The Canyons 100k - Orange Mud, LLC

The Canyons 100k

Going into Canyons 100k I was nervous. Not just butterflies in the stomach, run of the mill nerves, but more on the side of actual fear.  And I couldn't figure out why.  I had gone through the gamut of potential culprits... the 15,000ft of vertical gain and equal descent, the knowledge that even the toughest and most seasoned ultra runners consider "The Canyons" to be a special kind of crazy, the potential for unbearable heat, the thought of another DNF due to being undertrained for this race. The usual suspects. But it wasn't really any of those and I couldn't put my finger on what it actually was.  I wouldn't discover the true source of my fear until deep in the dark night, out on the historical Western States trail, fighting cutoff time after cutoff time, unbearable pain and incredible frustration.

2016, unfortunately, was the year of DNFs for me. My first 50 mile resulted in my very first DNF, after an excruciatingly painful health issue that presented itself mid-race, causing me to miss a final cutoff time, bringing me to my own finish at mile 47.5.  My first 100 miler, Javelina Jundred, was also a DNF, after I suffered a stress reaction in my foot which resulted in me having to, reluctantly, drop at mile 81.  And while I learned so much from both experiences, in all honesty, my heart was a little broken from the DNFs.  And I couldn't help but wonder if maybe I didn't have what it takes to be an ultra runner. 

In November of 2016, I registered for Canyons 100k the second registration opened.  I planned to start training in January, giving my foot enough time to heal, as well as my broken heart. But life had other plans for me, as is often the case with best laid plans.  I unexpectedly found myself in the position of needing to homeschool my daughter. This in addition to the 2-3 hours of driving a day I was already doing, taking my son to and from his school. Training was relinquished to mainly weekends, and my mileage "peaked" with a mere 44 miles for my Canyons training cycle. 

I considered dropping to the 50k, rationalizing that a strong 50k finish would be better than the potential of yet another ultra race DNF. But I quickly came to my senses and realized that goals are fought  for, with the knowledge and acceptance of potential for failure. And, after reading a fantastic Last Horse Runners blog post, titled Running and Failure, I was able to embrace the fact that DNFs are just part of the deal when it comes to ultra running.  So, I stuck with the 100k distance, in hopes that by some miracle I would have a stellar day and cross the finish line with my very first Western States lottery ticket.

My husband, Devin, and my son, A, and I drove to Auburn the Friday morning before the race. My good friend, Greg, had rented a friend's cabin for us all, one that sits directly on the Western States trail at Michigan Bluff. The cabin's owner is a past Western States 100 winner, and several talented ultra runners have stayed there, so we were feeling some pretty positive ultra running vibes happening! Johan, my very dear friend and running partner, also joined us, and after a nice little pre-race meeting, we were off to sleep.

After a surprisingly ok-ish night of sleep, Saturday morning was upon us, and I jumped out of bed with my 2:45am alarm. My drop bag and Orange Mud VP2 were packed and ready to go and I was as ready as I could be.  

At the start, at Foresthill, I quickly found my friends... Jenny, Sean, Andrea, Amer and Rini, and met a few new ones, too! The nerves were overwhelming my stomach but I somehow managed to maintain some level of composure until before I knew it we were running. 

Stupidly, I made the all-too-common mistake of getting swept up by the crowd and went out too fast, but even more worrisome was the fact that my legs felt like jelly after running our very first descent. After our first creek crossing, I just couldn't get my legs to move faster than a pathetic feeling shuffle. People passed me left and right. I watched Andrea, who I had started with, drift farther and farther ahead. Soon my friend, Rini, flew past me up the trail. I was alone, but ok about it. I figured if I was going to a have rough first half, I would really need to focus on keeping a pace that was my own.

But instead of taking a trip to negative town, I just put my head down and hiked up the hills as best I could. Every now and again I'd get a little burst of energy and I'd pick up the pace, only to feel exhausted again and have to slow back down. 

I finally made it to the top of Devil's Thumb,  and was on my way down to Swinging Bridge  to the turn around, when I saw Johan. At that point I was seeing lots of runners on their way back from the turn around, and all the encouraging words, as is commonplace in ultra races, from passing runners lifted my spirits, and for the first time got me feeling excited about the race. I was smiling and we chatted a few minutes about the climb that I had ahead of me.

