and to make things even more f***ing hard, the longest distance training run I had recently had completed was a half marathon, and I only got to run that race because my calves decided to let me run, thanks to that waiting period my Coach had asked me to take (see above).

The weekend before JJ100km, my Coach dropped three runs in my Training Peaks account, to be done in 24 hours. Essentially, he broke up 30-34 miles evenly over the runs with 12 hours in between the start of each one, forcing me to run early in the morning and then again after it was dark, and then one more time on tired legs. Brilliant. I can’t state enough how good it is to have a smart coach in your corner. Michael Covey of mcultraendurance.com has prepared me to toe the start lines of a plethora of race types and distances, and while it’s up to me to finish them, they would not have even happened for me if not for his conscientious and targeted training and race strategy sessions.

Everything is Just OK

Fellow ultrarunner and triathlon team friend Ross Comer had offered accommodations and a rental car on the other side of our flights to Phoenix, Arizona, so when we arrived the day before the race, I finally breathed a sigh of relief. Ross is now a three-time finisher of the 100km JJ distance, and he completed the JJ 100 mile race in 2017. I was in good hands, and surrounded by smart runners who had plenty of advice for me. Things the pros told me at the packet pickup expo:

  • Don’t go out too hard on your first loop (or you’ll be sorry)
  • Take the time to manage the heat with ice, water, and energy expenditure
  • Sunscreen and blister protection are your friends
  • This a race where nutrition and hydration are key, both of which can stop your race if you are not careful
  • As much as you can, keep moving

One of the cool swag items from this year’s JJ race was a soft-shelled cooler, which Race Director Jubilee Paige had mentioned to me in an email. I had written to her about some of my food allergy questions, and when she told me about the cooler, I knew I could use it as one of my drop bags.

By the time Ross and I were back at the hotel, I started laying out my clothes, shoes, and drop bag items, as well as making my food that I’d be storing in these bags (silicone reusable sandwich holders, hooray!). It’s always been pretty clear that I should not rely on races to provide allergen-free food for me, so I make my own, and then if I happen to come across an orange or a banana at an aid station that hasn’t been cut open, I’ll take it.

While I was assembling four small jam, cashew nut butter, and bacon sandwiches, I kept hearing the voice of Stephen Cope, resident yoga researcher at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, saying, “Everything is just OK.” It wasn’t going to be perfect.  It didn’t need to be perfect. My mind was surprisingly calm.

After dinner, we dropped off our bags to Headquarters and the Remote drop site for Jackass Junction, and I got to see the race’s start and finish line for the first time. Ross explained how the loops worked, helping me orient myself to the lay of the land. At the hotel, I went through my checklists one last time, set my alarm, and drifted off into a light sleep.

Yes, Yes, Yes

After arriving just before the 100 mile runners took off at 6 am, we tucked final items in our HQ drop bag and lined up with the others. I looked up at Jubilee, standing on top of a trailer, and calling down to the  runners. “Yes, yes, yes,” she affirmed the crowd, “You will come back here after Loop 1 and Loop 2, and then we have something for you. We put a last loop bracelet on you, and you run and don’t stop until we give you a buckle.”

Yes, yes, yes Jubilee. I’m not giving up until I get my buckle. 

And then we were off, running around the HQ village, the Blister Fairy tent, cheering spectators, the smell of breakfast being fried, past the sign indicating the directions of the loops (washer-machine style loops), and into the desert.

And we’re off! The 100km race began at 7am, with the sun quickly heating the desert up for us. Photo by Ross Comer.

Loop 1: Wait, What? 

The first part of Loop 1 is a slow, gentle graded climb as the sun begins to heat things up. There is no shelter, so I started the run with my OR sun hat with flaps, sun sleeves, and fingerless sun gloves, and left them on until the sun went down.

