Running in the Desert with Pancho Villa*
*my race report from the Javelina Jundred 2008.
After my DNF at the Lean Horse Hundred in August, I did what any ultramarathoner will do… I immediately looked for another ultramarathon to run! I chose the Javelina Jundred!
The Javelina Jundred is run on the trails of McDowell Mountain Park located 4 miles north of the town of Fountain Hills, Arizona. The town is named after the fountain which was built in 1971 by Robert P. McCulloh. It sprays about 15 minutes every hour like a manmade geyser. For ten years after it was built, it was the world's largest fountain; now it is the fourth largest. On a windless day, the plume can rise as high as 560 feet in the air.
I arrived Thursday which was the day before the day before the race, not wanting to repeat the experience I had trying to get to the starting line of the Kettle Moraine 100-k this spring.
Fountain Hills was having its annual Arts and Crafts fair. My hotel was only one block away from downtown so I spent Friday afternoon walking through the vendors. Unlike many Arts and Crafts Fairs I have attended, which often have pretty cheesy stuff, much of art for sale here were actually what I would consider to be "real" art.
I'm sorry…. I don't consider paintings of Elvis on velvet to be art.
There were stone and metal sculptures, pencil drawings, Southwestern oil paintings, photographs, gourd art work, pottery, glassware, carved wood, custom jewelry, food vendors as well as musicians performing and selling CDs. Much of the stuff was out of our budget.
I knew I was to travel home Monday by plane so fortunately I was not tempted to buy.
Over the past few weeks, we have been receiving email updates from the race director Jamil Coury. I knew I had entered the race for me when I saw the race schedule and specifically the times for food to arrive.
Food is the most important part of the race!
I went to packet pick-up Friday evening and ate pasta provided by the local Boy Scout troop. Our packet included schwag such as a great long sleeve North Face tech shirt, bandana, Moeben sleeves, electrolytes and energy bars from ZombieRunner.
I have never worn Moeben sleeves before. Apparently when soaked with ice water, they can help keep you cool. I won an additional pair as a door prize (Can I call it a door prize when the meeting is outside in the desert?). I will try them out eventually but not this weekend.
"Try nothing new on race day" is a rule I follow closely.
At the pre-race meeting, one of the race organizers explained that despite this being a relatively "easy" 100 mile course as 100 mile races go, there is a rather high DNF rate. The reason is the weather. Too many start out too fast and do not take into account the heat and lack of humidity. By afternoon they have completely depleted themselves and end up dropping in the evening just as the temperatures are improving. He warned us to take it easy.
I would have no problem with that advice. I intended to stick with my conservative pace as planned.
The race began at 6AM. We started out with our headlamps as the sun would not rise for another hour.
As the darkness faded, the desert glowed with golden hues. I could see the other runners stretched out ahead before us. It was a beautiful morning.
I soon fell in with some other runners.
And this is where I had the pleasure of meeting Pancho Villa.
The Javelina Jundred is usually run on Halloween weekend, indeed next year it will be on October 31st. In keeping with this tradition, they have included a costume contest as part of the festivities. The rule is that you must wear the costume the entire 100 miles.
I had considered wearing a costume but decided that simply finishing would be a more important goal.
The guy wearing the Pancho Villa outfit was Arizonan Steve Ochoa. It was fun running along hearing the responses from the other runners: "Yip, yip yip yip!" "Muy Bueno!" "Viva revolution!" and so on.
He said before the race he was talking with his friends about the costume contest. They asked him what was he going to wear?
He told them, "I think I'll dress up as a Mexican… "
"But you ARE a Mexican?!" they said.
"Yeah,… so it'll be easy."
The cartridge belts made refilling his Camelback a challenge. However, his sombrero turned out to be an effective shade against the sun.
We also met and ran along with George Velasco.
The three of us began speaking about the Marathon des Sables, a 6 day stage race across the Saharan desert in Morocco. During the race, participants must carry all food and supplies on backpacks, the organizers supply water and tents. It is the most well-known stage race in the world and one of the toughest.
I have already wondered about trying Marathon des Sables or some other international stage race. Could I ever do one of these?
Both George and Steve have already run the Marathon des Sables. Speaking with them has really inspired me. I wouldn't consider this for several years, but perhaps I might someday.
Hmmm… I wonder whom I might be able to convince to try this with me as a team?
