Nine Trails 2004

Cutting One’s Ultra Teeth on Nine Trails… and Other Lessons For Life

Lisa Welch
Santa Barbara, California, November 27, 2004

As is typical of my approach to challenges in life, my jump into Nine Trails was a leaping before I looked incident (well, if you break it down into slow-mo, it’s more like “leap” and realize mid-air prior to free-falling that I’ve gotten myself into something deep and scary, slightly dangerous and possibly beyond my reach). Nothing like cutting your ultra running teeth on one of the most formidable courses around….35 miles and 10,000 feet of cumulative elevation change. So not really having anything to compare it to this is now my benchmark for ultra running and what scares me is that I like it…it appeals to my sense of adventure, challenge and is definitely that “new mountain to climb” having undertaken 6 seasons of triathlons and 3 road marathons culminating in Boston. Gimme change! Mix it up! None of this same old stuff year after year!

This journey actually had its inception while watching finishers cross the line in last year’s race. I was moved by their emotion and in utter fascination of the physical effort they had just endured. I vowed at that point to train and complete half of the race the following year… uh, yeah… funny how these things kind of take on a life of their own after a while and one finds oneself committed to the whole affair. I wanted to be “that person”… the one crossing the finish line..I wanted to know what it felt like behind the sunken eyes and inside of the salt stained skin of those finishers. So being burned out on triathlons early in the year, I decided to bag the tri season and focus on being a “dirty girl”…hitting the trails. Refreshing! Exhilarating! Nine Trails was my target and after completing the Bulldog 30k in August became fully entrenched in the quest for completing those grueling 35 miles… my Holy Grail.

So without too many details of the getting there – you know what it took. Countless long runs, dedication, fatigue, minor bouts of poison oak, bumps and bruises, getting lost trying to navigate unfamiliar trails – you know the ones where you take off, get slightly disoriented and end up running a circuitous route right back to your car? (Right, Steve? You know what I’m talkin’ ’bout, my friend!). On one particular (rainy!!) day we come running down part of Cold Spring Trail thinking we’re headed off towards the Romero end of things and Steve Bertrand stops dead in his tracks, points and confusedly blurts out “Hey, that’s my car!” Ummm..yeah…”Dude, we ran a circle. You’re cut off from navigation.” Friends, training partners, family willing to sacrifice their schedules so I could spend 5 hours of a Sunday on a training run – 4 hours of running and 1 hour of driving around like an idiot stashing coolers full of extra water and food for the turn around points, etc. (Thanks to my awesome kids, Ryan & Tyler, for this one!

So umm… yeah… race day: after all… that’s what it was all about, right?.. well sort of… I do believe that life is what happens to you on the way from point A to point B and if you don’t pay attention to that all of sudden you are left with this head-spinning perspective that life is somehow “passing you by.” STOP! and check out the view every once in while! Kind of like Pasty’s “mandatory” view stops at Inspiration Point and the top of Cold Springs Trail… nice reminder, Patsy…thank you (even thought there wasno stupid view on my way back – clouds and misty fog was all I got for my effort. Sheesh!). Side note: 9 Trails is not about getting from point A to B… it is so much about everything that happens to you in-between, the conversations you have, the people you meet, the energy of support crew at the aid stations.

Truly this was the closest thing to the amount of effort and concentration required in giving birth. Let me qualify that statement…. Obviously in an athletic event there is the opportunity of dropping out of the misery and duh! such is not the case when giving birth to a child…that baby is coming out one way or another. So once I decided there was no “out” of this race…there was no quitting… it then took on the aforementioned child birthing quality. Trust me, at one point when both my IT bands gave out and became maliciously inflamed, providing me with agonizing pain each downhill stride, I thought that I might have to quit. But I argued back and forth amongst myselves and after the conscious and resolute decision that “there was no bowing out…there was no option but to finish” I went into this alternative universe of shutting out pain…. You know there is no escaping it. You know no one can help you – that you and only you can get yourself through it – there is the claustrophobic panic of “can I really do this?” – and you come out victorious, successful if not slightly scathed and battered, muddy and consumed (like giving birth without the muddy part…unless you’re camping in Yosemite when you’re 8.5 months pregnant…then it might be muddy…or bloody. Sorry. I digress….).

So enough prattle ’bout all that… on to the course. Grueling to say the least. But a beautiful mix of everything you could want in a trail run – steep, rocky switchbacks; treacherous creek crossings; long, sloping downhills; precipitous, technical downs to challenge your quick twitch muscles; incredibly steep uphills just in case your hip flexors and calves weren’t getting enough of a workout; a bamboo jungle where you have to duck through low trees running crouched over like you’re playing Huck Finn & Tom Sawyer (yeah, I whacked my head on a tree branch and subsequently fell, bloodying my fingers on some rocks); a blip of paved road, lots of wide fire road to give your ankles and brain a reprieve from the focused concentration of rocky single track (although this was not much of a forgiving reprieve as, although it was smooth, it had some gnarly pitches both up and down – hamstring screaming ups and quad crunching downs; a bit of off-trail into the weeds and poison oak (of course, at which point I hooked a foot over a root and consequently planted into a patch of oak – I’m scratching small patches of oak on my lower legs as I write); and I must say some of the most beautiful trails and vistas you can imagine…. seriously… endorphins or not… it was freakin’ beautiful.

