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Moab 240 Pacing - A long walk in the desert

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Moab 240 Pacing - A long walk in the desert

It’s taken me forever to write about this because Moab and everything that came with it was super hard for me. It fell conveniently a few days before my 24th birthday. For me birthdays are the only holiday I celebrate. I hate Christmas the most and the rest are just another day off work. But I digress. My favorite holiday was fast and approaching and I wanted to start my 24th year out right. And most of all I wanted to spend it with the people that I cared the most about! I made a fabulous plan to get a few days with my running family, a few days with my climbing friends, and a few days flying my paraglider. All I needed was my partner to icing the cake. But that was the heart breaking part. He didn’t want to go. He thought the drive was too long. He didn't understand why it even mattered to me. Ironically just weeks later he drove all the way to Moab for another woman. This is why I can finally write about this because I am no longer sad. So lets begin, I was on the road alone to enjoy my birthday the best I could. 

My first night on the road in the van didn’t go as planned. I got woken in the middle of the night by the cops and ended up just driving all 12 hrs pretty much straight to Moab. When I arrived in the morning the race had already started and I missed Karen by a few hours. That was okay though because I planned to pace her for half of the race which would turn out to be 120 miles worth of pacing. Her husband Phil was excited to adopt Lopi as his new buddy and I settled in the truck for the next 5 days of pacing. I was looking forward to being out of cell service.

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Phil and I spent most of the day hanging out at Hamburger Rock in Indian Creek waiting for Karen to show up. She showed up a little after sunset looking great and we made a plan, ate some food at the aid station, and kept on moving. The plan was that Phil would be able to make it to the next aid station and she would be able to sleep and get her stuff together there. As things would go… nothing ever went as planned at the Moab 240. We spent the next 12 miles catching up after a year or so of not seeing each other. I think the last time we ran together was when I paced her at the Western States. Spirits were still high as we came into the next aid station. But that is when everything changed. “Where’s Phil!?” I remember Karen asking. I ran up and down the campground looking and looking but I couldn’t seem to find him. I was certain the truck would be able to make the drive but I also had never driven a enormous camper. He’s not here I repeated. He must be at the road.

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That’s when her friend Derek showed up and informed us that the truck wasn’t able to make the drive. A few swear words from Karen but there was nothing we could do. The truck was at least a 5mile detour off of the course. I reassured Karen that everything would be okay and we would just eat the aid station food and sleep in the sleeping tent and it would be fine. She sent Derek back to the truck to get a change of clothes and few other things and then she headed off for the sleeping tent. I stayed by the campfire tired, but not destroyed, I tried to catch a few moments of sleep sitting up right in a chair by the fire wrapped in a barely warm wool blanket. Needless to say it was a rough night for all of us. We had about 40 more miles till we would see the truck again which would mean another full day of walking. Karen said the sleeping tent was cold and was lacking blankets not to mention loud. She didn’t sleep. The icing on the cake for that aid station was they had minimal volunteers and seemed to be out of all of there food already. Derek saved the day with a few things to make the next 40 miles a little more comfy and Karen and I hit the trail just before sunrise.

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The next section went on forever. We were both in a bad mood from the night before, and I wasn’t feeling talkative from a heavy heart and the overwhelming loneliness that a cold night in a chair shivering will do. We turned on a few podcasts for this section just to pass the time without feeling obligated to talk. And finally the aid station showed up. This aid station lifted our spirits like none other. The volunteers were loud and hilarious. I fed off of there energy and they even gave Karen a shoulder massage and made me a heart shaped pancake with peanut butter. I didn’t want to leave! As we jogged out of the aid station we knew this next section was going to be a death march. We finally had a bit of uphill but it was over 20 miles long. I knew we would see the sunset before we got to the next check point. But spirits were finally high and I was able to chat a bit here and there. Spirits didn’t stay high for long though. The course crossed the river maybe 10 times. It would go over it and then back over it two steps later. It wasn’t fun. And finally about half way we had to call it. Karen laid down on a rock in the shade and I laid down in the middle of the warm trail. Thinking I’d just lay down while she napped I lost consciousness immediately. 15 minutes later I woke in a panic. Woah how long was I out what’s going on I felt confused. Karen was still on the rock so I felt a sense of relief as I took some drugs, ate some food, and sat up off the trail. A few seconds later a runner came up the trail. Karen got up and we chatted. Then it seemed everyone showed up. My friend Scott was there with the camera and maybe another group of 4 runners passed us. It was the first time we had seen people all day. That motivated Karen to get moving and we started off again.

