In preparation for Cascade Crest 100 at the end of August, I’ve started incorporating higher volumes in my weekly training. While I was looking forward to a long solo run this weekend in San Diego, the appeal of running with others in Big Bear was too strong. So, like any sane person, I signed up for the race five days before and with a whole lot of mileage on my legs.
After several weekends of travel, Nick and I opted to sleep at home the night before the race and set our alarms early to knock out the drive. By 3:45 a.m. we were stumbling around our apartment, pouring hot tea and scooping our still-sleeping dog, Cashew, out of the bed and into the Subaru. Nick drove, as usual. I’m lucky in that we’re both good drivers, and luckier still that Nick offered to drive so I could doze off as we wound our way up to Big Bear.
By 7 a.m. we had arrived; I went to pick up my bib as Nick chatted to some friends. As I pinned my bib to the front of my shirt, I thought about my personal goals for the race, then of Nick’s recent experience at Cruel Jewel (read here) on the idea of expectation.
By 7:30 a.m., the day had already begun to warm and the RD was yelling at us to go! and we were running alone the paved road leading out from Meadows Edge Picnic Ground and towards Cougar Crest trail. From the start I found myself near the front. I chatted briefly with Kodiak Race Director Matt Smith, then heard my name as our friend, Tom Worthington, caught up to me. As the trail began to asscend, however, he bounded ahead. I felt comfortable going up the first climb, especially because this was one of the few trails that Nick and I had actually hiked in Big Bear. Immediately the views were beautiful, too, though I had little time look up because of the awkward steps and jagged stones along the trail. By the time I reached the first aid station just before mile 4, I felt surprisingly strong and fresh; whatever pains and nags I had complained about on the drive out had disappeared and I was looking forward to a day of running.
As I left the aid station, I saw Nick run up with Cashew. “I didn’t think you’d be this fast!” Nick yelled as he snapped some pictures. “I’ll see you in a while! Love you!” I didn’t have time to stop, nor did I need to. The next five or six miles turned us down an undulating fire road, the gravel so white that I had to squint to see properly. Over the next few miles I ran alongside a few runners who I’d pass and get passed by, depending on if we were running flat, downhill or uphill. There were a few moments where I briefly started calculating just how far I’d have to go–the distance never gets any easier to wrap my mind around–but I’d attempt to replace those thoughts with something else: time to eat, Jade or I want to see a snake or I hope Nick’s seeing cool birds right now. As the route brought us in and out of single track and firewood, I started to feel really good, and a pace that once wasn’t entirely comfortable began to feel sustainable, easy even. At the mile-11 aid station, I finally grabbed a slice of pineapple and some watermelon as the route brought us back onto single track, this time going mostly uphill. Through this up-down section I struggled with my old friend, rib pain (see my Old West 50K race report where it also happened, here), and stopped a few times to focus on stretching and massaging my stomach to calm the spasming muscle.
By the time mile 15 came around, I was excited to see Nick! I stopped long enough to down some more watermelon slices and a few berries that Nick had brought for me, then continued onwards. The day was heating up by this point, and while the single track was pretty–dotted with Jeffrey pines and low-lying lupine and the occasional Indian paintbrush that I continually mistook for the bright orange ribbons that marked the course–I suddenly felt myself falling into a low. There were some runners several minutes ahead of me, and I knew there were a few people behind me, but I had come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t know where the other female runners were during the race. As such, I had to keep moving if I didn’t want a surprise attack. I slipped on my headphones, hoping to revive myself with music, but it only made me feel hotter. I felt dizzy, too, and stopped a few times to refocus my energy, taking care to breath deeply and trying to infuse myself with positive thoughts. I continued to run/walk myself to the top of the crest, then, excited to hit a long downhill, hurried down to the aid station at mile 21. In the last section I had seen only one other runner, a man who was running the race entirely in sandals. Whereas he was faster than me on the climbs, he struggled on the descents covered with loose scree. I filed this in the back of my mind if it came close at the end of the race, passed him, then hurried down to see Nick again.
