This past weekend I had the pleasure of running the Flagstaff Sky Race 39K. A few weeks ago I posted about my “training run” to check out this course ahead of time. Well, nothing could have prepared this lowland dweller for what was to come.
Temperatures here in the Valley of the Sun have cooled off, and were feeling pretty good in the 90’s for a couple of weeks leading up to the race. I was concerned when I learned that temperatures in Flagstaff would be starting at around freezing and getting up to around 70. I don’t do cold. So I brought my gloves, a jacket, arm sleeves, and wore long pants and my long socks. I tossed my gear in the back of my Ford Focus along with Matt’s, Chuk’s (no “c”), and my husband Andrew’s stuff, and we headed up to Flag, cramped and full of laughter.
We checked into our little motel rooms, and then headed out into town to pick up our race packets and enjoy the sights of downtown Flag on a Friday night. It’s such a fun place, full of crazy college students, and laid back hippies. Good vibes. I was pretty tired, and as soon as the sun dropped I started to freeze, so we headed back to the rooms and went to sleep.
The next morning rolled around (ugh, mornings), and I got ready to go, having an English muffin as part of my free continental breakfast. In hindsight, while that is fine for most runs, it was not enough for this one. Andrew drove us to the start line and dropped us off, and he headed back to the motel and hung around in Flag all day waiting for us to be done.
As the runners were milling about waiting for the race to start, Matt reminded us that Jamil, the rd (race director) for this event had said, “You guys are going to hate me.” This is a bad sign when the rd says this of his own race. Let me back up just a bit. Skyrunning is where an individual runs up and down mountains… for fun, simply because it’s fun. This Flagstaff race was hosted by Aravaipa Running, and was a part of the US Sky Runner Series, so when I signed up, I knew there would be a lot of climbing, at altitude. However, never having subjected myself to this exact scenario, I didn’t know what to expect. Now I do. In addition to realizing there would be a lot of climbing, to then have the rd tell us that we would hate him? That’s some serious foreshadowing right there.
Jamil announced the start and we took off, and were immediately climbing. In fact, the first three miles were straight up the mountain. I decided I hated Jamil right there. Later I would look back and wish I was on that mountain. This first section, while very difficult, was stunning. We were in the trees (pines and aspens) and had incredible views out over Flagstaff. The air smelled wonderful and the aspens were a beautiful golden yellow. I quit attempting to run and just dug in and went up. And up. And up. The trail was rough, with some built in “stairs” reminiscent of those at the Grand Canyon, only bigger. After a pw (personal worst) 5K time up to the towers on top of the mountain, we blasted down the hill. Chuk (no “c”) had gotten ahead of us on the uphill, and took a wrong turn, but thankfully we could see him and called him back.
I was feeling really good at the first aid station. I recognized the trail we were on and was having a great time. I zipped right on through.
Just a little after the first aid station, I was running along feeling great when suddenly there was this horrible poking sensation in my ankle and I screamed because it hurt so much. I looked down and there I saw a wasp attempting to rape my ankle through my sock. I don’t know what his deal was, I never even saw him. I stopped and bent down and he just kept raping away, so I grabbed a little stick off the ground and smashed/scraped him off of me. My ankle was on fire. The last time I was stung by a wasp I was maybe 13, so I knew to expect my ankle to swell, but other than that, I’m not allergic, so that was a really good thing. I continued on down the trail, sobbing because of the pain, and angry because of the pain and because I was crying. I hate crying. It took me awhile to get that back under control. I think Matt must have felt awful. He was right behind me as I was crying my way through part of a race. Gah!
Anyway, I made it to the second aid station where Brett, a friend from Aravaipa Group trail runs, helped me out by giving me Gatorade. And someone else filled my pack with water. Matt and I hung out for a bit while Chuk (no “c”) caught up, and then we took off again. Haha, “took off”. That’s funny. The trail climbed again, and while it wasn’t super steep, I hiked. I was already starting to get tired, which I expected from my training run. I struggle at the higher elevations. Plus, the emotions from being wasp-raped were not helping my drive to finish. So, I did what I could do, and just kept putting one foot in front of the other. This section of the trail meandered up through a meadow that was super pretty. Everything up in the mountains around Flag is pretty. And there was a delicious breeze that kissed my skin.
I was able to see Chuk (no “c”) ahead of me throughout this part, and I saw Matt for a little while, but he eventually took off and I didn’t see him again until the finish line. Once the trail stopped climbing, I was able to catch Chuk (no “c”) on the downhill because, well, I rock on downhills. But I couldn’t go full bore because I have been struggling with a weird side stitch/cramped up diaphragm and was trying to keep it under control. Chuk (no “c”) and I named my side stitch Schnebly (pronounced with a British accent, just cuz). So I lost Chuk (no “c”) again for little while.
At about the 12 mile mark, I finally caught and managed to keep up with Chuk (no “c”), and we hung. He kept me going, I kept him going. I learned that he whines just like me, and despises overly positive people, also just like me. This has all the makings of an epic running friendship!
At the third aid station, I ate a little bit, but I really wasn’t feeling it, which is odd. Normally I’m all over the food, but for this run, I just didn’t want to eat. Chuk (no “c”) suggested I eat a pretzel, which I figured was a good idea, so I did. Blech. Anyway, we continued. And continued. Somewhere between the third and fourth aid stations we hit the “single digits” of remaining miles. We were so excited!! “Nine miles left!” is infinitely less than 10!