The nap revitalized us. We were finally moving good again. Karen powered up the uphill with the sun quickly vanishing. It was maybe another 3 miles to the aid station and I was hopeful we wouldn’t be in the dark for super long. As we walked up the last little climb to the aid station the sun finally fully disappeared and we pulled our headlamps out. Mine was quickly loosing strength so I was prepared to march it out in the dark if need be. But next thing we knew the aid station appeared. The plan was that Karen would do the next two sections alone and then I would pick her up for the next night time. Karen fell asleep in the camper and I curled up with Lopi in the back of the truck cab. It was one of the coldest nights of my life. Dipping down to 12 degrees. Training for winter ultras I kept telling myself.

I was relieved to have the next few sections off. I was exhausted and just needed some time to get feeling good again. At this point we had been out of cell service for a few days and I felt the much needed time away was helping me heal. Karen styled through the next sections but her feet were already absolutely destroyed. Finally through the 100 mile mark she was nearly half way done. I picked her up in the middle of the night as we started the last big climb up and over the La Sal mountains. It was cold but not nearly as cold as the night before and I was finally feeling normal again. I told story after story after story. The miles went by quickly as we laughed and talked about everything and anything. I got cell service here and there and we chatted with her friends back in Calgary as we marched on. This was the best section of the entire course. Beautiful single track twisting through the mountains overlooking the desert far below. As the sunset once again we rolled into the last aid station to another epic. The truck wasn’t there. Phil wasn’t there. Karen sat beside the heating lamp repeating. No you don’t understand this isn’t like Phil. Phil should be here. My friends Willy and Kate were cooking food and I got one of my best meals of the race. I went back to Karen to make a plan. It’s okay I repeated I’ll just do the next section with you. Don’t worry it’ll be okay. Then came a big black lab tackling me to the ground. Lopi I screamed. Phil was there but had parked a bit away. Not realizing we would come in so soon. Karen got the sleep she needed and her friend Derek decided to take her the next section. 

When she finally arrived at the 200 mile mark she was looking and feeling great… other than her feet of course. She only had two sections left and all the time in the world to do them. She didn’t mind walking alone during the day time so she headed off on the next section alone with the plan for me to take her the final section into the finish. I was excited. It was finally coming together. All the time on the trail everything was finally happening. She arrived at the last aid station in good spirits. Our friends from the Bridgerjacks aid station were there and we had a big party of good food and massage trains. My heart was so full and happy I couldn’t wait to get moving. Karen and I started the final section and I may have had a few tears in my eyes. The last section flew by. We went from beautiful single track trails up and over to wild jeep trails to finally a road that never ended to the finish. But just after sunset we blasted through the finish. Karen having traversed 240 miles of sandy roads in the past 4 and a half days. It was a strange feeling for me. 120 miles on my legs. I was dirty and tired. Karen went back to the camper to get clean and ready for bed while I chatted a bit with friends at the finish. My friend Amanda showed up that night and we made plans to climb the next day. Karen headed back to Canada and I said my good byes to my Canadian family. 

The next portion of my trip was good times with good friends. Climbing and flying my paraglider avoiding at all the cost the inevitable feelings of having to go back to California and face the overwhelming loneliness and sadness that had clouded my life. And that is why this report has come 2 months late. It’s because I have been feverishly running away from Truckee trying at all costs to avoid the inevitable feelings that needed to be felt. But I think I've felt them now and I know I will continue to feel them. But hopefully now with a layer of positivity for the future.

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Hardrock 100 Pacing

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Hardrock 100 Pacing

It all started when I moved full time to Tahoe and got involved with the Donner Party Mountain Runners. I was meeting a lot of rad people and would hear the mention of people I should meet. Betsy Nye was one of them. My introduction to Betsy was based on a mutual love for the hard tall Colorado mountains. I was looking for a partner for Nolan’s 14 and she was a crusher 14 time Hardrock 100 finisher. We chatted about the prospects of teaming up together on Nolan’s, and I offered to pace her in exchange on her 15th Hardrock 100. As the summer approached and Betsy’s injuries lingered we both agreed Nolan’s wasn’t in the cards for her this year and she had already got all her pacing shifts covered. I drove out to Colorado at the end of June to start my training for the summer. I already found a new Nolan’s partner and promised Betsy I’d cheer her on at the Hardrock.