I took some time here to refuel myself with even more watermelon, potatoes with salt and the rest of a kombucha Nick had brought. As I was getting ready to leave the aid station, another runner inquired about the next section of the course.
“It’s 4 miles, all uphill!” He laughed. I didn’t think the joke was so funny, so rather than dwell on the fact that my legs weren’t in the mood, thanked the volunteers, and just started.
Surprisingly, as the miles clicked by and I climbed back up and over the mountain, I began to feel strong again. I zeroed in on the runners ahead of me, and I made it my mission to not stop running until I reached them. Generally, by the time I reached them I felt stronger for having accomplished my goal and continued to settle into a pace that felt sustainable. As the route flattened out and took us back onto a monotonous fire road, I saw Matt Smith up ahead, so I ran with him a bit to talk, before taking off and hurrying to the aid station. I saw Nick one last time before the finish at the mile 27 aid station; he slathered sunscreen onto my pink shoulders and sent me out quickly.
The next mile was all uphill, though rolling, so I hustled up the hill at whatever speed my legs would take me. With so few miles left in the race, I suddenly started to feel confident to think that I could win the race, that I could be first female.
At mile 28 of the race, I was tired and overheated, a sunburn penetrating my shoulders and a rash developing under my arms (you’ll know what I mean if you shave, then use natural deodorants made of clay and baking soda) and yet I felt as though I had proved a point to myself. That, in some way, I was no longer the girl who came dead last at her track & field events in middle school, nor begged for excuse notes to avoid field hockey, nor was the clumsiest ballet dancer in her class despite having the genetically “ideal” ballet body type. If I wanted to be, I could be athletic.
I thought back to high school, where my private school, Relevant High (so small that I graduated with a class of 10 other students) had no extracurricular activities, let alone sports teams, which was all right with me. Though I did very well in school, had skipped grade 10, and geeked out on books and animals, every report card I had ever received had pinned me as a very average student in P.E. “Needs to participate more,” was a frequent comment. I thought about college, where even though I joined Fairhaven Runners bi-weekly running club, scaling the foothills behind Lake Padden in Bellingham, Washington, or running the stretch to Teddy Bear Cove at dusk and returning in the dark, headlights blazing like coyote eyes along the Interurban Trail, I didn’t call myself a runner. And then I thought about how I nixed the possibility of joining the cross country team at Western Washington University, as though anyone else actually cared how fast or how slow I was running. As though if I wasn’t fast I couldn’t be an athlete, let alone athletic.
By the time I met Nick, I didn’t call myself a runner. I lifted weights, and took ballroom dance lessons, and biked everywhere, but I didn’t really run. Yet less than four years later, I was running a 33-mile race, the lead female and feeling strong within myself, outside of anyone or anything.
As I continued to climb, no one surrounding me but the odd PCT hiker waving hello, nothing to hear but the chatter of woodpeckers and flycatchers in the hollowed, hole-punched snags, nothing to entertain myself but the single track littered with jagged rocks and nothing to smell but the vanilla scent of sun-warmed Jeffrey pines, I realized that the only limiting factor in how I defined myself was, of course, myself.
So, I did what I most wanted to do in that moment and I ran hard. While I knew I wouldn’t be grabbing the female course record (in the 5:20s), a goal that had been on my radar from the start, I figured it was a good motivator to get as close to it as I could. I’ve never been a strong downhill runner, but as I crested the top of Cougar Crest and began my descent, I pushed. At 31 miles in, I had no room left for prudence. I was already tired, nearly out of water and certainly ready to finish the race. So, in the words of Nick, I bombed the downhill, ran through the parking lot and finished in 5 hours, 38 minutes–first female and 11th overall!
I congratulated our friend, Tom, who finished in 6th (go, Tom!), ate some more watermelon ( know…),then washed myself off in Big Bear Lake.
Thank you to all the volunteers who helped to make this a fun, safe race and to the community of Big Bear for sharing the trails! As always, thank you to the most supportive person of all, Nick–for the long drives where I get to pass out in the passenger seat, for the thoughtful drinks and snacks supplied at the aid stations and for being my biggest cheerleader no matter the outcome.
For more information, check out the Holcomb Valley Trail Run website here.