The trail gods were angry with me and decided to punish me with Los Pinos.
I knew this would be a tough race, and that’s what initially attracted me. It was rumored to be much harder than Noble Canyon 50K, and I had done well at Noble. So I thought I was ready for a harder challenge.
I thought wrong.
It started going downhill before the race even began. We had been doing a 30-day Paleo challenge that ended on October 20th. The race was on the 22nd, so we thought about keeping up the diet until then. Instead, we went ahead and indulged in crappy carbs for two days pre-race. I chalked it up to carb loading, ignoring the fact that I had never actually carb loaded before a race and eating shitty bar food probably didn’t count.
I loved the way I felt on Paleo, so it was hard to imagine at the time that I wouldn’t feel amazing during the race. On Paleo, I felt strong and energetic. But two miles into the race, I knew I was in trouble. And I knew it was because my body wasn’t processing the processed carbs.
That was my first mistake.
We decided to stay in a hotel the night before the race so we’d be closer to the start. I meticulously packed everything into my race bag. I remembered my toothbrush, my socks and my handheld water bottle. On race day morning I pulled on all my clothes and slipped on my injinjis, but something was missing.
My shoes were still neatly packed… at home.
Enter wave of panic.
I had no shoes. I didn’t even have my huaraches. I had literally nothing to wear on my feet. And this was not a barefoot-friendly race.
Because this was such a tough course, none of my female trail running buddies had registered for it, so there was nobody I could borrow shoes from. Shacky had an extra pair of shoes in his car—a men’s pair of Neo Trails, about three inches too long for me. And that was it.
I was determined to run this race, so I slipped on my new clown shoes and took a deep breath. I decided that I’d run this ultra in enormous men’s shoes, or I would die trying.
And die I almost did.
We got to the race early. The volunteers were still setting up, so we chatted with Carl and Shacky told him my shoe story. Carl asked if it was ok to make fun of me, so I knew he had his priorities straight. Trail runners are awesome like that.
Carl also suggested I stuff the end of the shoes with paper. I think he was joking, but it actually ended up being a great idea. I stuffed toilet paper in the 3-inch gap between my toes and the ends of the shoes. Feeling the toilet paper gave me the illusion of having the shoes actually fit. So instead of feeling AND looking like a freak, I only looked like one. I was ok with that.
A few minutes before race start, I felt a tap on my shoulder and someone said, “Vanessa?” I turned around to find myself staring at Michelle Barton. I immediately turned into a dummy. I had no idea what to say and how the hell did she know my name??
Michelle is my hero, I love everything about her. I love her clothes, her hair, and how she wins almost everything she runs. I’ve never been star struck before and I still have no idea how she knew my name. She knew Shacky’s name too, which didn’t surprise me as much. Then Shacky suggested a picture while I just stood there like an idiot.
The pre-race pep talk wasn’t very peppy at all. It basically consisted of the race director Keira begging everyone to be cautious and trying to convince people to drop out before the hill. She warned us strongly about running out of water on the climb and stated frankly that if it happened to us, “You’ll die.” I was pretty sure she was exaggerating. Or joking.
Hours later, I’d be collapsed on the side of the trail praying for death to come.
THE FIRST THREE MILES
I started off too fast.
I don’t know if it was nerves, or if I was just trying to keep up with the mob. But it was too fast, too soon and it set me up for failure.
This was a small race—less than 100 people started, and most of those seemed to be elite runners. The first small stretch was on pavement and there was a very small incline in the road. By the time I got to the end of the road, I was already out of breath and less than one mile in. I knew then that I was in trouble.
My feet hit the trail and immediately I felt better. I’m not a road runner. My heart drops whenever my feet are on pavement, but trails seem to simulate flying for me. So I kept up the faster pace, and that was a mistake. I couldn’t get my heart rate down and I knew I was headed for disaster if I didn’t relax. So early into the race, I walked.
It took a bit of walking before my heart got back down to its normal beating. In the meantime, we were passed. A lot. And just like that, I was in last place.
That’s where I would stay for a very long time.
About three miles in, Shacky suddenly stopped and ripped off his hydration pack.
“What’s the matter?!” I asked. Then I felt it. The most painful stab I have ever experienced. A hornet sting on my finger.
I screamed a curse and grabbed my hand. Then immediately felt another. On my belly. Shacky got two more on his back milliseconds later. It was an ambush.
“RUN!” Shacky yelled. And we did. Fast.
We never saw the hornets, but we sure as hell felt the multiple stings. They were coming hard and continuously. A few meters away, we tried to stop to assess the damage, and got bitten again. So we ran as fast as we could until we were sure everything was clear.
