Getting past my first ultra
By Laura Valaas
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?”
At this point, I realized two things — they were asking what my name was, and I hadn’t been responding out loud. It was the halfway turnaround point in the Yakima Skyline 50-kilometer trail running race and names didn’t seem to be an important part of my universe at the moment.
This being my first ultra, I had started the race in the back, the very back, one of the last five people to cross the starting line. I was wary of making the rookie mistake of going out too hard and suffering a miserable death somewhere on the course. I was also self-conscious about my shiny new hydration pack, having longstanding scorn for people who prepare for an event by buying new gear instead of actually training, and now counting myself among the scorned. However, after about a mile of stop-and-go from the back of the pack accordion effect, I decided that I might as well get some miles behind me while I was
feeling good and temps were cool and moved past several trains of happily chatting runners. Across the undulations on the top of the first hill, I felt guilty about opening up my stride and letting lose across the runnable terrain knowing what my pace and mindset were likely to be the next time I saw that stretch of trail, but did it anyway.
I hit the first aid station at 8 miles but had plenty of water and food so I ran on past. I knew that eating and drinking would potentially be a challenge for me since I didn’t have any experience with events that required mid-race fueling, so I committed myself to eating and drinking whether I wanted to or not. My plan was to eat on the uphills while I was walking and, theoretically, not breathing as hard.
Coming off the second hill and starting the descent, I expected to see the frontrunners on their way back. No sign of them. Still no sign of them. Finally, they came up and past me, looking relaxed. I was starting to realize that I was making better time than I had expected, although with no watch and my daily goal on my fitbit reached long ago, I didn’t have any reference. I passed a group of hikers and they seemed extraordinarily pleased to see me, which I didn’t comprehend until someone said, “you’re the first woman!” I laughed incredulously, but the others confirmed.
I thought I was still quite cognizant at the halfway aid station, despite not knowing my own name. Terrified of stopping and not being able to start again, I merely refilled my hydration pack, grabbed some food to go, and hit the trail for what I was sure would be a much more painful run back. I had my first experience of what it’s like for food to turn to sawdust in your mouth on the hill leaving the halfway point. The only thing that kept me eating was knowing what sort of hell awaited me if I let my calories get too far out of sync with my energy demands.
On the long descent around mile 20, I was channeling my friend Kikkan Randall, who can run downhills like a madwoman, and urging myself to actually run down the hill instead of shuffling. This was going pretty well until I caught my toe on a rock and did a flying superwoman landing skidding down the trail. So much pain! I panicked a little bit because there was definitely blood and everything seemed to be stinging, but I figured I’ll just keep moving, and didn’t look at any of the stinging body parts. So I continued down, now channeling Kikkan Randall as “girl who runs fast down hills without falling on face.”
Coming past the 23-mile aid station, I didn’t know how far down the turnoff it was to the aid station, but I had food and water and was not about to add even 50 meters to the day or risk the siren’s call of food-filled tables and chairs or shade. So I told the volunteers, “I’m good” as they tried to point me to the aid station. I headed up the final series of climbs and realized I wasn’t exactly “good.” The back of my bottle of salt tabs had said: “CAUTION: Do not exceed the recommended dose of ten (10) capsules daily.” I figured I’d need eight for the race, but took 10, to have two as insurance. As I faced the last eight miles, I was worried that I wouldn’t have enough electrolytes to stave off cramping until the end of the race. And then, such joy! Someone had dropped a couple of salt tabs in the trail, beacons of white shining through the dust like manna from heaven. I scooped them up and popped one, rather dirty, into my mouth and the second into a pocket.
I didn’t know if anyone was behind me, and I didn’t look, but if someone wanted to pass me this late in the race, I was going to make them suffer for it. So I put my head down and forced myself to run the rolling ascent to the final summit. In my mind, I flew down the final downhill, but to an observer, it probably looked more like a disjointed stumble. I’d misjudged my water and run dry the last three miles so I was very pleased to get a high-five and a glass of ice water from James as I crossed the finish line. I had survived the longest run of my life! I celebrated by sitting in the delightfully cold river and then enjoying the post-race camaraderie.
Epilogue: When I finally examined my wounds, everything looked good, except for a gash in my knee that seemed to get worse every time I looked at it. So I stopped looking at it. I made it home thanks to my wonderful designated driver. I was exceedingly glad to have a family that keeps suture kits in the medicine cabinet. They stitched me up by headlight on the back porch. Although, perhaps the worst part of the day was listening to the commentary while they did so: “That’s not how you’re supposed to do it.” “I think Loki wants to eat that chunk of flesh we cut off.” And my favorite: “Don’t poke so many holes in her; just jab it through once!”