I was surprised that I actually chose to walk in sections of the first four miles. Normally, I would run this kind of terrain without concern, but I’m from the PNW, and my body just went from 50 degrees as the high of the day to what would be 92 degrees in high desert. There were others who were doing the same, and as I discovered, many had included in their race strategy a combination of walking the steeps and rockier terrain and running the flats and downhills, which would come on the backside of Jackass Junction aid station before the more rocky switchbacks of the Escondido Trail, a portion that we would traverse only once on Loop 1.

It seemed like forever before I saw the tent tops of Coyote Camp, the first aid station at about Mile 4-ish. I cruised through the camp quickly, mentally noting the number of miles to Jackass Junction, and pressed on. It’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, but my mind had already been thinking about who’s dumb idea it was to have signed up for this race! Yes, it’s true. Our minds are whining excuse makers, and mine was already hatching these mindless, suffering thoughts.

The terrain got rockier, and the trail undulated over dry river beds, through a valley, and past spectacular saguaros and crazy-looking flowers popping out of unexpected carpets of grass. I took cues from other runners to remember to take sips of water from my hydration vest, anticipating that with each sixth sip, I’d reach the cold ice water past the warmer water in the tubing. As we ran up and down the rolling trail, I kept thinking the aid station should be coming up, but my GPS watch let me know it was still further out. My brain brayed like a donkey, “You fool, you fool.”

I had heard stories about Jackass Junction aid station, a disco party with non-stop tunes and booze. But that was at night. This was Loop 1 in the morning, and the aid station with my drop bag buzzed with morning energy, coffee, and fabulous volunteers asking, “How can I help you?” I got into my drop bag and had my first real-sugar Pepsi of the day. These little bottles of pep and fizz are like medicine to me when my blood pressure inevitably begins to fall, and I planned on having one of these at Jackass and HQ for each loop until I was holding that damn buckle in my bony hands.

There were ice stations on both sides, one for drinking and going into the hydration pack, and one ice station for sponges to douse yourself with, or to put ice in the hat or sleeves. One side for drinking and eating, the other side for the body. Got it! Each station would be a  repeat of the same (only two had your drop bags), so you could cool off and reload.  I literally packed myself in ice, placing extra ice inside of a tea towel, wrapping it a couple of times, and tying it around my neck with the tails dripping the cool water down my shirt. It would often take as much as four miles before the ice in the tea towel had completely melted. I felt like a walking refrigerator, or my hashtag, #iammyownfoodtruck, except maybe I was the ice cream truck girl!

I also grabbed Magic Gluten Free Sammich #1, and kept it in my hand as I ran towards Rattlesnake aid station, taking little nibbles whenever I felt like it. After about an hour of nibbling, it became clearer that my body wanted the bacon more than anything, so I wrapped up the rest of the sandwich after freeing the bacon, and scarfed the bacon the way my old cat C-M used to when he’d steal it off my breakfast plate. As I was chowing, a man passed by me and saw me eating bacon. “Bacon!” he declared, and though I am very respectful of my vegan and vegetarian friends, at that moment, I honored the body that I have, which happens to have a fat-burning engine aboard that rejects most plant-based carb options. Bacon, bacon, bacon.

You fool, you fool. My brain brayed these words as the sun climbed higher and hotter. Photo by Imei Hsu

The nice slope downhill towards Rattlesnake was everything they said it would be: gentle, downhill, and strangely beautiful. The openness of the desert made my soul drink up the light and the spaces, all without the sounds of cars. Every so often I would hear another set of footfalls, yet I really enjoyed just hearing my own sneaks hitting the red dirt. I counted footfalls to get me from one section to the next, and soon enough, Rattlesnake came into view and it was time to rev myself up for the unknown portion of Escondido Trail.

