Monday, May 21, 2012

A Mountain's Journey - Jemez 50K and My First DNF

Jemez 50K was a training run. I know, it still sounds ridiculous to me. But it was intended to be a kick-butt take-no-prisoners training run. With the awesome combo of 1) 7,000 feet elevation gain and descent, 2) altitude, 3) rough rocky technical trail, 4) unshaded sunny desert terrain, 5) 31.1 miles long, it was to possibly be a bigger task than the Chattanooga 3 Day Stage Race that is my "end game" 4 weeks from now.
The Posse Shack - our start/finish location

This is the long version of the report, with all the pictures. I write my blog much more as my own Dear Diary than for an audience. I revisit runs and races to evaluate upcoming decisions and remind me self of details, or simply to relive moments. If another person out there benefits from my detailed notes, then I'm happy for that. But if all the details bore you, don't worry about reading - just skim it for the pretty pictures. I'm going to put together a much more concise "10 things about my Jemez race and DNF" post in a minute for those folks. ;-)

I was already nervous about the altitude. It was the wild card to me. It was the part that could not be trained. I'd never spent any time at that kind of elevation, let alone get my heart pumping.
All smiles right before starting the 50K
In the end, the altitude would get the better of me, my anxieties coming true, but not in the mild altitude sickness I knew to be a more common culprit of nausea and a headache. Instead, I would DNF 19.2 miles in from hypoxia, basically meaning that my muscles couldn't metabolize the oxygen effectively, a genetic mishap and unrelated to my training or level of fitness.

Race Eve

Friday morning I flew in to Albuquerque, just 20 hours before the race start. Get my rental car, lunch in Santa Fe, and I was headed north to Los Alamos - to the Jemez Mountains. On my way, I stopped at a scenic point with the mountains behind me to get a picture with my excited stupid grin on my face.
With the mountains at my back

I scouted the race start/finish location and the 2nd aid station. Then, I picked up my packet and attended the well-done pasta dinner and very informative trail briefing. Early bedtime!

Race Preparation, Start, and the Race Plan

Race morning, I. WAS. READY. My sometimes nervous tummy was cooperating. My pack had all the exact things I would need for this mission. I even had my strategy sheet pinned to my shorts to refer to, which I did use and even used it to help another runner puzzle out the next part of the course at one point. My timing race morning was perfect. I was up at 3:45 am, at the race start at 4:45 to get great parking, and was able to see the 50 mile race start, including seeing friends Edgar, Shaheen, Nick, and Jayna.
50 Milers start!

I was calm as a cucumber and even hung out in my car for a half hour reading the second Hunger Games book. Being that calm race day morning is usually a good sign for me.

The 50K race started at 6 am, and I'm feeling good. I've run into a guy named Paul from the pasta dinner the night before in the start corral, and we're about the same pace so I end up seeing him as we end up close to each other for the first 5 miles. We run through the horse stable area and onto the trail.
Horses and stables

Then, through a short tunnel 1.9 miles into the race!
Such unexpected and pretty decorations!

Beautiful rocky cliffs on the other side of the canyon. We wind around on our side of the canyon.
I tried to get some pictures with people in them so you have an idea of scale.

And then we got to jump from boulder to boulder!
See the little person at the top - those are some big boulders!

And that's all in the first 5 miles. I run into Nikki, another Dallas runner, who has had a cold and is having trouble breathing and tight calf muscles. I have a little wheeze at the end of each exhale, but I'm doing okay.

I'm keeping my goal paces, not running hard, and watching my heart rate. I make it the second aid station at mile 10.4, but not before an annoying area of wide open space with sparse trees and giant rocks instead of forest floor. There's no one in front of me for a big part of this mile or 2 section, so I keep having to stop and look for the next flag because there's no obvious trail for me to follow. And then I run to that flag and look for the next. Ugh. I'm sure a savvy, well-traveled trailrunner would have just run straight ahead as we were heading down obviously one way or another, I just figured the flags would have the easiest, well-worn path. This slowed me up a little.
Let's play "Spot the Flag". Not my favorite game. Give me another 10 50Ks under my belt and I'd feel experienced enough to just careen down this hill and know the flags would find ME!

Aid Station 2 - Well That's Demoralizing

I'm doing okay coming into aid station 2 at mile 10.4. There's a runner already there, and she's talking about DNFing. Nothing's really wrong with her at that point - it's just hard. It's her second attempt at her first 50K on the same course. Wow, hard first 50K to do! The volunteers and I convince her to soldier on. That if she can just make it 6 miles, it will get better.

The gal behind me in the race had told me just before this aid station that she lives at 6,000 feet above sea level but has some trouble breathing so she counts 20 steps and then stops and breathes. She comes into the aid station behind me and has decided to DNF because it's just too hard to breathe for her, she's slightly asthmatic anyway, and she has double marathons next weekend.

