The Chimera of Greek mythology is a ferocious, fire-breathing beast made up of part lion, part serpent, and part goat. She is a terror, but also swift-footed and strong. She sprints the mountain trails of this course, devouring runners and claiming her victims one DNF at a time. On this race of incessant climbs and quad-shredding descents, you have only two choices:
Fall prey to the Beast. Or run at her side.
When I first signed up for Chimera, I knew this race was out of my league. But I knew that if I trained hard, I had a chance of finishing. And if I didn’t, at least I challenged myself and hopefully learned something.
For a few weeks, I approached Chimera with a “race that I will try” mentality. But the Beast smells fear from miles away, so I knew I had to change my mindset. I adopted a new approach:
- Do or do not. There is no try.
- You don’t have to be fast, but you better be fearless.
- Are you a Mexi-CAN or a Mexi-CAN’T??!
I would finish this race no matter how bloodied or broken. Quitting was not an option. This is the story of how I survived.
When I ran Javelina 100 at the end of October, I overheard a runner encourage another by saying, “It’s only one 50K in the morning, one in the afternoon, one at night, and then a short 10-mile loop.” That made sense to me, so for Chimera I broke down the race into three parts:
- The first 50K I would run as the Serpent.
- For the next 50K I would be the Goat.
- And in the final push I would be Lion.
“I don’t know about tomorrow. I just live from day to day. I don’t borrow from its sunshine, for its skies may turn to grey.” – I Know Who Holds Tomorrow
The serpent is one of the oldest symbols in mythology. One of the first things I ever learned was the Biblical story of Adam and Eve falling prey to the crafty serpent. The serpent is shrewd and cunning. And that’s what I need to be early in this race.
I remembered a Bible verse I had learned in my childhood from Matthew 10:16: “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”
Strategy in a 100-miler is everything. The key is to hold back as much as possible and preserve your body. I did this by keeping my body loose, slowing down, and not bombing any downhills. I made sure I never felt like I was exerting myself or breathing heavily. In fact, the first time I actually pushed myself to run was at mile 70+, when the sun came out on Sunday morning.
I love downhill running on single track, so I really had to make an effort to slow down and not fly these sections. I knew that I would need my quads later on. Tons of people passed me early in the race as well, and on every out and back I noticed that there were less and less people behind me. I was in the back of the pack.
“To some it’s the strength to be apart. To some it’s a feeling in the heart. And when you’re out there on your own, it’s the way back home.” – Katie Melua
Before I left for Chimera, I posted on my Facebook status: How can a goat be afraid of the mountain? It is his home.
That’s how I felt going into this race. I had no jitters–just excitement. This would be my first mountain 100, and although I had never run this far in the mountains, I knew I belonged in the clouds.
As Sarah Duffy points out on the Chimera Facebook page: “The course description includes 16 different terms for UP.” Some include:
- Steep Up
- VERY Up
- Decomposed Granite Up
- Truck Trail Up
- Uphill Danger
- Rolling Up
- Generally Good Footing Uphill
There are also 15 different terms for DOWN:
- Steep Technical Down
- DANGER Down
- Rolling Down
- Very Rocky Downhill
- Short Rocky Down
- Slight Down Rocky
Sarah continues: “It was a purely physical challenge. I finished a climb and there was another one. I got to the bottom and I had to turn around and go back up. I rounded the bend and the hill continued on. I am still overwhelmed by the sheer physical demand of all that climbing, but I’ll recover happily knowing the monstrous fire-breathing creature didn’t eat me alive.”
Fabrice Hardel won Chimera this year with a mind-blowing time of 16:52:06. He broke the course record from last year (which was also his). After Cuyamaca 100K, Fabrice gave me the following advice for Chimera: Find the steepest hill you can and run up and down, over and over again.
He was dead on.
I channeled my inner goat and embraced these climbs. Rather than seeing them as something outside of me that I must conquer, I imagined myself playing in my own living room. The hills were not strange, nor foreign. They were a part of who I was. They were hard, relentless, and beautiful. Just like me. I tried to remember that I wanted to be here. Even if there were no race, no buckle, no accolades. I would still want to run.
Positivity was crucial. This I learned at Javelina, and made sure my mind was clear and positive the entire distance. To me this means not allowing myself to get caught up in the stress of the race. I don’t allow myself to think of the cutoffs. I don’t wear a watch so I can’t stress over my pace, and I eat consistently. When I’m having a dip, I stop and mentally address it.