This section was the only the only question mark in my mind, in that it is a section added to Loop 1 alone. The distance on the Escondido Trail  added to the 19.45 mile loop just one time makes the final distance the appropriate amount. But I must not have read the course description correctly, because I swear the extra 2.85 miles on that trail felt like five miles of hella torture on my JJ virgin feet. At one point, I found a robust saguaro casting an Imei-sized shadow on the ground, and I stood in that damn shadow for at least 30 seconds, grumbling at my feet because I had stumbled over some rocks and slowed down  as to prevent that inevitable face plant, aka planking. I did roll my ankle here and there as rocks shifted under my feet. The people I had been chasing drifted out of sight as I slowed down even more.

Looking for  Imei-sized saguaros on the backside of Jackass Junction.  On the Escondido Trail, I stood inside of a saguaro’s shade for a moment of respite from the heat. Photo by Imei Hsu.

Where is HQ? Are we there yet? Finally, I heard music as I turned around the corner of a mountain side, picked up my pace, and finally came into HQ. All that strategizing about taking no more than 10 minutes in the aid station went out the window when I sat in the Honey Bucket and sighed. Water, ice, Pepsi, bacon, and off for Loop 2, back the way I came. A lot of sighing exhaled out of my lungs.

Loop 2: That Funny Shuffle Run Thang

Now that you have read about what the loops are like, I’ll skip on to other aspects of the JJ100km race. It kind of goes all wonky from here.

During part of Loop 1, I kept passing and then being passed by a petite Filipino woman who later introduced herself as Connie. On Loop 2, Connie caught up to me while walking a brisk pace that I found I could not keep up with unless I trotted. Her legs were shorter. How was this possible?

“Can you teach me that shuffle run thang you are doing?” I asked. I had noticed that Connie moved along the trail with very little bounce or impact, yet she covered more ground efficiently. She had this great walk-scoot-shuffle going on, and after watching her, I tried it for about 20 seconds. Boom. It was an instant hit with my body, as I could keep it up longer in the hot sun while conserving energy and covering more ground. We alternated fast walking with the walk-scoot-shuffle, making our way to Rattlesnake in no time. I made sure to break up the movement pattern with my normal gait, so that my running muscles would keep firing and not get too tight. After a quick pit stop, we were in and out of Rattlesnake and off to Jackass aid station. Ee-aw, ee-aw, my braying brain shouted.

We quietly chased each other up over the gentle but steady climbs, and I was starting to enjoy myself. What? It’s true.  My brain, however, kept whining, “Where’s that Jackass station? Where is it?” Once we hit the aid station, I was pounding down another real-sugar Pepsi and lubricating my toes to prevent blisters. Connie took off, and I  set off after her, chasing her down and closing the distance between us.

“It’s a rattlesnake!” yelped a runner in front of us. Connie was all over that rattlesnake, chasing it down with a phone to get a video. I casually eyed the slithering creature with a sideways glance as it took off into some brush,  and said, “Connie, it’s all you,” while my legs just kept going, moving as far away from the rattlesnake as I could go. Why? Getting bitten by one animal is enough for me! Moving on!

As I made my way back towards Coyote aid station, the sun was still high, but I could definitely sense that soon enough I would need my head lamp and a jacket. Good thing I had collected both of those items and had them ready in my hydration vest pockets, along with a buff to replace the OR sun hat. Sunglasses on — sunlight stabbing me in the eye! — sunglasses off, shadows on the ground made the outlines of rocks a little less contrasted and harder to see. Off, on, off, on. Other 100 Mile runners coming in the opposite direction were getting the last light in their eyes as well.

I ran past a woman with her mouth hanging open, silently crying in pain as she tuned into her music and pressed on. My empathetic self wanted to ask her if she needed anything, but I could tell by her eyes that she was giving herself everything she needed to keep pressing on. I wondered if that would later be me.

When I pulled into Coyote aid station, I swapped my hat for a buff, headlamp on, and jacket on under my vest. I was a little warm, but light was retreating quickly,  and I knew that I’d soon shiver if I didn’t put on a loose layer.