I was bleeding from my belly and my finger was starting to swell up. I thought about how horrifying it would be if I turned out to be allergic, but there was nothing we could do other than try to get to the next aid station as fast as possible. I was in so much pain.
It turned out that the runner in front of us got stung five times on his head. The runner behind us got some bites on the back of his knee. Nobody came out of that trail unscathed. I couldn’t stop swearing.
GETTING TO THE FIRST AID STATION
The first aid stop seemed like a million miles away. I couldn’t find my groove even though it was all downhill. I felt miserably sluggish and I was burping bar food nachos. Pain from the stings seemed to shoot through my whole body.
I thought about how crappy my nutrition had been over the past two days, and I wanted to kick myself. I had messed up. And I wanted to quit.
LAZY W AID STATION
Both Shacky and I seriously contemplated dropping out at this aid station. It was only the first station, but right at the bottom of the famous 8-mile climb and we were hurting from the bites. Neither of us felt good and we were warned by the race director to not attempt this hill if we didn’t think we could finish it. There would be no aid until we got to the top.
Still, I wanted to take it on. I wasn’t sure I wanted to suffer the disgrace of a DNF. Surely I was stronger than this?
Somewhere behind us, Randall was still running. We met Randall on the trail and this was his second attempt at finishing an ultra. He had tried to run Twin Peaks and dropped out. We decided to keep him company at least to the top of the hill and drop out there.
I was very curious about the hill. I wanted to conquer it. Had I know what was coming, I would have sat down at the bottom and called it a day. But I was stubborn. My heart said GO, but my legs said “We will make you suffer a pain you have never known if you make us go through with this.”
They kept their promise.
LOS PINOS AKA THE BEAST
In my mind, I envisioned one big uphill trek. How tall could one hill be? How bad was it, really?
But this was not one hill. It was several.
We were less than a mile up when I knew I had made a terrible mistake. We were afraid to go back since we were in last place and were worried the aid station below us had already packed up and headed out. All we had was big hills up ahead.
It wasn’t the distance that broke me down in this race. It wasn’t even the elevation. It was the steepness. The steepness of these inclines was comparable to Stairway to Heaven’s 15K. Hills that I had climbed using my hands. Hills that I had never trained on. And steepness I had never run. It was 8 miles of this.
About a mile later we crossed two girls who were headed back down the hill. They were dropping out. One of them couldn’t stop throwing up and couldn’t keep any water down. We watched them go, and we should have followed. But we didn’t.
Looking at the elevation profile before the race, we initially thought that we might be able to recover on the downhills before climbing to the next peak. But that wasn’t possible.
First of all, the downhills felt like they were about 15 seconds long, whereas the uphills could last hours. Secondly, the terrain on the downhills was loose rocks, which meant that instead of running them, I was too busy trying not to fall on my ass. Inching along slower than walking pace.
As soon as we’d reach a peak, we were greeted by wonderful views of three or four more peaks that we’d also have to climb. I tried to take pictures because I knew that although I couldn’t appreciate the breathtaking sights in the moment, I might appreciate them later. As far as I could see, there was only mountain. No sign of relief. No sign of an end.
The race director warned everyone to go up with a hydration pack and at least one handheld. We had packs and handhelds, but we still ran out of water. It was about 90 degrees and we were climbing at 12-2pm. There was no shade. There was no place to sit.
Several times, Shacky would sit on a prickly bush and I’d literally collapse right in the middle of the single track trail, sprawled out with rocks up my bum and flies landing on my face. I blocked the path, but it didn’t matter because I was in last place. I was cut from the sharp bushes and bleeding from my legs and arms. My hornet bites were throbbing. But I was too tired to care.
One of my motivational techniques before this race was to ask myself if there was anywhere else I’d rather be. Before this race, the answer was always no. Los Pinos retired that technique for me. There were a million and one places I wanted to be instead of on those cursed hills, so I didn’t dare ask myself that question.
I endured every discomfort I could think of, at different stages. My head hurt. My stomach hurt. My chest hurt. My belly growled, but I was unable to eat. I was thirsty, but I was low on water. Every once in a while my heart would start racing as soon as I hit a steep hill, even though I wasn’t going fast. I was basically crawling up, so I didn’t know how to keep my heart rate down other than to lie down and sleep.
After a certain point I started to wonder what I would have to do to get air lifted out of those hills. Could I dislocate my shoulder? Bash my skull against a rock? Would that be enough to excuse me from having to move another inch?
I lost all will to continue. I wanted to die. I wanted to cry so badly but was too proud. So I just ended up with a painful lump in my throat.