Something like this:
- I’m feeling grouchy right now because I haven’t eaten enough. I will stop and eat at the next aid station.
- I’m feeling worried right now because I don’t think I will make the cutoff. I have plenty of time.
Stress can lead to physical pain if I don’t put a stop to it. It’s a wave of desperation and exhaustion that hits all at once and makes everything suck. With every race I do, I’m learning to control it more and more.
Sidenote: My inexperience as a 100-mile runner showed when I realized at the end of the race that I pretty much missed all the hot food. I heard there were burgers, quesadillas, and pizza, none of which I saw. I was told I was supposed to ask for it. Oops.
I had also mistakenly assumed that most of the course would be single track. When I realized it was a lot more fire road (where cars could drive), I switched into my Hokas the first chance I got at mile 50, and they truly saved my feet out there.
Coming from a background of minimalist running, this was my first time racing in Hokas and by far my longest run in anything this supportive. What I found with the Hokas was that I could run more of the course with minimal pounding on my feet. My form didn’t change–I was still running light and my feet still felt strong from the minimalist training. But they gave me a break as far as watching all my footfalls late into the night. I also had to do less jitterbugging with my legs (especially downhill) in an effort to maneuver around any rocks that might trash my feet.
Although I love my minimalist shoes, I can’t deny that I owe much of this race to my Hokas. My feet after the race were immaculate. There was no blistering. No broken skin. No swelling. I almost feel that my minimalist training combined with using Hokas to bring it home created a perfect storm. I had all the benefits of minimalism, combined with the benefits of protection.
The biggest criticism I hear about Hokas from the minimalist viewpoint is that there is little flexibility at the ankle. So if you step on a rock, your ankle is more likely to roll. This wasn’t an issue at Chimera since the rocks were not the trickiest I’ve maneuvered. It was more straightforward terrain than what I have been training on, so by keeping my form light, I avoided any ankle issues.
The more I run, the more I realize that success has very little to do with what brand of shoes you wear, and so much more to do with specific terrain, combined with personal preference. Hokas might have felt terrible on another course. On this course, my minimalist shoes felt terrible, although I’ve had great success with them at other races.
In the meantime, my good friend Patrick Sweeney ran the entire thing in Luna sandals. He signed up the day before, with zero training, and came in 8th place. To me, that goes back to show how irrelevant footwear can be. All that matters is what feels good to YOU.
I also feel that 100-milers are an exception. When you’re talking shoes with someone, they’re probably not planning to run 100 miles in the pair they rave about. Distance can really change your perspective on things like this. The Hokas worked for me, and I always vote for whatever works in the moment. Right now I’m seeing some value in training minimalist and running the later miles of a 100 in Hokas. But I’ll keep experimenting.
I also brought my iPod to help me out in case I needed a push through the night or in the later miles. That helped me at Cuyamaca 100K, as well as Javelina. I even had a backup iPod in case my battery died. While the iPods worked, my headphones busted early on, so my music was useless. I’m sort of glad that happened because I still really enjoyed myself and now I know that it’s not the end of the world if I don’t have an iPod or an audio book with me.
I learned that I really enjoy the solitude and silence of being out on the trail. I’m very comfortable with the passing of the hours, with no distractions and only the shuffling of my own feet to accompany me.
“If you fall, pick yourself up off the floor. And when your bones can’t take no more, just remember what you’re here for.” – Gym Class Heroes
Having “preserved my body” for the first 60 miles, it was now time for beast mode. I pulled into an aid station about 30 minutes before sunrise, and was informed of a new danger:
“Do you have a pacer?” a volunteer asked.
“We recommend that people run with pacers, because there is a mountain lion from here to the next aid station.”
I still didn’t have a pacer.
I remembered my mountain lion encounter at the Grand Canyon and decided it would be best to avoid this new obstacle. I tried shining my light into the bushes where the lion might be hiding, but that was useless. My light was only strong enough to illuminate my next few steps, so I wouldn’t see any mountain lions until they were on top of me.
Instead, I decided to sing loudly to the lion. Surely my terrible singing voice would terrify him and send him fleeing into the mountains. It must have worked because the sun came up and I never saw any other lion besides myself.
As soon as the sun rose, I started running. I ran into the Indian Truck Trail aid station, and was greeted warmly by what looked like all my friends!