Running and walking the last four miles back to HQ, it was dark enough to turn on the headlamp and enjoy the Jackass Junction 31km and 62km runners who started their races at 5pm. I swear I saw a man wearing a costume that had a lighted globe surrounding his crotch. If that was just desert delirium, fine. But I also saw Fred Flintstone in a lighted car, a Black Panther in a black and glitter skin suit, and Butterfly, her wings lined with lights. I even got to see Catra Corbett in her usually amazing costumes of color and brilliance. She looked so fresh, even though she had just run the Moab 240. My gawd.

I hit one part of the trail I didn’t remember was so narrow, and thought I might have taken a wrong turn. Nope, that was the trail! It just looks a lot more like a potential death march with a cliff at night.

Pulling into HQ, I was given my Final Loop lighted bracelet. I wondered right then and there if I wanted to start Loop 3 or just call it a race and DNF. My right leg ached, as expected. But everything else in me said that I should keep going. Belt buckle, belt buckle. I want a belt buckle!

I pounded down another real-sugar Pepsi, chomped on a bit of my Magic Sandwich, grabbed the rest of the bacon I had in a foil wrapper, and strapped on Loop 3’s celebratory costume: a black cat with pink collar and bell, tutu, tail, ears, and glittery eyes. I was so slow getting myself together for Loop 3 that Connie, who had caught up at HQ, left just before me (an aid station volunteer said she was looking for a couple of us).

I ran back to the sign for the start of Loop 3 (it’s Loop 1 again, so no surprises), sighed, and took off by myself back into the desert.

Loop 3: Did I Just Take a Disco Nap?

By this time, I had guestimated conservatively that I still had a chance of finishing my race under 19 hours. I was still moving fairly well, able to run as long as I told my right leg to shut up, and my guts were abnormally quiet (winner winner, gluten free chicken dinner). I walked and ran towards Coyote, and on the way there, I crossed paths with Ross, so now we knew how much time and distance was between the two of us. Because Ross is very consistent, coming across him at that point gave me a strong boost in confidence that if I just kept going, I would have a solid race that met my expectation for a clean, hospital-free finish.

As I ambled along in the dark, I came up to and passed others who were walking. If they were 100 km racers, they knew they had a generous cut off time so there was no need to hurry. Those who were in it to win it were long gone and finishing their races between 10-15 hours. The rest of us trudged, trotted, and ran on. I was rather surprised how much of this section I ran alone until I caught up to someone going at my speed.

We pulled into Jackass Junction, and as I handed off my hydration vest to a volunteer who reminded me of Bradley Cooper (I actually think he was trying to look like Bradley Cooper in, “A Star is Born”), I had the urgent and distinct awareness that if I did not sit down, I was going to fall down. Bradley Cooper helped me into a chair after I inquired about whether incense was being burned nearby in this disco party zone (asthma was getting triggered), with a campfire, a bar, and a med tent servicing every possible need you could ask for. I managed to pound down another real-sugar Pepsi, but when I stood up to see if I was ready to get going, I found myself running towards the med tent, plopped myself on a cot, and waited for an EMT.

“Could you take my blood pressure?” I asked. They covered me with two blankets, took my blood pressure, and tah-dah, it was 103/59 and falling. I kicked back, texted my husband, texted Ross,  put my head on top of a rolled up blanket, and then – nothing.

I don’t remember much else — well, duh, I took a disco nap! When I woke up, my blood pressure had bounced back up to 113/83, which meant I was back in business! I rolled out of there, disoriented and confused about which direction to go, but some guys who saw my last lap bracelet pointed me in the right direction, and off I ran.

Not even a mile out from Jackass Junction, I came across a runner standing next to another runner on the ground. She asked me to help by calling for a medic, and I also took a moment to make sure the runner was breathing and had a steady heartbeat. A warning: don’t partake of the booze while running in a desert. Just not worth it. 