A few snapshots from my delirious head: Hitting Jesusita at 6:30 am just past dawn – murky early morning light. Looking out across the valleys from Tunnel. The shocking pain of hitting Gibraltar’s paved road after being on dirt for so long, but a stunning moment of breathlessness at the beauty of the islands and ocean. The dark, rich, wet smelling earth and leaves of the West Fork of Cold Springs and Buena Vista. The pungent sulfur smell at the base of Hot Springs (and on the way back how absolutely wonderful it was to warm my freezing hands on those hot pipes carrying the hot springs water down the hill – oh that didn’t come out quite right….buy you get the picture though). The awesome beauty of Buena Vista trail – I actually had to pause (so I wouldn’t trip) and gape at the brilliant flowers and the few blazing autumn-colored trees scattered in the midst of a dark green, wet landscape; the cheers of race supporters as I was coming down Romero into the turnaround…. God that felt so good! I was so energized by everyone’s enthusiasm and support that I had not even a thought of “holy s**t this is only half way”! I was so happy to stuff food in my face, have a few laughs and start the trek back. Most of the way back was pretty lonely.. not many people around and tackling those incredible “walls” was such a test of mental and physical stamina. I swear you could hear my hamstrings screeching across the valleys.

Then I got to the Not-Caring-One-Damn-Bit part of the course (I think this was somewhere around Hot Springs – part deux – and maybe 5 hours-ish)….I just didn’t care…Didn’t care if anyone caught me (they didn’t by the way). Didn’t care if my Grandma passed me in her wheel chair at that point. I was soooooo over the climbing and it hurt. At that point I was preoccupied with one foot in front of the other and trying to chew down an Almond Brownie Power Bar. It wouldn’t go down so I resigned myself to the entertainment of making chocolate pudding in my mouth – kinda like a dog eating peanut butter. In picking Jim Kornell’s infinite experience he had forewarned me there would be times on the course when I would feel just awful but to just let it be, let it pass because I would at some point come back. And I did. But I was reminded of a Suess-ism at that point from Oh The Places You’ll Go – “I’m afraid that some times you’ll play lonely games too. Games you can’t win ’cause you’ll play against you. All alone! Whether you like it or not, Alone will be something you’ll be quite a lot.” That was me, but then I tripped hard over a rock, stubbed my toe bad and fell into a Manzanita bush (bits of it are still stuck in my hand today) and realized that I did care and I did want this finish and damnit I was going to do it.! But!……then my IT bands went out. “***^%@$#!#$!!!!” The course wasn’t going to let me get away with anything easy. It had its way of making me appreciate the caring part… just when I did start to care I was reminded about how hard I was going to have to work to get it…. how deep I was going to have to dig.. “How much are you willing to endure? How badly do you want it? Enough to endure 3 hours of running with virtual knives stabbing the sides of your knees with each downhill stride? Do you really want it?” Yes!!!! Yes!!! I want it! Four Advil and a steel trap mind…keep going..one foot in front of the other. Here’s another life lesson from ultra running – compartmentalize and prioritize. Just keep moving forward and it will get done. Put your head where you want to be and the rest will follow.

When I hit the Gibraltar aid station at mile 26 (Ha! A marathon and still 8.5/9 miles to go!) I felt like a Nascar driver coming in for a pit stop. The volunteers (bless their hearts of gold… you know who you are and YOU ROCK!) pulled off my Fuel Belt water bottles, refilled, re-capped and put them back in my belt for me. Stu Sherman hand fed me Advil and re-stocked my hand-held bottle with drink mix, and my pockets with Gu and bars and even helped me pull my polypro jersey over my sticky wet skin (it was raining by that point). I was handed 2 cups of warm chicken broth ….OMG! that was the best! And all this while I’m stuffing pb&j’s into my mouth trying to regroup….awesome! Up Gibraltar, down a treacherously slippery Rattlesnake, up a bitch of a climb to Tunnel and smokin’ fast, jackrabbit style down Tunnel (there are some advantages to only being 5’2″ like a low center of gravity for quick descents). My good friend Jon Beeson was waiting for me at the base of Tunnel and ran the last 5 miles in the pouring rain with me (he must have been waiting for about 3 hours (gotta love it that your peeps have your back). When I crested Inspiration Point again I had a smile a mile wide…I was DONE! All downhill, albeit slippery and treacherous, to the finish.

I couldn’t believe it when I crossed the finish line. Patsy was there with a huge hug and big enthusiasm (thank you, Patsy for being so divinely awesome!). No big prizes or age group awards, but a few coveted trinkets asserting loudly “I crossed the finish line!” and just the sheer perfectly intrinsically satisfying reward of having participated in one tough day at the “office.”

I was pinging off the walls and jumping up and down with excitement – yeah, kind dorky, but typical me. It’s Wednesday and I’m still riding high off of it. I’ll let you know when I get back down to Earth.

Congratulations to everyone who ran and thank you to the volunteers and supporters, runners, sponsors, friends, training partners and my coach Mike Swan whom I have never doubted.

DO THIS RACE!

 

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