On Tuesday three days before the start of the Hardrock 100 I got a call from Betsy. One of her pacers was injured and she was looking for a sub in. Conveniently I was super available and excited to help out. I had been battling a pain in my gums for three days, but I didn’t think anything of it. That night after agreeing to pace Betsy it hit me. I was up all night moaning and crying in pain. I tossed and turned crying and screaming for help. As the sun rose restless and in excruciating pain I walked three miles to the dentist tears streaming down my face unable to control the internal moaning of pain. I begged the dentist to see me immediately. They quickly got me in and sent me immediately to an oral surgeon. I had let a gum infection spread to my jaw. The oral surgeon who was booked till September, fit me in as an emergency and pulled a tooth to release some pain. I was also put on an antibiotic to hopefully kill the raging infection. This was Wednesday and the Hardrock was on Friday… I couldn’t let Betsy down. I was pacing her those 17 miles infection or not. 

The narcotics actually helped me sleep at night but the infection didn’t seem to subside even after a few days. Laying in my van the day before the hard rock I felt nervous about pacing Betsy. It was about her and if I struggled that wasn’t okay. I kept telling myself that it was suffer training. That if I could run 17 miles with a fresh hole in my mouth and an infected gum I could run any distance. I had been on a liquid diet for about 4 days and was living off of baby food. I could feel the hollow in my stomach. I was finding it impossible to get enough calories.

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Betsy started that morning at 6am and at 7pm I was sitting in downtown Ouray watching her tracker and anticipating her arrival. She’d be about 43 miles into the 100 and I would be taking her to mile 60. When she arrived we tried to get her in and out of the aid station as fast as possible. With only a few hiccups Betsy and I were walking our way to Box Canyon. This was my first time ever in Ouray not in the winter and I couldn’t help but remember all of the fantastic ice climbing trips I had taken to this canyon. As we moved along she asked about my mouth and I responded that it was best if we didn’t talk about it. The taste of blood was already strong in my mouth and I was fearful about the night ahead. Betsy was moving at a really good pace and I kept up right behind her talking about this and that and everything in between.

As the sun set we became silent and tried to focus on the trail ahead of us. Though it was dark you could feel the great exposure opening up beside us. Betsy, behind me at this point, commented on the fact that if you trip and fall you die. I didn’t feel afraid. Heights and exposure don’t scare me… maybe it’s from my years of rock climbing. As we got higher, the night got darker, and the air got colder. We had run through several creeks at this point and I could feel the deep sinking feeling of coldness soaking in. Betsy didn’t want to stop till we got to the aid station so I rotated which hand was holding the flash light and which was in my pants. When we finally reached engineering pass I was ready for a few extra layers. We sat by the fire for a bit trying to dry out our feet and get moving.

The next section was very steep up hill. We kept moving because after cresting over the summit it would be all down hill to the aid station where Angela would take over pacing. Once we started to go downhill Betsy just took off. For over 50 miles on her legs she was moving quick and efficiently. I jogged along beside her feeling the swollen right side of my face jolt up and down with every step. I had come to the conclusion that I wasn’t feeling any pain because my brain was trained to block out pain when I was running… unlike when I sleep and the pain can only be subsided with narcotics. We made fast work of the downhill and showed up at the aid station greeted by her friends and family at 2am. We got Betsy all fixed up and headed towards Handsies. I was feeling happy to be done and head to bed with my dog.

I caught a ride with Betsy’s dad and was asleep in my van by 3:30am. We woke early the next morning and I joined in on the crew for Betsy. We met her at the last aid station and got her ready for the finally push to the finish. As the sun just barely began to set Betsy came running into downtown Silverton and kissed the rock for her 15th Hardrock 100 finish! It was such an amazing experience to get to witness and be a part of! The next day we got to join in on congratulating all of the finishers and all of the people who didn’t finish in a family style ceremony. It made me really appreciate races that aren’t over run by sponsors and money. It reminded me of all the great people I met in Alaska and the way it felt like a family. As I finally said my goodbyes my heart felt warm and heavy and my face still very infected. 

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I spent the next week going into my second mouth surgery and planning my next snow 100 miler. So thankful for all the people I met and all the time spent in the mountains! 