I got running again, and made good time to Rattlesnake aid station, where I forced myself to take a precautionary rest break of 10 minutes on a cot, because I was running alone, and I didn’t want to have another blood pressure drop. With only 2.7 miles left to go, pulled up my big girl pants (which were now chaffing me in the hoo-hah region), and ran off into the night.

It was in these last miles that the best of what ultra endurance races does for my mind and soul comes into play. The yipping of coyotes, the rustle of a bat flying low to the ground, the scuttle of a bug or cricket, the gentle bump of a moth as our paths collide — the magic of running at night in the desert and confronting everything that makes me scared out of my gourd — leaves me strangely calm, as if I am drifting into a river as it flows one way towards an familiar destination: Home. Go home. It’s the acknowledgement that barring a flash flood or a some other act of God, I had engaged every one of my challenges — heat, fatigue, autoimmune disease, chronic injury, low blood pressure — and the worst was now behind me, and glory lies ahead.

Other than one runner, who got off trail and came up to me to ask if she was going in the right direction, I ran by myself under a bright moon. And I was no longer afraid. I was in the right place, at the right time. The right leg pain sucked, as it has for over a year. My mind was strong and clear. It’s both things, at once.  Then, off in the distance, I saw the lights of HQ, heard a voice calling out on the microphone over the desert, “Yes yes yes,” then the pulsing beats base and drums of music, urging me to match my footsteps and bring it on in.

There were just a few people still awake under the canopies, who grabbed their cowbells and gave them a good shake, who clapped as I ran by, who said, “Nice job!” I tried to thank each one of them, because I know what it means to tired runners. Sprinting to the finish line, I received a hug from Jackie Kennedy in a pink suit with matching pill box hat. She asked, “Are you crying?” because I was dehydrated and no tears were coming out. I was, as I had wondered, transformed into the woman with her mouth hanging open in a soundless sob. She handed me my belt buckle and offered to take my GoPro and capture a picture of me holding my belt buckle.

Thank you Jackie Kennedy (volunteer at the finish line) for snapping my picture. This is after I brush the grit, salt, and tears off my face. My belt buckle, yay!

Shortly after this picture was taken, I walked over to the med tent and had the EMT’s check my blood pressure again before I considered resting, and when it came back normal, I crawled onto a cot, cat costume and all,  and dozed a bit while I waited for Ross to finish. Having stopped in three med tents during this race, this one was the most quiet, with no one vomiting, moaning, or crying. Two cots had sleeping runners in them; another held a man with an ankle the size of a large croquet ball. I could hear runners coming in and finishing the 100km, and other runners going out for their fifth loop of the 100 miler.

They are still out there, running and running. Someday, that will be me. 

Finish time:  20hrs 8min

Average pace (includes nap!): 19 min mile, huzzah! <— this should help future runners know that you can indeed walk much of this distance and make the two cut offs.

Food Consumed: 1 KIND bar, 7 pieces of Hempler’s bacon, 16 electrolyte tablets, 2 jam and cashew nut butter sandwiches (minus some of the bread), 20 GF crackers (16 = 120 calories), 3 pieces of watermelon (small wedges), 1.5 bananas, 3 small sections of orange,  4 packages of Honey Stinger gummies, 5 small real-sugar Pepsi, 1/2 cup of coffee

Medication: one tablet of codeine, aspirin, and caffeine, taken in 1/2 tablet doses.

Lubricant: two packages of Chamois butter, one ointment packet for blisters

Recovery Issues: still assessing. I have lost at least one additional toenail, my legs still ache, dog bite wound still aches, and certain activities still hurt. I long to run again, but it will have to wait. I’ll be getting some body work done by a PT in the month of November, so I’ll know more as time goes along.

Next race: nothing scheduled for 2018. Rim2Rim2Rim in May 2019, Lake Whatcom Three-peat Triathlon July 2019, and maybe… first 100 Mile ultra. Maybe. Let me eat some food, heal up, and ponder some more.