There is nothing like the ultra running community. The support and positivity is infectious and makes you feel like you are really part of something bigger than your own goals and dreams. Making my way down the technical and steep trail took extra concentration because of how I was feeling that day, but every "Good job" or "Nice work" would breathe a little energy back into me. Everyone was working so hard, and yet everyone took that quick second, over and over again, with each passing runner, to say something encouraging. 

I scrambled down down down until I finally hit the turn around spot in the middle of the trail, marked only by a bag of rubber Hoka One One bracelets that we were instructed to take as proof we made it all the way. I immediately turned to make the long trudge back up that beast of a hill, wondering how in the world people run up this section in the Western States 100, with 40+ miles already on their legs, and typically in 90+ degree heat!  And that's when I realized... I was almost LAST! I usually wonder if I'm last at some point in almost every trail race I run, but it's never actually happened! This lit a little fire under me and somehow I mustered the energy to rev up my power hiking engine. And power I did! I ended up passing around 10 people, giving the same words of encouragement - good job, keep it up, nice work -  that  other runners had been giving me.  And I meant it. The respect I have for the back of the pack is real! 

I had anticipated many situations in the race prior to starting. Feeling tired, feeling hot, stomach discomfort, potential dehydration, muscle cramping, etc. But for whatever reason, I hadn't anticipated that I would be faced with chasing cutoffs. I wasn't prepared for that particular type of stress. I rolled through Michigan Bluff and saw my son, Devin and Greg. I didn't linger. I stocked up on ice and refilled my Tailwind bottle and was on my way. On my way and worrying about making the Foresthill cutoff at the halfway point. 

I ran when I could, but much of that 6ish mile stretch from Michigan Bluff back to Foresthill was a messy shuffle mixed with several stumbles and a slogging hike. My legs throbbed. My quads vacillated between feeling like lead to jelly to lead again. 

Just before getting back to Bath road, which is just about a mile from Foresthill, a runner out for a training run, passed by me. We joked about the fact that he was doing this course "for fun" as a part of his training for Big Horn 100, and then he kindly checked in with how I was doing calorie wise. I told him I was dutifully drinking my Tailwind. He advised that I cram as many extra calories into myself while I still could. I appreciated the advice, but it also kinda scared the shit out of me! What was I in for?? While I still could?? 

To my great relief, I had managed to make up a little bit of time and somehow I made it to Foresthill about 30 mins under the cutoff time. I knew one of my best friends, Charity, would be there, and as I approached Foresthill aid station, every time I thought about her, I would start to cry. The things you go through with running friends is unlike anything I've ever experienced in friendship before I started ultra running. Charity and I suffered, big time, through our first 50 miler together and it bonded us forever. I couldn't wait to see her.  

I arrived at the aid station to find myself alone. I looked and looked but couldn't see my crew. I had a flash of Devon Yanko running into an aid station at Western States last year to find her crew wasn't there, which led to an extremely challenging situation for her. I had a little inner freak attack, wondering how I would be able to go another 15 miles before having the chance to see my people again. But then a nice volunteer appeared and sat me down. He ran and grabbed my drop bag and refilled Tailwind and water into my bottles. I decided that I would be just fine. I had everything I needed. Thankfully, just a few minutes passed before I spotted my crew. And Charity! I hugged her so tight, with a pickle in my hand (pickles gross her out so this was actually kind of funny). I quietly sobbed on her shoulder, feeling safe and knowing she "got it." Half a jar of pickle juice later, and a handful of baby dills in hand, I was being shoved back out onto the course. I had no clue how I would make it another 50k, but I was ready to do my best.

I could barely shuffle down the paved road out of Foresthill. I figured once I was back on dirt I'd feel better, but nope. Not so much. Everything hurt. No, everything was SCREAMING at me!  I knew everything would hurt, but still, it really freaking sucks while it's happening! So I walked. Slowly. Along the way I chatted with a few other runners. We commiserated together, about the heat, the pain, the fact that "down to the river" wasn't actually all down. I cried. A lot. And I had multiple conversations with myself, or rather, arguments. "You signed up for this! You're doing it!" "No. No, I can't do this. It's physically impossible." "Don't listen to that bullshit voice!! It's a liar! You got this!" I've often wished we could see runner's thoughts in little bubbles above their heads... what entertainment that would be! 