The Javelina Jundred consists of 6 "washing machine" loops back and forth on the 15.3 mile Pemberton Trail plus a 7th loop of 9 miles on the Tonto Tank Trail. The Pemberton Trail is named after a rancher who settled in the area in 1918. The trail is a single track that goes over rocky hills and through sandy arroyos.
Despite the sign, the trails didn't close at sunset for us!
There were three aid stations: Coyote Camp, Jackass Junction and Javelina Jeadquarters at the start and finish of each loop. There was the usual ultramarathon food including bananas, orange slices, boiled potatoes, pretzels, peanut butter jelly sandwiches, turkey cheese sandwiches, chicken noodle soup, and bean burritos.
Later on they had sub sandwiches, hamburgers and pizza!
I followed ultrarunner friend Dave Elsbernd's advice to carry a ziplock to put extras in to munch on between aid stations. I turned my fanny pack forward so I would have easy access. I also made sure to take in gels or sports beans between real food, my goal was about 100- 300 calories per hour. That seemed to do the trick.
I did not want to repeat the same mistake that resulted in my DNF at Lean Horse.
As for fluids, I carried water in my Camelback and sports drink in a bottle. That way I had more precise control over my fluid intake. During hot dry races as this one, I try to drink more water along with SUCCEED! electrolyte caps and less sports drink. I also consume plain water after taking an energy gel.
They offered Gatorade, water and SUCCEED Ultra sports drink at the aid stations. I mixed my own SUCCEED Amino, designed for longer races but occasionally filled my bottle with the Ultra instead. I have learned that I can tolerate sports drink better if I alternate between types and flavors.
I avoided the Gatorade entirely. It has too much fructose which can sometimes cause GI problems during extreme endurance activity.
I had lived in Tucson some years ago and enjoyed being back in the Sonoran desert again.
The desert flora are fascinating although painful to the touch. The large majestic saguaro cacti stand out but the less obvious plants are beautiful too. If you are observant, you can occasionally see small cacti hidden like Easter eggs among the rocks and brush.
The above field of cholla glowed in the moonlight that night. I wish there would have been some way to capture that effect in a photo.
The Jumping Cholla or Cylindropuntia fulgida gets its name from the habit of pieces attaching themselves to you at the lightest touch. If you are not careful, an entire section of plant will fall upon you when touched. Ouch!
Getting stuck to desert wildlife and occasional humans is a method of dispersal for the plant. Each piece can become a new plant. See all the bits of stem lying on the ground around the mother cactus in the photo above. Some have already taken root and are starting to grow as new baby plants.
I was feeling good before I started my third loop. I had been eating and drinking and my stomach felt OK. I wore a Kafka cool tie on my neck and put ice under my hat at every aid station. Usually the ice lasts almost to the next aid station but it was getting so hot, it melted within only a couple of miles.
I was very pleased with our pace. We were averaging about a 16 min/mile (including stops for eating, rest and potty breaks). To finish before the 30 hour cut off, we would need to average 18 min/mile. A 15 min/mile pace would be a 25 hour finish, much too fast for me. My goal was between 28 – 30 hours.
I didn't wear a costume but I did bring my small Native American pocket flute in A minor. It is tiny, light and pocket sized. Most important, it does not take any more breath to play than talking. I played it off and on during the run and to entertain the volunteers at the aid stations. I received lots of positive feedback about my flute playing… some folks even video taped me.
One problem I discovered: sticky energy gel does not mix well with musical instruments. At one point, it clogged the flute. I had to flush it with water before I could play again.
If I ever come back to Javelina Jundred, maybe I should dress up as the hunch-backed, flute playing Kokopelli?
Even if I don't, I think I will make a habit of carrying a flute with me during future ultras. Hey, I've seen stranger things,…. including that guy breaking the world "joggling" record at the Chicago Lakefront 50 mile in '07.
Pancho Villa (Steve) was having foot issues and needed to retape so I ventured on ahead.
I was feeling OK but the heat was starting to get to me. The temperatures were not that high, only in the mid-80s. However, I had not been exposed to such temperature since August. We had a blizzard in South Dakota last week. They got four feet of snow just to the north of us.
"What the heck am I doing out here in the desert!" I thought.
I kept up my fluid intake (or so I thought) but my stomach felt a little queasy. Just then George came by and asked how I was doing. He was worried that I might be having some electrolyte issues by my posture. I had already been contemplating taking an extra SUCCEED! electrolyte tab. After hearing his comment, I took one along with some more water. I also ate a small peice of bread from remnants of a sub sandwich to hopefully help the queasiness.