I leave the aid station with the girl who has reluctantly decided to continue but then quickly leave her behind after a short chat. I also know Jeremy won't be thrilled. One of my jobs at this race was to practice getting through the aid stations quickly and instead I hung out and chitchatted a bit too much at this one (although aid station 1 I was in and out in 10 seconds with 2 orange slices in my hand and a quick hi).

Up The Mountain

My trouble starts about a mile after the aid station. I checked the elevation profile afterward and that's when we got to about 8,000 feet. All of a sudden I've started having a harder time catching my breath. I go at the climb for a couple minutes and then rest for 15 seconds. And this is the hard climb for a couple miles up an unshaded section where the Las Conchas Fire had ravaged the side of the mountain.

There's an old jeep road for a split second but most of the time it's pebbles and boulders and lots of dust.

Some pictures for perspective of how high we climb.

This the longest 2 miles of my life towards the top of this ridge where I'm taking my 30 steps on the advice of the gal I met at the second aid station and then a breathing break. And then it got worse. We go downhill for a short half mile section, and I feel so much better physically, but then it's back uphill through alternating forests and rocky/grassy ski slopes.
An old chairlift on our only flat section of this 6 mile stretch.

I would be climbing this via the woods on the right side, not the nice easy
straight up the mountain I almost would have preferred!

And the lack of oxygen as I climb makes me feel worse and worse. And the next person in front of me must be miles ahead in my brain. And my average pace is just abysmal. But I assess and I know I'm okay - my heart is okay, my legs are okay, mentally I'm okay - I just can not breathe. I see a huge black crow-like bird. Absolutely huge. So big I let out a yell to get him to fly away. I'm assuming he's a scavenger, but think it's best to scare him before I find out he's a predator, HA! One area of forest is full of moths, tons of them everywhere.

However, as I approach mile 14, my "take 20-30 steps and then you can take a breathing break" has turned into sometimes 10 steps, and sometimes 8 steps. And it's not just on the "ups" anymore, it's on the horizontals, the flats also, which I will also admit are rare. I look back at this and I think, "I was in much more trouble than I thought." I'm really struggling and I see my shoddy cell service here is cooperating a little, and I call my husband Steve. I tell him what a hard time I'm having. He knows I'm having a problem because I'm huffing and puffing trying to talk to him, and I'm not even moving. I'm just standing there. I tell him I think I might have to DNF. That even if I can get to mile 16, I am looking at a 12-13 hour finish, which is well beyond what I was expecting to put my body through for a training run. But I want to finish. And I also wonder if I'll be able to breath better when I start coming back down, since I'm at about 9000 ft elevation at this point. He reassures me that he'll support whatever my decision is and knows whatever I decide, it was the right thing to do. I struggle along for another mile to the summit, another huge 1000 ft in 1 mile climb. My breathing is making me lightheaded, and I'm constantly having to steady myself and feel wobbly in my footing, which is bad when you are climbing a steep grade rocky slope.

How bad was my breathing? I would have to stop and stand to eat my honey stinger chews, because I couldn't breathe, eat, and walk at the same time. I look back and think, "Wow, that was not good."

At mile 15, I'm at the top. I tweet that I'm really thinking I have to drop. Suann tells me I can do this. She's great support in this moment. I keep wanting to cry from the huffing and puffing and the start-and-stop 10-paces-and-breathe, but I tweet Suann that I'm fighting for breath so bad that if I cry I'll hyperventilate. She tells me to stop, rest, and just breathe. I tweet back a simple "ok". I stop and take a couple pictures there at the top.
What a view!

I'm So High Right Now!!!

Look how high it is! And I even force a big smile for a self-portrait.
Better to smile than cry. Besides, I'd hyperventilate and
pass out at this point if I cried.

Smile and Fall

The trail starts going back downhill through wooded areas and ski slopes. The ski slopes though have dusty, rocky dropoffs, and I slide on my booty a few times.

And then I come up on the race photographer in a grassy field which unfortunately also has a big loose rock section. I try to smile big and look up, and I tumble and roll 2 seconds before he's going to snap the pictures. He freaks out and comes running, yelling, "Are you okay?!?"

Me: "I've been better... you know, like 10 seconds before this."
He offers me a hand and helps me up.
Him: "Do you still want me to take your picture?"
Me: "No, I really don't."

I don't check until a few minutes later but I'm not scuffed up in the slightest - lucky. Then the giant double black diamond steep ski slope so we can drop 1,000 feet faster than you imagine possible. I slip and slide, and freak out, and throw down my arms, and land on my booty, and freak out. Repeat often. And 2 50-milers pass me looking so light and airy. And it's so steeply downhill making it so difficult of a traverse that I am still struggling to breathe.
Blue arrow is the fast 50 mile runners and the red arrow is the
cheer squad of Brandi, Shama, and Shifra waiting at the bottom.

And another perspective of how much we dropped so quickly is this great picture - yeah, I came down all of that, slipping and sliding!

I make it to the bottom to see Brandi (Edgar's wife) and Shama and Shifra (Shaheen's sisters). I realize now how out of it I think I sounded, and now I know it was the oxygen deprivation at work.

