Feed the Furnace. See the Elephant.
I imagined a scene of flames. Flames within flames created an image: ears of an elephant out of the swirling orange and red inferno, then tusks and a trunk rooted on four legs.
And then I fell asleep. Tomorrow I would seek the elephant at the IMTUF 105-mile trail race. The phrase “seeing the elephant” was widely used in the late 1800’s in reference to gaining experience of the world at a significant cost (click here to read more about seeing elephants.)
Coach Peter’s pre-race instructions added the fiery furnace part. That would remind me to fuel and keep alert.
you have every advantage with your crew and pacers
Last year I allowed a tough Canadian woman to beat me to the second-place finish. Not carrying a jacket, she was left using her space blanket as a poncho in the relentless rain. Apparently, her husband picked rock climbing over arriving on time to pace her.
I had every advantage with my preparation and my team, but I didn’t register how close and vulnerable she was, and I never found the gear to catch her. It was my big regret last year. I would not let it happen again.
This year, the first mile of my race was at a relaxed 9:30 pace, and I could still see the front of the field ahead of me. I couldn’t specifically identify any women ahead, but it’s difficult to be sure.
Somewhere before the first crew station I encountered a young woman in a gray skirt. We chatted for a bit before I easily pulled ahead of her.
I felt great coming into the first crew station and had every intention of being a delightful wife and runner. Instead, my fingers were so cold that I couldn’t fasten my vest. I was short and snippy with Javier. I would do better next time.
He informed me that I was the first woman they had seen, but I took that to mean that there could still be others ahead that they hadn’t seen.
No matter. Once I was moving and warmed up again, I felt great and was moving much faster than I had anticipated. I climbed with relaxed intention up a dirt road with hellish embedded rocks. They posed no inconvenience climbing, but I recalled the discomfort descending on them in the blinding rain last year.
In our coaching meeting before the race, I had asked Peter if I should expect to ever catch someone 60 to 90 minutes ahead of me in the race. We discussed that anyone can blow up, and that you just have to be there to fill the void if they do. He also cautioned that if a runner is having a great day, then all bets are off.
One of Coach Peter’s final reminders read: “be patient.” I pondered the words as I climbed the hill. It dawned on me… I don’t have to be patient. I’m the runner having a great day!
I entered the next aid station around mile 24 and they confirmed that I was first woman. The ham radio operator pulled out a flask and offered me a swig of Fireball. I didn’t know what it was, but it sounded warm (Feed the Furnace,) so I happily partook.
you’ve done everything right to have a great day
In some ways, I started preparing for this race as soon as I finished last year. I thought about the off-season strength training; all the work to improve my cardiovascular fitness; fine-tuning my finicky diet.
And yet, there were serious hiccups.
power meter on my ass
I’ve struggled with feet and ankle issues for most of the summer. My understanding is that the problems generally stem from an inability to fire my glutes and hamstrings appropriately.
I don’t even know what a power meter looks like. I do know they are the preferred measurement tool of cyclists and my friend Chris Cloyd, who happens to be an extraordinary personal trainer.
So I imagined that such a device existed that could be hooked directly to my ass. Maybe it helped my backside fire. Maybe it didn’t. But it provided a focus for me either way.
The Crestline segment of the course is high and beautiful. I had been looking forward to experiencing it in the daylight this year. It didn’t run as fast as I was expecting it to, but I let myself back off a little to avoid burn-out.
I saw my crew at mile 44, now just a bit ahead of my pace plan, but still in solid first place. I would pick up my first pacer, Sean, after the next big climb and descent, in 11 miles.
How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
You can’t help but like IMTUF Race Directors Jeremy and Brandi Humphrey. They welcomed me back to the race with huge hugs and a kind of understanding that they were rooting for my success.
I told Jeremey how I came to “see the elephant” and he advised me on how one eats an elephant: one bite at a time.
I was sharing the trail with four-time IMTUF finisher Drew, whom I met here last year, when we spotted Jeremey sitting far below on a boulder. He had been taking in the race from that vantage point, shooting photos and freezing for quite some time.
Jeremey followed us into the next aid station and reminded me how to eat an elephant. I would call on that advice later in the race.
Sean joined to pace me at mile 56 just as the sun was setting. My pace was slipping from the plan as the descents were more technical than I envisioned going this direction on the course.
He reminded me that I was in first place and that was more important than any pace plan. This kept me positive and moving. We kept moving solidly. It was cold. Really cold. I picked up a second coat at a crew aid station.
We settled into the huge climb up to Diamond Ridge. It was long, relentless, and, frankly, difficult. Yet, it never felt insurmountable. I knew I could keep going. This was not yet the elephant that I had come to see.
I’m not sure where he said it, but Sean expressed that it was a great honor and responsibility to pace the first woman. Like he was escorting royalty.
While this may have seemed like inordinate pressure, it was not. It was positive pressure to perform for the team. I had every advantage with my crew and pacers. That they came this far for our success and I must reciprocate in every way possible.
be in the moment
A variation of our classic, “no chasing squirrels,” Coach Peter’s pre-race reminder to “be in the moment” is all about focus. I understand that some runners do better when they let their minds wander, but I do not. I slow down as soon as I lose focus.