I caught a glimpse of the fountain plume in the distance. The tip of the water spout rose above the horizon like a desert mirage. At that moment, I would have given anything to stand beneath it and be soaked.
"Aaahh cool water…" I thought.
Unfortunately, my GI issues got worse. Within 20 minutes, my head was spinning and my stomach cramping. By this time, Steve had caught up with me. I had to make a pit stop at the bathroom facilities at Coyote Camp. They advised us at the pre-race meeting to use these facilities only in an absolute emergency, as it is basically a bucket sitting in a tent. They were right about how primitive the facilities were… but this was an emergency.
My lower GI cramping went away but the nausea persisted. Steve wished me well and pressed on.
By then the sun was setting and the temperature falling. I hoped that my symptoms would abate. They did not. The orange setting sun must have been very beautiful over the mountains but at that point I didn't care.
Finally I couldn't take it anymore and vomited next to a cactus. A piece of bread got stuck in the back of my nose and my throat burned from the acid.
Many times emptying your stomach contents is enough to settle your stomach. Of course, if you do, you need to replace those fluid losses soon or you will run into trouble quickly. I knew this so I walked slowly while sipping on small amounts of water.
I threw up again but nothing came up. At least some of those tiny sips of water must have been absorbed. Still, it was nowhere near enough. My mouth was like foul dry cotton and I was getting light headed. I was dehydrated. I had not peed for three hours now and usually try to pee no less than every one or two hours.
I was in serious trouble and I knew it.
I continued to dry heave for at least 20 minutes. So much so that my abdominal muscles hurt. Other runners passed by and offered me support,… even the water from their bottles. Many of them had been there before. They all encouraged me to not to give up.
I found some ginger in my pack and sucked on a bit of that. That helped. It took away the foul taste in my mouth immediately. The nausea came under control at least enough for me to start sipping water again.
The sun set completely and the temps dropped further. I was moving so slowly that I started to get chilled. But when I tried to jog my stomach refused to have any part of it. I slowly shuffled the two remaining miles to the Jackass Junction Aid Station around mile 40.
"If only I can make it there, I will drop no matter what," I promised myself.
The aid station volunteers had already heard of my predicament from word passed on by other runners. They were ready for me. They put a blanket over my shoulders and sat me down in front of a propane heater.
One of the volunteers was an EMT with a British accent who had spent time in Africa at the refugee camps. He gave me a cup of ORS (Oral Rehydration Solution). It tasted horrible but sometimes what is good for you doesn't always taste good. ORS is almost equivalent to IV fluids. It is used in situations in third world countries where IV fluids are needed but not available.
I sat and sipped the ORS. Slowly I became warm and the nausea disappeared. I lost count with how many runners came up, patted me on the back and offered encouragement. "Don't give up! You still have time!" "You can do it!" "It's all mental."
After five cups of ORS and one of plain water, the EMT volunteer threatened to check a rectal temperature on me unless I urinated.
Less than five minutes later I got up, walked behind the tent and dutifully followed his orders. I peed the most beautiful light golden pee. It had been almost five hours since I had peed last. I proudly informed all the volunteers and runners who were present of the nature and quantity of my urine. They all grinned. Many of them had been there before too.
I was back to being human again!
I ate a few pretzels to help keep my stomach settled. I had lost an hour by sitting and rehydrating but it was the correct decision. I turned on my headlamp and played a tune on my flute as I left the aid station.
As I jogged the five miles down to Javelina Jeadquarters, I debated in my mind whether I should stop as I had promised myself or try another loop.
"Let's see how I feel when I get to Javelina Jeadquarters," I thought, "I feel pretty darn good right now."
The moon was starting to rise and the stars flickered overhead. In the distance, coyotes yipped and howled. The moon was starting to creep over the horizon. Playing my flute seemed the natural thing to do. As other runners came toward me in the opposite direction, they thanked me for sharing the music with them.
I couldn't believe how I went from feeling as if I was going to die to almost back to normal and playing my flute. The situation had seemed so utterly hopeless only an hour ago.
As I appoached a road that the trail crossed, I noticed a pickup truck with some people with flashlights standing beside it.
They asked, "Are you number 267?"
I replied, "Yes, I sure am!"
"How're you doing?"
"I feel fine!"
"Great! They told us to come out and check on you to make sure. Good luck!"