I made it through Cal 1 aid station, and then just kept slogging, crying, arguing and self soothing.  At Cal 2 I thought I was done. I asked the volunteers if they thought I might be able to make the Rucky Chucky aid station cutoff time. A woman told me it would be tight, and that I would have to run, but that I should definitely go because if I dropped there I'd be waiting hours to get driven out. I couldn't decide but then I spotted my friend, Spike, a medic, who gave me a tight hug, which made me cry again, and then I was out of there. 

The number of times I cried making my way down the 7.5 miles to the river, was ridiculous, believing that I wouldn't make the cutoff. I saw Johan on his way back towards the finish, and stopped for a few minutes to talk. He was having a rough day, too, and wasn't sure he would make it, though I knew he would. I told him I didn't think I would make the cutoff at the turn around, but that I would be proud of the 47+ miles I had been able to run on the Western States Trail.

As much as I know he doesn't want me to feel like I need to, I always strive to make Johan proud. Through the simple, yet sometimes profound, act of running, Johan became one of my dearest friends... a coach, a mentor, a supporter and someone who knows and accepts me for who I am. Johan is family. I felt crappy walking away from him, knowing that he knew at that point that I was going to finish my day with a third DNF. 

A little while later I saw my friend Rini. Same story. And then Andrea, again, same story. I wouldn't make the cutoff, I was done. I slogged on. Hot, exhausted, in pain, and so disappointed in myself for how weak I felt. At some point I saw my friend, Sean, who runs 100 milers like they're going out of style, and, of course, gave him my sob story, but instead of saying "Oh, that's too bad" he said, in his ultra calm Sean way, "You'll make it."  And then... it hit me. "What the hell are you doing? You can't just give up! Run! RUN to that aid station! You have to at least try! You GET to run! So RUN!!" And so, I decided to believe Sean, and I ran. 

I can honestly say, I have no clue HOW I ran. My legs were in a constant state of feeling  like they would buckle, or explode, at any given moment. I envisioned the triathletes who collapse at the end of Ironman races and claw and crawl their way over the finish line, and then frantically tried to push those thoughts out of my mind. I asked every runner, who passed me on their way back up from the turn around, how far away the aid station was. I must have asked at least 10 people. They all encouraged me to run my ass off, that I might just have a chance. So I did! 

After what felt like several eternities, I had the aid station in my sights! And even better than the aid station, I saw my son, waving me to hurry up and yelling "Come on mom!! You've got 4 minutes! RUN!" The tears. Again.  And then I could see Devin and Greg.  More tears, and a little hyperventilating from the raw emotion of my day so far. I made it. I made the freaking turn around cutoff. I got checked in and out in 2 minutes and before I could process what was happening I was walking away from the river with Greg, who would pace me for the remainder of the race.  

Greg and I walked slowly back up the hill and then more waterworks. I cried, realizing that I had 7.5 miles of climbing back up to the Cal 2 aid station with only 2 hours to make the next cutoff (let me just say... I. HATE. Chasing cutoffs. Oh how I hate it!). I cried for the runners I had met on my way down who didn't make it. I cried because I was getting eaten alive by mosquitoes. I cried because I had a rock in my shoe. I cried because I had to pee. You name it, I cried about it. 

Poor Greg. Almost immediately I started repeatedly asking him if he thought we'd make it. And then I would inform him that there is no way we were going to make it. Followed by profuse cussing and sobbing and then asking again if we'd make it. 

I met Greg almost two years ago through Instagram and we became fast friends. "Gregory the Elder" as he is affectionately known by many of our fellow running friends, is an ultra runner and top of the line pacer. If you're going to have a pacer in the end of a tough race, you'd be lucky to have Greg at your side. In those last dark miles, Greg was calm, encouraging, and steady as a rock. I trusted him and I knew I was being taken care of.  Not that you could tell with all the questions, tears and sailor-esque swearing I was imposing on the poor guy! But he reminded me that crying and swearing were ok, as long as I kept moving forward. And one of the BEST things Greg did for me in those agonizing stretches of torture, was to remind me that every step forward was a small victory to be celebrated. Later I learned that the average person has a stride length of about 2.5 feet, which means it takes approximately 2,000 steps to walk a mile. During the time Greg was with me we walked or ran approximately 30,000 steps... 30,000 small victories. 