At the fourth aid station I saw my friend Sabrina and her littles (children). We chatted for a bit while I downed some pickles, banana, and watermelon. She asked how we were and I said “tired”. I feel like she had a very knowing look on her face as she carefully discussed the remaining race. What it came down to was, well, steep. We took off.
Chuk (no “c”) was eating some more pretzels and told me to go ahead, so I did, and I ran the easier sections. But somewhere along here I lost him and didn’t see him again until the finish. I had run this entire section of trail before and knew what to expect and was enjoying myself, until I came to the powerline. As I craned my neck up to follow the powerline, I could see the trail very clearly marked, and runners dotting it, so I knew that was the way. But. It. Was. So. Steep. So I climbed. And I climbed. And I climbed some more. I stopped caring if I stepped on the elk crap that dotted that trail. I had to stop every now and again to catch my breath, but otherwise, I was okay. I kept going. I hated Jamil all over again and wished for the first hill instead. And I kept going. The trail eventually hit a service road and went downhill to the finish line aid station… except that wasn’t the finish. I had another 3 miles to go and about 1.5 of it was straight up the side of the mountain. As in, STRAIGHT UP. Earlier in the day I’d thought my time for the initial 5K of the race up to the towers was bad. From here it was about 1.5 miles to the next aid station, and it took me 1 hour and 18 minutes to go one mile. Did you read that correctly? Here it is again: 1 hour and 18 minutes for one mile. Now I actually did hate Jamil. Our course went along underneath the ski-lift. I had to stop every 30 feet or so now to breathe. I also had to keep looking back so I could see that yes, I was indeed making headway. Never in my life have I ever wanted to quit a race; I really wanted to quit this one. There were some horrible children on the ski-lift that I wanted to hit in the head with rocks when they shouted down, “Hey girl! Why aren’t you running? You’re supposed to be running! It’s a race!” I managed to keep any acknowledgment of their stupid existence to myself. Barely.
The trail following the ski-lift came to a service road and veered right. It was still climbing, but nothing like before and I was so happy, I almost started crying. Then I rounded the corner to the left and swore at Jamil. The trail continued up even steeper than before. And now this portion of the trail was slippery, too. I kept climbing, trying to step on the little nubs of grass that were growing in the trail to avoid slipping back down. Now I had to stop every five steps or so and actually sit down. I started to get nervous about altitude sickness and was paying close attention to my faculties. My heart would start racing every few steps, and my stomach started to heave. For some reason, I don’t throw up very easily, and this was no exception, but I really wanted to. Even once the top aid station was in sight, I just couldn’t go any faster. And then I was up! I’d climbed the mountain!
I sat for probably 10 minutes at the aid station, allowing my stomach to calm down and tried to rest. I chatted with the volunteers there, one of whom I’d actually met out at the McDowell Mountain park a few weeks earlier. Finally, I decided I was ready, and I headed off. The course back down the mountain went by the top of the ski-lift and a couple asked me about the race as I ran (haha, not ran, silly, walked is more appropriate) by. I told them about it and they were surprised. I probably would have been too!
Then it was ALL DOWN HILL. Ahhhhh… glorious. Well, sort of. My stomach heaved one more time, still no puke, and then it settled down. This was an epic downhill run! It was super slick underfoot- the rocks were loose and I just kind of slid down the mountain with them. I was extremely tired and since I didn’t want to injure myself, I took the corners at a sliding walk. Finally I could hear the finish line and I no longer cared about injury or anything else, and I just ran it in as fast as I could.
Upon crossing the finish line I saw Andrew and Matt’s smiling faces. I was so happy to see them. I kind of collapsed in a chair. I think I said something about how that was the worst race ever, and that I was never doing that again. Andrew went with me as I hobbled down to the car to get changed. I freeze and start to get ill and shake if I stay in wet running clothes, especially if I’ve put in an effort like I did that day. I described the run to him as I got out of my nasty clothes. Unfortunately, I was too slow in changing, and I didn’t make it back up to the finish line to see Chuk’s (no “c”) finish. He, too, hobbled down to the car and said “never again”.
Then, we started joking, and recounting the race to each other. How we felt, who we talked to, what we saw. It was great. At the same time, I knew I desperately needed food and nothing makes me feel better after a run like salty chips and hot salsa from Chipotle, so that’s where we went.
Afterwards we headed home where I collapsed in an exhausted stupor. The next morning, I was ready to sign up for next year’s race. What???? Yes. I have never attempted anything that was so physically demanding. It was HARD. And while my time was not impressive (somewhere around 8:49), and I was the 16th girl out of a total of 16 girls to finish, I now know I can do it. And now I’m not worried about running farther but with less climbing. I can do it. I went approximately 24 miles and climbed about 8500 feet at altitude. And I didn’t quit. I DID IT. And you know what? Without Jamil, this wouldn’t have been possible and I never would have attempted this. So, thank you Jamil. I had an amazing time and I can’t wait for next year!
*As usual, none of these pictures are mine. They’re all Matt’s, who manages to run races AND take pictures! Amazing.