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Western States 100 Pacing

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Western States 100 Pacing

It was February 2016 I stumbled out of our red Prius rental car and shuffled my legs across the icy ground. Everyone looked in much better shape than me. But less than 24 hours earlier I was deep in the woods of the Alaska wilderness running. The Susitna 100 was an epic 100 miler race across frozen Alaska. This year it only saw 28 runners actually finish. Of those finishers only 9 were females. Karen Johansen was one of those 9 females and so was I. At the award ceremony the next day she looked almost completely recovered while I stayed firmly in my seat trying to hide my obvious limp. I didn’t know much about Karen at the time other than that around mile 40 her and her friend Lourdes effortlessly floated by me at my lowest of lows. We all chatted about the race, our up coming races, and where we were from. This is how Karen and I connected on the Western States 100. Excitedly she asked if I would pace her and even more excited I obliged.

It is now June 2016 and the hype for the Western States 100 was growing in Tahoe. Karen had a super limited schedule so we barely got to sync up before race day. It was Friday afternoon when we finally saw each other 5 months since our last chat in person in Alaska. Karen was super sick. She could barely sit with us for more than a few minutes before getting nauseous. We made a plan to have me pace her the whole way from Forresthill to the finish and then she went to bed. I started to feel nervous about her health and the heat of the coming day but if I knew anything about Karen it was that she was one tough cookie. I decided to pass the time by going paragliding which proved to be a mildly bad idea. I stalled my paraglider close to the ground and fell right on my ankle. A sprained ankle the day before an ultra. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy.

By the time I woke the next morning Karen was already at mile 10. I continued to watch her tracker like a hawk. She was averaging a good pace and I started to estimate when I would need to be in Forresthill. By the time she reached mile 30 I had a good estimate of when she would be at mile 60. It started to dawn on me that I would be running for some very strange hours. Entirely all at night. I quick grabbed another nap and headed down the hill. I kept massaging my ankle just hoping it wouldn’t cause me any problems. I put on my running clothes, packed up my backpack, and put on my compression socks in an effort to combat the swelling in my ankle. The sun was setting already and I was feeling super mentally unprepared for what the night was about to hold. I kept reminding myself that Karen had 60 miles on her legs and I had 0. This isn’t about me. This is about her. 40 miles on fresh legs is nothing. 

By 9pm all of the spectators started to go to bed and clear the streets. It was dark now so I put on a jacket because I was cold. I said goodbye to some people and then it was just me standing waiting. Karen rolled through the aid station around 9:45pm and we were off running together at 10pm. I had already shed my jacket as we ran down the street together chatting. I couldn’t believe how fresh Karen looked! Distracted we missed the turn straight out the gate and some people behind us yelled for us to turn. Wow that could have been bad I thought as I cleared my head and focused. The course wasn’t as well marked as I thought it would be so I made extra sure to always be looking… I mean we all had heard what happened to the number one guy getting lost before HWY 49. 

Before even getting a mile into the run we both had to use the bathroom. We cleaned up and continued downhill. It was a lot of downhill. I thought we were making really good time. We were talking about running, our personal lives, and everything in between. The first aid station came and went and I was back on familiar trails. I had worked the Cal 2 aid station for the Canyons 100k so I felt a little less lost in the woods. I couldn’t believe how dusty and hot it was for how late at night. We made it to the Cal 2 aid station were everything was buzzing. We saw a few people who had dropped and ate a little food. By this point we had finally settled into together. We had tried Karen running in front and me following and vice versa but settled in with me leading and setting the pace. We reached the next aid station quickly and everyone couldn’t believe how great Karen looked. I really lucked out. She was so strong and good at running ultras. She knew exactly what she needed when she needed it.

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As we left that aid station we started to go uphill again. Karen is a really strong ascender even with 70 miles on her legs. We set a really solid pace on the uphill and passed several parties that looked like they were hurting. The next stop was the river crossing and I was getting nervous about the prospect of the fridge water at 3 in the morning. The river came faster than expected and Karen flew through the aid station before the water. A spectator grabbed me by the arm and said Jen!! what are you doing here?? Immediately confused she realized I was not Jen Shelton. This wasn’t my first time being mistaken for Jen. We both laughed as she continued to rant about how I could be her sister. Karen was already at the river as I sprinted down the stairs to catch up. They put a life jacket on both of us and it was time to go. We waded waste deep across the river making sure not to twist an ankle on the slippery big rocks below. This was a first for both of us. The water was cool, welcoming, and refreshing! I was feeling revitalized and ready to take on the rest of the course. Karen took her shoes off to realize what she thought was a rock was actually bad trench foot. She changed her socks, but the damage was already done. She knew she just needed to grit it out. 