After several, unbearably slow, excruciating and scary climbs and descents (at that point going down was harder than going up), we made it to Cal 2 aid station at 9:15. 15 minutes past the cutoff time. I had already made peace with the fact that I would have another DNF next to my name on Ultrasignup. I watched a runner being wrapped up in a thermal foil blanket and loaded into an SUV and figured I was next. But then I noticed that none of the volunteers were paying any attention to me. No one was taking note of my number and instructing me to remove my bib, or to get into a vehicle for transport back to Foresthill. I was confused. I tried to confirm with a volunteer that I had, in fact, missed the cutoff but she only shrugged and said that there had been some confusion over the cutoff time. She suggested I keep going, if I wanted to, since the sweeper hadn't come through yet. All of a sudden I was hit with a surge of adrenaline! I had to go! 

Greg and I made our way out of the aid station, with yet another cutoff time looming ahead of us.  But I was floating on a little cloud of relief from having made it through the last aid station. 

Unfortunately, this sense of relief didn't last long.  I was suddenly crushed with such intense leg pain and fatigue that I essentially turned into a two year old, had a temper tantrum, sat down on a rock and told Greg that I was done. DONE. I simply could not move another step. I asked how the sweeper would get me out. I thought about the runner we passed who was sitting in the middle of the narrow trail in the dirt, dazed and confused and wondered how either of us would get out. I wondered what kinds of animals would come for us. I went dark. I sobbed for the hundredth time. I felt so unbelievably sorry for myself in those moments it was embarrassing. I mean seriously, first world problems at their finest. But Greg was amazing. He stood and waited patiently. He let me cry for awhile and then he said "Remember what Devon told you." 

I met my friend, Devon, after Javelina last year and since then she has offered advice and support that I hold close to my heart. Before Canyons, Devon shared words with me, that are written on a bracelet she had recently received, which read: "Everything I need is within me." She told me that she believed that I had everything I needed within me, to do whatever it would take, to get to the finish line. I sat there on that rock, less than 6 miles from the finish line, and I thought about those words. I mean, I REALLY thought about them. But more importantly... I began to BELIEVE them. I suddenly believed that I had it in me to finish this 100k. I wanted to make Devon proud. I wanted my husband, my kids, my dad and friends to be proud. I really wanted Johan to be proud of me. And I wanted to feel proud of myself. I stood up and we took off! I couldn't run much, but I powered. We hiked, FAST. We even passed a runner and his pacer. But, of course, I couldn't let Greg off the hook that easy, and I began peppering him with: 

"Tell me when we only have a mile and a half left, ok? I can deal with a mile and a half." 

"Are we down to a mile and a half yet?" 

"How about now?" 

"We have to be a mile and a half away now, right? RIGHT?!" 

Oh Greg.  How did you put up with me?? 

We hiked and hiked and ran a little, and then finally... FINALLY I could see street lights. We turned the corner and there it was... the finish. Still distant, but I could taste it. I felt it pulling me in. We started running. Not fast, but it could definitely qualify as a run. And then... we were there. The finish. 18 hours and 53 minutes after starting The Canyons 100k, I was finished.

I missed the Western States qualifying time and most of the finish area had been broken down by the time I came through, but I didn't care. There were only a few, kind hearted, volunteers left, huddled together, cheering me in. Devin was there and I sank into him, feeling grateful his never ending support, and very long day he endured for me, so happy not to be running or walking anymore. 

I looked around for Johan, but knew it was hours since he had finished and that he was likely on the road back home by then. I hobbled over to a table and received my finishers necklace, just before they were packed away. On the way to the car I started texting all my loved ones, to let them know I had made it. But my most important text that night was to Johan... "I FINISHED!!!"

I finished. I finished the most physically, mentally and emotionally challenging event of my life (child birth aside. Obviously). I wanted to give up, and I didn't want to give up, and I thought I had no choice in giving up. But... I. Didn't. Give. Up. The lessons I learned, and that fear that I couldn't put my finger on, were deep and painful and came out of some very dark and ugly places, and are only for me and my closest people to know, but I'm grateful for all of it. I acknowledged fears and insecurities and then let them go. Left them on the trail. I'm stronger for it and I will use all that I gained from my experience, in some capacity, forever. 

Will I run The Canyons 100k again? Ask me once the "amnesia" has set in... I'll probably say yes!

Maili Costa

IG: @Mais_runs_trails