I headed up the mountain with Emmett Rahl at 3:30 AM. With little sleep, I felt energetic, excited, trying not to think about Old Goat specifics. My first & utmost concern was making that first cutoff – The 21 mile technical “Candy Store Loop” in 6.5 hours.
RD Steve Harvey gives race instructions:
We took off in the dark wearing headlamps. I handled the rocky terrain well, relieved I had trained on San Juan Trail. I fell twice in the dark. But they were both those amazing, what I call “ballerina” falls. These are the falls that I bounce back up with absolutely no injuries. A little ways later, I kicked an embedded rock so hard that I was sure when the sun rose, I’d see a blood soaked shoe.
I passed several people on the Viejo Tie portion of the loop. I chanted my mantras, prayed for strength. Though visibility was tough at first, I know the Viejo Tie. In training, I learned I didn’t have to go as slowly as it looked like I did. There’s landing paces, ways to maneuver the trail quickly and confidently. As I passed one group of runners, one of them yelled out to the others ahead, “Fast Runner” so that I could pass. I got a hearty laugh out of that. I don’t think anyone has EVER referred to me as “Fast Runner.” With six runners behind me, one of them at my toes, I felt happy. I arrived at Chiquita trail 12 minutes faster than my best! With the sun out and warming the earth quickly, I saw that my shoe was clean of blood. My big toe ached, but it was bearable.
My friend Robert Whited passed me on the final ascent into the “Candy Store” aid. I didn’t see many people running this portion. Those I did see, like myself, hiked a great deal of the short distance. (Not Robert though; he’s an animal.)
Somewhere in the first 11 miles, I lost my time gain and arrived to the parking lot across from The Candy Store right around my best time: 3 hours. I quickly hopped back on the trail to loop back around onto Chiquita with a great sense of urgency to finish the mainly uphill ten miles in the best time I ever had. If I did any less than my best, I would not make the cutoff.
The first five miles into the return trip were tough. But I moved forward at a good pace. Emmett Rahl caught me and then he quickly ploughed up ahead of me. My friend Kurt Erlandson also passed with encouraging words. Many people passed me, as I had taken the early start, and the regular starters were coming on strong. One guy turned back to look at me and said, “Hey! I read your blog yesterday.”
Right about the time that I felt I couldn’t move any faster, a group of 5 or so runners came up from behind as we climbed that rocky exposed terrain. The female leader passed me. Her male followers didn’t pass. I didn’t force it either. Instead, I followed her lead, picking up my pace tremendously. Focusing on her feet, I witnessed her trip a few times. I continued with my mantras and praying. And then I fell again. But amazingly, I fell sideways, directly into the mountain wall. The runner ahead hollered back asking if I was okay. Surprisingly, I was fine after pushing myself away from the dirt and keeping stride with the group. It seemed as if I didn’t miss a step.
At the Chiquita falls aid station, I met up with a large group of runners. I found Emmett, gulped down a shot of water. I said to him beneath my breath, “I’m out of here.” I needed all the head start I could get. He didn’t hear me, telling me later that he turned to look and I had disappeared.
I arrived to the first cut-off in 6:10. This was my best time by EIGHTEEN minutes. I also made the cutoff with twenty minutes to spare!! Several runners dropped out at that point. It was an easy place to drop because our cars were in the vicinity. So relieved to make the cutoff, there was no way I was dropping. Next stop, the Bear Springs Aid station by 5:00 PM.
I refilled my hydration pack, grabbed a gel, a piece of peanut butter sandwich and a couple Red Vine candies. Then I quickly took off again, this time running the single-track Falcon Trail toward the Main Divide for a huge climb up to Trabuco Trail. I hiked the Main Divide with some difficulty. But I wasn’t alone. Several other runners struggled that bastard of a rocky road. Good news is that it’s relatively short.