We went up hill for the next mile or so and the heat had already dried most of me out. We were at mile 80 now and we had a small 20 miles left to go. The trail goes down hill for a bit and then turns into a very runnable angle. We capitalized on this and set a slow but steady pace. We passed a young man who was really hurting. His cough echoed through the canyon. I kept thinking how lucky I was that Karen was in such good shape! I turned around and asked her how she was doing again. She responded with the usual good! Though I knew she had terrible trench feet, 80 miles on her legs, and horrible chaffing. The strength of an ultra runner is insane. We ran with in close distance of this young man and his pacer for awhile and had to listen to the awfulness of his pacer. Sometimes its better to let the struggler struggle and encourage them instead of being so hard. Karen and I shot each other a glance and pulled away from hearing distance.

I refilled my water and fueled up at the next aid station. My hand flashlight battery was dead so I pulled my spare headlamp from my pack. The sun was just barely rising. But it was dark enough to need a light. We were roughly a half marathon from the finish. We wanted to cover as much distance as possible before the sun hit us and slowed us down. Then it hit me… the gut rot. It was only 3 miles to the next aid station I could make it. I trotted along the trail in fear of shitting my pants. All of my energy and thoughts were consumed by keeping it together. Out of no where my friend Chaz chipper as ever came flying by. When did we pass Chaz I thought? He had come through Forresthill in the day light!! I was super happy to see he was still going and hadn’t lost his sense of humor. The aid station came faster than expected and I disappeared into the portapotty. I made it quick and found Karen on her way out of the aid station. It was a quick section to HWY 49 and then we would be in the home stretch. The sun had risen and it was already smolderingly hot.

This was my lowest point. I was sick. My hips were hurting still from the Broken Arrow Skyrace the previous weekend. I was over 30 miles in. Karen was going to finish whether I was there or not. She was doing so good. I contemplated stopping at HWY 49 and getting Corbin to pick me up. It wasn’t like I was racing. Crippled over on the uphill Karen still looking strong she knew I was hurting. I joked doesn’t it feel good to see someone with less miles on there legs hurting worse than you? She laughed and said kind of. We both laughed and I started moving a little better. This is when I realized what made pacing hard. It’s the motivation. When you’re racing you get your motivation from the belt buckle, from the finish line, from the idea of crossing something off your list. I didn’t have these motivations. What was it that I could draw on to keep moving? It was Karen. It was getting to see her succeed. It was getting to share in her accomplishment. It was getting to make sure she finished. I told her I’d run with her to the finish. I was running to the finish. 

We could feel the energy of the finish line when we reached HWY 49. Everyone was screaming and cheering. We were a short 6 miles from being able to close our eyes and sleep forever. I knew all of these trails I had run them before. Karen wanted to run so we ran. Even on the uphill. By the time we reached the no hands bridge which was the second to the last aid station a sense of relief came over us. Karen was finishing this race. There were no cutoffs left to miss and just a short 3 miles and a big up hill between us and the finish line. I runner came up behind and me and said hey Jen it’s Blah Blah from race Blah Blah remember me? At this point I just said it’s so good see you again! And Karen and I left the aid station. Karen laughed and looked at me and said wow I bet everyone is wondering why a professional runner is pacing me. 

 

Karen started to become teary eyed as the prospect of finishing this race became more and more a reality. I quick grabbed the phone and turned it to full speaker on some jams. We were walking up this hill and we were going to do it in musical style. We passed a few people and got passed by a few people and after the final aid station we started to run again. Less than a mile from the finish I couldn’t contain my excitement. I was screaming and clapping and cheering and maybe dropping the F-bomb more than I should have. As we hit the pavement and ran through the neighborhoods of Auburn, Karen and I started to belt the lyrics to the song playing. Right now the name of the song escapes me but this moment was really special to me. Karen had been awake for 28 hours, had 100 miles on her legs, and was so happy and alive! The track came into view and I handed my phone off to my friend Lucas to take photos of us finishing. I looked at Karen and she said run the track with me. We ran the entirety of the track and as the finish line got closer and closer I didn’t want it to end. And just like that it was over. She had did it. And no one can ever take that away from her. She will always be a Western States 100 finisher!

We laid on the track drank some water and parted ways. To me pacing the Western States felt more rich and more meaningful than any race I’ve ever done. There’s no doping, no cutting course, no glory, no finish line, the selfishness that has made me hate running sometimes was stripped away. It truly made me appreciate what Tim had done for me in Alaska. He could have finished 5 hours faster but he stuck with me. He stuck with me and made sure I finished too. The selflessness in these serious endurance events makes me really love the people I choose to call friends.

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