I was thrilled to see Trasie, Elizabeth, Julius, and Trisha, among others. They were so eager to help and I got star treatment. I also had a cup of the most delicious homemade butternut squash (vegan) soup with avocado. It was my first time seeing any hot food vegan options, and I was immediately energized. Refueled, I ran the seven miles down Indian Truck Trail to meet my pacer Holly.
At the bottom of ITT, I changed my socks, got into some dry clothes, re-taped my foot (preventative), and grabbed some gaiters. It was such a relief to see Shacky again. The last time I had seen him was at mile 20, after the first single track loop. The day before.
Even Ginger and Momma Cat came out to say hello. Ginger licked all the salt off my face while Kitty demanded to know why she had not been recently petted. I gave her a quick pet, but I couldn’t stay long–we still had a lot of climbing left, and I started hiking back up the hill with Holly.
It has been said of Chimera that “even the downhills feel like uphills,” and that is certainly true in the last 10 miles especially. As soon as you hit a downhill stretch, you realize that you have no quads left. Thankfully, I had worked so hard to preserve mine, that I had some leeway to run or at least walk comfortably downhill.
I was in such high spirits chatting with Holly. The mountains were beautiful, we were moving through the clouds, and Shacky had packed me a large ziplock bag full of watermelon, apples, avocado, and grapes. We also picked up some clementines at Trasie’s aid station. I almost ate the entire fruit bag.
It’s impossible for me to be sad on the mountain. I’ve been in San Diego for a year now, but I still feel like a tourist when I run at these spectacular elevations. It never gets old.
The downhill stretches were tricky because they were so steep that it was harder to walk them than to run. But running this late in the race is hard to do as well. There were no comfortable options.
I had to remember that the Lion doesn’t represent comfort. It represents strength and power. And with the blessing of the Chimera She-Beast, I ran it in. As sick as it sounds, I was almost sad to see it end. I was having such a great time with Holly and I knew that stopping would be more uncomfortable than running at this point.
I finished in 31:52:31. I didn’t realize it at the time, but finishers who complete the course under 30 hours get a silver buckle. I’ll be back another year to claim my silver buckle and play in the mountains with my old friend Chimera.
Yes, she is as vicious as they say. She haunts these mountains because she can be herself here: crafty, fearless, and strong. She does share her trails, but only with other beasts.
My recovery is going great. I’m stiff when I sit for too long, but once I’m walking I feel pretty good. I also feel good when I sleep. Ha. I’ve been craving so many fresh fruits and veggies, and I don’t want to look at aid station food for a very long time.
My weight feels about the same, but I have no scale to confirm. I haven’t tried running again–I believe recovery is a crucial part of training. I want to take a really easy week, and hopefully be running again by next weekend. We’re headed to Zion to preview some of the Zion 100 course over Thanksgiving.
I told Holly as we neared the finish that this is the buckle that I will treasure the most, for many reasons. First of all, it’s my first mountain 100. Second of all, it’s the only 100 that I actually trained for. And finally, it was the only race that I seriously believed at the time of registering that I couldn’t finish.
Besides crewing me, Shacky was a huge part of my training. He has been taking me across state lines to the steepest, rockiest mountains to train on. He has given me tons of time and space for long runs, and then longer runs. He has supported me in signing up for races as “training runs”, and has crewed me for those events as well. I could never have done this without him.
Here are some of Shacky’s highlights:
- Hanging out and having a beer with Karl Meltzer the night before the race
- Seeing Fabrice smash the course record
- Seeing Pat Sweeney ape Vanessa by signing up for a hundred at the last minute and bringing home a buckle (8th overall)
- Seeing Wes Edell run his first hundred and finish it in 7th overall
- Being weirded out by the strange church near the aid station I hung out at all night
My pacer made the last 20 miles of this race downright fun. I never once felt sad or sorry for myself. We shared some great conversation, she kept me eating way after I had forgotten, and she wouldn’t let anyone pass us. She even made sure my shirt was on straight (I left the aid station with a backwards shirt). I’m so grateful to her.
Jason Robillard took me under his wing as my coach after I signed up for Chimera months ago. He kept me on track as far as mileage, speed work, and general training. He gave me great advice and I was able to learn quickly. Jason is now organizing a boot camp in San Diego for ultra runners. I would strongly recommend his training style. You can learn more about it here.
Congrats to all the beasts who conquered this epic race!