At Javelina Jeadquarters aid station (mile 45), I checked in and drank some SUCCEED ultra. Although I was no longer dehydrated or nauseated, I was worried about my caloric status. I most certainly had fallen behind over the last few hours of rehydrating. I ate a half-piece of pizza and put the other half in my pack for later. I also sipped a cup of chicken noodle soup that was mostly noodle moist with broth. The hamburgers smelled really good but I decided to not to push my luck.
I changed into a clean shirt and shorts and was surprised to see that I had some severe chafing in personal areas. I was actually bleeding and didn't realize it. The Body Glide didn't seem to be working. I applied some Hydropel liberally instead which seemed to work better and relieve the pain. I'm glad I had some in my foot care box.
I looked at the time. I was far behind pace. To come back from my hour spent rehydrating would require a miracle.I realized that there was no way for me to make the full 100 miles before the cut off time of 30 hours, even if everything went better than expected for the rest of the night.
I considered my options. If I ran at least one more loop, I could opt for a 100-k finish. Although I really had wanted to go 100 miles tonight, that was now impossible. 62+ miles is nothing to be ashamed of. I would even get a 100-k buckle for my efforts.
I decided to go for it.
I left the aid station at a slow jog. The moon was now bright enough that I could see without my headlamp so I turned it off. I love running at night with only the moon and stars to light my way.
I thought saw a meteor… then I most definitely saw a second and third! The Leonid meteor shower is not to start until Monday. It looks like a few came early.
Suddenly, I heard something moving in the brush only a few feet away. I turned on my headlamp and instantly saw two bright eyes staring back at me. It was a coyote! He looked at me for only a few moments before running away in the darkness.
I pulled out my flute and started playing. To my surprise, he came back! He stared at me intently about 20 feet away.
I played for a few minutes and then another runner came by. He couldn't believe what he was seeing and neither could I. After a few minutes, I had to move on. I turned off my headlamp and left the coyote alone in the darkness.
In Native American mythology, the coyote is a trickster figure, sometimes even a messenger from the Creator himself. I didn't know what to make of our meeting. It certainly was unexpected for the coyote to come back and listen to my flute-playing unafraid all while I was shining the bright light of my headlamp on him.
I considered seeing that coyote to be my reward for not giving up and deciding to run another loop. No matter how the rest of the night went, I was grateful I hadn't given up.
As I jogged on, I was reminded of a Navajo Chant I had read recently:
In beauty, I run
To the direction of the rising sun
In beauty, I run
To the direction traveling with the sun
In beauty, I run
To the direction of the setting sun
In beauty, I run
All around me, my land is beauty
In beauty, I run."
I thought about my options. Even if I wouldn't be able to go 100 miles, could I do a 5th or even 6th loop? I decided not to think about it too much. Instead, I would take each moment, good or bad, as it came.
As I arrived back at the Jackass Junction aid station, I was greeted by cheers from the aid station volunteers who had taken care of me during my time of need. They weren't sure if I'd be back. One even told me that I was now his "hero" for not giving up, despite how completely hopeless and dismal the situation had seemed earlier.
I said, "Thanks but no… y'all are MY heroes!"
He told me,"You'll tell stories about this… about how you didn't give up! You will, I promise you!"
I refilled my bottle and ate some food. I thanked them again for everything they had done. "I hope I get to see you again later!" I told them.
Then I headed alone back out into the darkness.
About half way to Coyote Camp aid station, my feet started hurting. I was my plantar fascia. I had dealt with plantar fasciitis in the past. It was never more than an annoyance that could not be run through. This was different. The pain was excrutiating. It felt as if my insoles and arch supports had been removed and replaced with pads of cholla cactus.
I could bear the pain enough to run on the smooth flat firmly packed sections of the trail, but it slowed me to a walk on all uphills, downhills, rocky and sandy sections. Unfortunately for me, 95% of this part of the trail was not smooth, firm or flat.
I arrived at the Coyote Camp and enjoyed some more soup as well as a quarter of a peanut butter sandwich. The elite were already coming through to run their final 9 mile section. Despite how far ahead of me they were, they still told me "Lookin' good!"
I replied with as cheerful "You're lookin' great too… thanks!" as I could muster. I tried to not let the pain I was experiencing come through in my words.