Round a corner and there's the aid station. It had taken me 3 1/2 hours to go 6 miles.

Convince Me The Worst Is Over

The aid station folks were awesome. A teenage volunteer asked what I needed.

Me: "Could you refill my pack with water while I decide if I'm going to continue this race? ... Like just in case?"
He was like, "Ooooh-kay." Veteran runner volunteers jumped in - "What's wrong?" "The worst is over." "You did the hardest part." "You'll still finish before dark." They found me a chair as I huffed and puffed. I sat there and ate and worked to catch my breath.

I decided to keep going. The shot of coke I had drunk kicked in and my recovery break had helped that I jogged along for half a mile until the next smaller uphill. Ack, back to breaks every 30 steps. But with some straights and downhills I was able to at least muster a steady walk while I'm huffing and puffing.

Aid Station 19.2

I talk to the volunteers here. I tell them what's wrong. I ask them, "If I just work on getting from aid station to aid station, can I DNF later in the race and be driven out?" The answer is that this is the decision point. All future aid stations have a hike out. Turns out one of the couple volunteers I've been talking to is the medic there. He comes over while I think it all over and eat and drink and wants to take my oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter. I test at 91-92%. I ask, "Is that good?" The answer is no.

The medic says I could continue, but it's getting a little dangerous if my levels continue to drop, plus I've already told him I'm lightheaded and unsteady on my feet. He's not comfortable with me going it alone. Right then a guy who I'd leapfrogged with the previous two miles is in the aid station. He says he's getting over a cold so he's walking the whole rest and he will stay with me. The medic feels better with this answer. I'm having a soul-crushing hard time because I'm so tired of not being able to breathe but otherwise I physically feel great. The medic asks me a bunch of questions and confirms I'm well-hydrated, nourished, and my electrolyte levels are good when he sees I don't have fat sausage fingers. He checks my legs and I don't have edema (unusual swelling) there either.

I decide to go on with Lee, my new walking friend. There's a 1/2 mile out (uphill!) then back so I figure this will be my check. And within 500 steps of this first simple uphill, I'm huffing and puffing and need a catch-my-breath break. I'm done I think. I call my husband and cry.

Back To The Aid Station... And More Bad News

I ran or walked for 8 hours. About 4 1/2 of which I spent huffing and puffing. I go back to the aid station and tell the volunteers I'm done. They take my pulltag off my bib and sit me in a chair to catch my breath. I'm chatting with a volunteer, trying not to dwell on what's happened, and I'm starting to have a nasty raspy cough.

The medic comes over and wants to retest my oxygen. The cough isn't a good sign. After having sat and recovered for 10 minutes, he's alarmed that my oxygen level's dropped to 88%. He says it's time to put me on oxygen, I wasn't going back out on the course even if I wanted to, and he's glad I decided not to since it could have gotten very dangerous. I tear up and cry a little off and on and no one cares or minds, which is so sweet and wonderful of them all.

I'm put on an oxygen tank and told to relax. I cheer the 50M runners. They can't drive me out of the aid station until 7:30 that night, and it's 2:00 pm. Luckily, a volunteer will be walking the 2.8 miles back to the last aid station I'd come from, at the bottom of the ski hill, at 4 pm. The medic thinks we can get my levels high enough by then that he'll release me to slow walk back there. Everyone agrees if we can get me back to my hotel, it would be best so I can rest and recover instead of staying part of the way up the mountain.

A Long 3 Miles

At 4:00, after a boost of extra oxygen, I'm cleared to go. About 96% oxygen level, and my heart rate has finally come down to resting rate. The volunteer and I take it slowly. The couple small uphills still require a small rest. We cheer a lot of the 50M runners we pass. I take off my bib after the first one we encounter gets confused about why I'm backtracking on the course!

The End

And that's it. My First DNF. I don't have much else to say. I told some friends it feels worse that I'm doing well physically after it. One friend said that should make me feel better. It was a medical issue not just giving in when it got tough. And my response is that it feels worse because it's an unsettling reminder for all of us that we can train and prep and have our race plans and there can be something just completely out of left field out of our control to ruin our race day.

Next Up: On to the Chattanooga Stage Race June 15-17. A couple weeks to cement my fitness level and do a little more speedwork and then taper time!


  1. Altitude is a b. You just never know how you will react to it, unless you try. You did fantastic. I cried several times at Zion! DNFs suck, but knowing you, it just makes you stronger. I love you!

  2. Yikes! Still you tried, and that is an awesome thing to try. My wife got altitude sickness on a ski trip and we had to head back to the hotel... I've seen it first hand and there is just nothing you could have done. Some people have told me you can train yourself to minimize it, but I'm not sure I buy that. Still in awe of the guts!

  3. Loved reading this... thanks for sharing all of this... I know it's personal, and I appreciate it because I think we can all learn from each other's experiences! #TeamLibby Proud of you for what you did and for making the good decision.