Aid at Trabuco was festive. They offered runners beer and didn’t let me do a thing myself. I took a few sips of beer. I gulped down Coca-Cola and ate pieces of oranges. I took off my long sleeve shirt, tied it around my waist. I applied sunscreen to my shoulders. Relief settled in with the shade of Trabuco Trail. I struggled some down the rockiest portions. At one point my feet rolled over the ground as if I were running on marbles. At about mile 25, I took off my sunglasses to take in the spectacular lush mountain scenery. I saw what looked like thousands of tiny gray flies fluttering about. Something was happening with my vision. I took in another gel, and kept the fluids flowing.
When Trabuco Trail FINALLY began to level out, I could hear voices behind me. So, another runner was going to pass me. They had been passing me for hours. I wasn’t running very quickly. Actually, I was just trotting when the two came right up on me. I overheard the sweeper, Eric Kosters, talking to “headquarters,” as he approached with the last of the pack. This is what he said, “I’ve got runner #such and such, but we’ve caught up with another runner. So, I’ll be with her instead in a minute.” He wanted to know who I was, I yelled out, “121.” No, he wanted my name. I told him and he chuckled loudly and said, “Lauren!!!” We had been “talking” on Facebook in the weeks prior.
Well, I knew this extremely rocky, hot trail well. Though Eric was a nice guy, the last thing I wanted was him running up my rear. I took off like I’ve never run that trail. “Get as many corners behind you,” I told myself. I wanted the sweeper and other runner to turn corner after corner and not see me. I figured that way they wouldn’t try as hard. I ran that portion so quickly, I AMAZED myself. I actually passed two runners in the process, one of them, Jeff Higgins (whom I would later meet).
I was in and out of the Holy Jim aid station in probably a minute. I refilled fluids, grabbed a handful of potato chips and took off in a big hurry, away from the sweeper!!!
Two of the runners I passed on Trabuco passed me going up Holy Jim, one of them the young man who was previously with the sweeper. Eric Kosters had a new runner now, and it wasn’t me.
Climbing Holy Jim was EXCRUTIATING. I wanted to vomit and could barely move one foot in front of the other. The salt was crusted over my face so thickly that it cracked when I grimaced (or smiled ). I dreamt of the spring in the mountain wall where I would wash my face. But I didn’t count switchbacks or even think about when I would arrive. I merely climbed switchback after switchback, trying to focus on the moment. I passed a runner, and came up on the heels on another runner suffering as much as I was. His name was Mark, (he was the guy with the sweeper on Trabuco). He hadn’t climbed Holy Jim before. I tried to give him hope, talking about the downhill toward the top, and that it was going to get shady and not as steep pretty soon. I continued to pray. And I continued to dream of washing my face.
When I finally arrived at the spring, Mark was a few feet ahead with his hands on his thighs. I told him that he could wash his face if he needed, that the water was safe. I don’t think he wanted to walk those few feet back. I know I wouldn’t want to. I painstakingly squatted down to the spring, my quads aching so much, I groaned. And then I washed my face again and again. It was beautiful, truly beautiful. I have never had a better face wash in my entire life.
When I took off I passed Mark who was still resting with his hands on his thighs. I passed two other suffering runners as I made my way to the top. I kind of wished that I would vomit so that the nausea would go away. It took every thing I had to take another step. I should have taken in more calories at the aid station. I probably should have eaten a whole meal. Looking back, Holy Jim is where I lost the race.
I made the second cutoff, about a half mile past the top of Holy Jim with ten minutes to spare. I took my drop bag and didn’t do anything I had planned. I wanted to re-tape my arches, change my socks. Instead, I merely took out my Chamois Butt’r and gobbed it onto my underarms which were rubbed raw by my shirt seams.
I took a seat, my shoulders and arms aching. I couldn’t think. I didn’t know what to do. A few runners who had dropped were sitting in chairs beneath the easy-up. They looked relaxed, yet defeated. The aid workers, so friendly, re-filled my hydration pack. They wouldn’t allow me to do anything myself. Aid worker, Cris Francisco, was a life saver for me right then. He massaged my shoulders and my upper back. It was very painful, but he got out the twisted knots beneath my skin. He travelled back and forth between runners putting wet paper towels on their necks. And he poured water down my back. The bad thing was, I had taken a seat. And I continued to sit. Finally, Cris said, “Lauren, come on! You’ve got to get moving.” So, I was up quickly, asking what I should eat that wouldn’t come right back up. Upon Cris’s suggestion, I took a handful of pretzels and headed up the Main Divide, destination: Santiago Peak.