Early in the race I had allowed my mind to wander: The course markings at IMTUF are extraordinary. Classic ribbons are complemented by bright pink directional signage.
“What could we do to improve markings at Castle Peak 100k? Maybe more signage….” and on…
My pace slowed until I snapped back into focus. “Right here,” I told myself, “be in this moment.”
I switched pacers to Steve at mile 86, with some 19 miles to go in this especially long “100-miler.” I had a rough time settling in with the change of pacers. Sean is naturally quiet, and this works well for me during a race.
Both men are quite possibly the nicest people you will ever meet, making prodding an intimidating lady like me a challenging task. Steve’s very presence behind me was helpful, but he didn’t fully realize that and tried to fill the silence.
“I can’t talk,” I scolded the kindest man on Earth. “Don’t you notice how much I slow down?” We started to find our rhythm.
this is what you came for
Molly Zurn is a strong and experienced ultrarunner (not to mention a great nordic skiier.) I had seen her name on the entrants list, but I didn’t spot her at the pre-race meeting nor at the start area in the dark of the morning.
We understood that she and the gray-skirted young lady were alternating in 2nd and 3rd place behind me. Experience generally trumps youth in ultrarunning. I knew that it was Molly that I had to keep ahead of.
Any faint hope of a course record had faded hours ago. Even my original hope of finishing in under 28 hours seemed untenable. Each time I did the math, the best case was 15 minutes later than that. I had to hang on tight to the win.
My watch read 94.5 miles at the start of a 1/3-mile out-and-back to the Loon Lake view point. We had pushed to get there as quickly as we could, knowing that we may see Molly on this segment.
We arrived at the view point, marked my bib with the designated Sharpie, and I made Steve pause for a moment to take in the view in the morning light. Steve cued me to get out of there, and we did.
Really, I didn’t believe she was that close behind and I was confused when she greeted me by name. I was thinking it was my friend Marta, who also runs with poles and wears glasses. It was a weird thing to think because Marta was at the race pacing a friend elsewhere on the course.
We both had our game on and I was happy with how well I was moving when we crossed paths, but she was only 4 minutes behind me.
Four minutes, out of 25 HOURS. That’s neck-and-neck in a 105-mile race. In the remaining 12 miles, she would need to better my pace by only 20 seconds a mile.
In the intense miles that followed, I felt only appreciation for Ms. Molly Zurn. I reminded myself, “this is what you came for.” To push. To see the elephant. To do that hardest thing I’d ever done.
I stayed intently focused on the task at hand: keep enough space between us that we are not in line-of-sight. This proved especially challenging as these were the most open miles of the entire course. Each curve or crest of a hill was a new opportunity to get out of sight.
We had passed the final aid station and I desperately clung to the moment I would see Javier where unlimited “pacers and entourages” are allowed, 2.8 miles from the finish. My legs began to protest, but I reminded myself that it was nothing compared to the time I blew my quads at the Canyons 100k.
In an evil dose of GPS reality, the segment kept reading longer and longer. I knew there was a vault toilet down below, but how far? There was no waiting, I pulled off the trail to dig a hole. I was solely focused on the task at hand as Steve watched (nervously, I can only imagine) for runners behind.
It was an efficient stop, yet I observed how quickly my muscles seized and hurt once I started moving again. Finally, almost 2 miles later than I was expecting it, the road popped out to a small group of vehicles and people.
I didn’t recognize Javier at first. His odd combination of running clothes confused me, with a winter hat under his ball cap. I was delighted once I figured out it was him. And I knew that the mileage on the next segment read true to my watch: 0.8 miles to the road, then 2 even to the finish.
I took nothing for granted. The final 2 miles had long lines of sight and it was work to maintain a fast hike with a few pick-ups to “shuffling pace” on the wide gravel road.
We rounded the final corner to Sean waiting with our kids Clara and Alex to “run” the final 200 yards into the finish. Each breath was a labored grunt. I called in my number then my eyes found the finishing clock. I had fully forgotten about the race time, so I utterly surprised to see it read under 28 hours. Literally by seconds. I made sure to keep it that way.
I crossed the finish line officially at 27:59:49, a women’s course record for the counter-clockwise direction, and second only to Darla Askew’s smoking time last year.
I crouched over and thought about collapsing on the ground, as I had seen top-level nordic skiers do, but decided that level of drama was unbecoming. Tears welled up as RDs Jeremey and Brandi greeted me with heartfelt hugs. (I still tear up when I watch the finishing video that Sean captured.)
Erik Schulte, who had just won the Castle Peak 100k that I help direct, greeted me next. I was thrilled to find out that he won the men’s race, and laid down his own counter-clockwise course record (21:25:33,) many hours ahead of me.
Molly arrived to claim her podium spot just 7-1/2 minutes after me. She ran the entire race solo, and she had certainly kept the heat on me. She enabled me to do what I had come to do: Feed the Furnace. See the Elephant.
I think that I may without vanity affirm that I have seen the elephant. (Borrowed words from pioneer Louisa Clapp.)