That is one of the most amazing things about ultramarathons. The front runners still take the time to cheer on and encourage all the rest of us. They realize that in ultramarathons, nothing is a given. On another day, they could be out there suffering too. This is completely unlike shorter races where the elite rarely if ever take the time to socialize with, or even acknowledge the presence of, us ordinary folks.
Ultramarathons are unique. Unlike many other sports, we get the opportunity to be around the elite of the sport. For example, if one's sport is a golf, the odds of ever meeting or playing on the same course at the same time as Tiger Woods is extremely remote. It is not this way with ultramarathoning. We all run the same course together. Sometimes the only view of the elite we get is a few seconds as they glide effortlessly pass us.
Nevertheless, we are all out there together, each dealing with his or her personal limitations and demons in their own way.
I came in to the Javelina Jeadquarters slowly and tenderly. It had been 20:49:24 since I had started the previous morning.
I considered my options: I could stop now and get a 100-kilometer finisher's belt buckle- or- I could try for one more loop and still get that same 100-k finisher's buckle.
If I decided to try another loop, that would mean commiting myself to another 15.3 miles of suffering. I had no pacer. Thus, if I ran into trouble, I would be alone. My plantar fascia and chafing were excrutiatingly painful, the chafed areas continued to bleed. This meant that my gait would be more of a shuffle-waddle than a jog-walk.
I had never had serious plantar fascial problems before but have heard of other runners battling plantar fasciitis for months or even years. After dealing with ITB issues in the past for almost two years, I didn't want to end up dealing with another long term chronic injury again due to trying to be tough and run through the pain tonight.
"This is only one race, there will be many more… don't be stupid!" I thought.
After thinking about this for a while, I opted to stop. I was pleased with my recovery from the afternoon but decided it would be smarter to not press my luck. The only reason to do another loop would only be to prove something to myself. I already had proven a great deal by simply not giving up earlier when the situation seemed so dismal.
George finished four loops for a 100-k finish in 23:47:21. He gave me his email and some more info about the Marathon des Sables.
Steve pressed on but unfortunately missed the 28 hour cut-off to start the 7th and final loop by only 14 minutes. He had gone 91 miles in 28:14:37. It was a bummer to not be allowed to go the entire 100 miles but the time and distance he did go is something he should be very proud of.
Even though he had the best costume on he course, hands down, the rules state that one must go the entire 100 miles in the costume to be eligible to win. The organizers feld bad and wanted to give him something so they gave him the "best ass" award instead.
The last few days I have been enjoying replacing my caloric deficit. I have worn my finisher's buckle to the office every day, even though it doesn't exactly go very well with usual business attire. I have also appreciated being able to urinate. Crystal clear urine is a beautiful thing which should never be taken for granted.
So what went wrong?
More than likely, it was the heat that got to me. It had been months since I had run in such temperature and I was no longer acclimated to heat. I had thought I was hydrating adequately, but the dry heat of the desert can be deceiving. Had I realized this sooner, there would have been a chance I could have come back. However, once the GI issues began and I couldn't keep anything in my stomach, it was too late. I had no choice but to stop, rehydrate and recover.
Rather than focusing on what went wrong, I am also going to remember what went right. My preventive foot taping worked perfectly: no blisters. My nutritional intake was according to plan… carrying a zip lock of goodies to eat between aid station was a good idea. My pace was perfect, at least until the vomiting began. I will definitely keep some ORS in my drop bags.
2008 has been a great year for me from the standpoint of my running. This year, I've participated in five ultramarathons: Greenland Trail 50-k, Kettle-Moraine 100-k, 24 hours at Laramie, Lean Horse Hundred, and the Javelina Jundred, plus two regular-length marathons as training runs. I've learned more about myself than I ever thought possible.
It still amazes and humbles me to think about how far I've come; only a short five years ago I was so out of shape I could barely run a 1/2 mile.
What the human body can do with a little training, time and dedication is incredible. There is hope for everyone, even the most out of shape and sedentary couch potato. The most important lesson of running ultramarathons can be applied to everyone, no matter if you run 5-k or 100 miles or if you are even a runner at all:
"Do not give up… do not ever give up… keep on going."
With dedication and persistence, we can all go far. I am not only talking about miles traveled on a trail.
For now, I will enjoy a few weeks off from running entirely. The line between being well-trained and injured is a fine one. There is a time for everything, including rest and recuperation and time with family and loved ones.
In the greatest ultramarathon of all, life, it is essential for us to find this balance.
Run on friends, run on…