My irritation seemed to build with every step. What were we doing here? WHY was there even a trail here?? There should NOT be a trail here dammit. And what sort of sick person made a race out of this hill?? It wasn’t fair to expect people to climb this with no aid. Not everyone was an elite. People could actually die out here. This isn’t even running. This is tortured hiking. This is just wrong.
A few miles up, we came across a kind mountain biker and Shacky had the energy and foresight to beg him for water. He didn’t have much, but he gave us some. Every time I lay down, I felt like I might never get back up. But Shacky kept prodding me along and if it weren’t for him I’d probably still be lying there right now.
Then Carl ran down to us with water. They had been worried at the aid station when they didn’t see us coming. We were on that hill for hours. I have never been so happy to see Carl in my life. He filled up our handhelds and promised that we were close. And so we continued.
THE AID STATION
By the time we pulled into the next aid station, we had 15 minutes to run 11 miles and make the cutoff. There was just no freaking way we’d make it.
I was so exhausted and suddenly I could not stop eating. The aid station was already packing up and getting ready to go. I managed to eat:
- One whole orange
- Several potatoes with salt
- Drank one entire coke can
On the hill, I couldn’t eat. Whenever I tried, my stomach would start hurting, even though it was growling the rest of the time. I had never been so happy to see food at an aid station. And I had never at any race been so hungry.
CROSSING THE FINISH
Although we had planned to get a ride to the start line from the last aid station, Shacky chugged a Rockstar and suggested we run two miles to the finish. I didn’t feel like I had another step in me, but wasn’t about to get left behind. So I ran on fumes to the end.
Shacky looked like he could have finished the entire 50k and I felt lucky to be running with someone who could make me push further than what I thought I had in me. He waited for me in those last 2 miles when I had to stop and walk again.
We crossed the finish line uneventfully. Part of me felt like I had failed but at the same time I knew I had done the best I could… and then some.
The race director Keira was glad to see us. She said that because we had climbed Los Pinos we still got a medal, and we qualified for the 30K category, which I believe was invented because so many people failed to finish.
This is the last year Keira is putting on this race. She said it was because the course was just too rough, and she worries about everyone out there. She explained how she tries every year to stress how hard it is. She begs people to head up there with enough water and not to attempt it as their first ultra. But people still do, and they still run out of water. She felt she couldn’t provide for them on that hill. It was just too brutal.
Everything people say about this climb is true. It can and will destroy you. It will completely break your will. On that hill, Shacky and I swore that we would never run it again. I even thought about taking up some other sport.
At the finish line, I ate like a beast. Sandwiches. Cookies. Another orange. I ate on the car ride home, and then we went out to eat some more.
On this race, both Shacky and I were testing INKnBURN gear. I have a lot more to say about this company, so I’ll be reporting on them in a separate post. For now I will say that I’m very impressed with their products.
IT’S GOOD TO HAVE FRIENDS
I’m pretty sure I would never had made it out of that hill without Shacky’s prodding, so I think that deserves a special call out. I didn’t want to move for over half the climb, but having him ahead of me gave me someone to mindlessly follow. As long as I could see him out in front, I had hope of seeing civilization again.
Whenever we stopped, he listened to my breathing and told me when it was time to keep moving. He found a stick for me that I could use as a trekking pole when I was grasping at rocks with my bare hands. He begged that mountain biker for extra water for me. And he made me run those last two miles.
So many people run these races alone and face their demons one-on-one. I’m beyond lucky to have someone stronger than me watching my back and willing to sacrifice his own race if necessary to drag my ass to the finish line.
Three days later, we’re planning our hill training so we can conquer the beast of Los Pinos. I love how ultra running does that to you. Flips defeat into determination.
Before this race, I was driven by curiosity as to what my limit was. Now it has stood in front of me and punched me in the stomach repeatedly. But there’s a great relief in finally seeing your enemy’s ugly face. Because now I know what to conquer. I know what my goal is.
I might have run this race out of ignorance, but I’m proud that I was brave enough to attempt it. I shared the trail with some of my elite ultra running heroes, like Michelle Barton. I’m proud to say I collapsed on the same trail where she ran, in a race that was way out of my league.
Michelle and I both wore the same INKnBURN design, only she was first girl and I was last. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m getting better. That maybe someday I’ll be running that hill, minutes behind Michelle, chuckling at the time when it almost made me cry.
All I remember now is that I had the balls to try it. That I faced the beast and somehow survived. That I can regroup and try it again.
After all, an ultra runner who had never missed a cutoff is surely an ultra runner who had never truly challenged themselves.