The continuing two mile climb was miserable. Pure hell. I chatted with runners traveling down from the peak, one of them Kurt Erlandson. He looked strong. Many of the runners coming down assured me that I would feel much better when I reached the peak. I ate my pretzels slowly and I hiked slowly. It felt like the peak would never arrive. One foot in front of the other. I made the cut-off, I would make the peak. Nearing the top, Emmet came down looking refreshed. He told me about the chicken soup at the top. Just about fifty yards from the aid, I saw Mark again, who had passed me at the last aid.
I met Scott Barnes, an extremely encouraging “elite” runner along with Deborah Acosta at Santiago Peak. A beautiful site! It was nice to see two friendly smiling faces. Deborah refilled my pack, she gave me some delicious chicken noodle soup (again, strangely, the best I’ve ever had in my life!). Scott offered to cook me a quesadilla. I declined, thinking I wouldn’t be able to hold it down.
I ran down the Main Divide, carefully. I passed the sweeper and Jeff Higgins on their way up. I didn’t pass anyone on the way down and made only a very quick stop at the next aid. The sweeper and Jeff came in right behind me, and Cris Francisco took over as sweeper. Cris was so kind with his encouraging words and told us to take advantage of the downhill. Not wanting to be with the sweeper, even though he was Cris, a great guy, I took off running quicker than I wanted to. I continued running on what seemed like a new pair of legs. I ran the uphills even and continued running, leaving the sweeper and Jeff behind.
And then as the dropping sun turned the sky orange, at mile 41, a jeep pulled up beside me. The passenger rolled down the window and said, “Lauren, I have some bad news.” I looked at his car and runners in the back seat. In disbelief I said, “Are you pulling me?”
“I’m very sorry,” he said, “but the race director said you have no chance of finishing by the course cut-off.”
The race director!! Steve Harvey? My friend??? My friend was pulling me from the race???? I wanted to plead, “But I can make it. I can!!!!!!” I only had nine miles to go. Instead of pleading, I burst into tears. Even with making the 5:00 PM cutoff at Bear Springs, there was no physical way that I could make it to the peak and then to the finish in 3 hours. It was over. I simply bawled. Not wanting to burden the guy who was pulling me from the race with my pain, I turned away from him and cried at the valley.
I didn’t want to wait for the truck back a ways to pick me up, so I continued running the main divide. Maybe they would forget that they pulled me. But, I knew they wouldn’t forget. When the truck pulled up, I was still crying. The passenger said she was so sorry. Both the driver and the passenger were so extremely gentle with me. I bucked it up and cried silently. The female passenger talked to me quite a bit, but I just couldn’t talk. I phoned my husband at one point to tell him, and bounced around the truck for a long bumpy ride back to the start. We passed several other runners along the way who would eventually get pulled. Emmett was pulled at mile 44 after he was told they he would be allowed to finish.
Arriving at the finish line, people were in a festive mood. The grill was on fire. People drank beer. I just wanted to get my grab bag and sulk away. And then I saw Steve Harvey. The race director. I wasn’t mad at him anymore. He has to do what he has to do. I walked up to him and he said, “I’m sorry.” And then I cried on his shoulder.
As I ate my burger and waited for Emmett, I got a nice pep talk from Jeff Higgins. This was his fifth year trying and being pulled from Old Goat. Here I was thinking that I would never run this race again, and Jeff keeps coming back again and again for more fun. Thank you Jeff. I really appreciated your talk. I appreciate that you came up to me in my misery. I wasn’t pretty and I wasn’t exactly nice. I hope that I wasn’t too short.
Pulled at 41 (me not looking too fresh and layered five times over as the cold, cold, cold settled in at Blue Jay) and Emmett pulled at 44 / as a side note, I really didn’t want to post this picture because I looked and felt so terrible. But, I wanted readers to see Emmett, an inspiring, back of the pack ultrarunner.
I got very little video and still shots in this race. I had to keep moving and only had time to run, eat and pee.