For me, this story really begins with the Courmayeur-Champex-Lac-Chamonix (CCC), a shorter sister race of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). For years I’ve dreamed of running through the Italian, Swiss, and French Alps on this magnificent trail, yet for those very same years I thought that even qualifying for the lottery would be a bit of a stretch. Despite some ups and downs with illness, injuries, moving across state lines, etc. I finally gave myself the space and permission to dedicate a full year to train and race toward entering the CCC lottery.
I’ve written some race recaps on early 2019 races and big training runs leading up to my first 50M attempt (actually 53.5M but who’s counting?) at Elkhorn Crest in July. It was in Sumpter, OR that has had me holding my tongue for almost the remainder of the year. Going into Elkhorn I knew it would be the very hardest thing I’ve attempted and that it would be a total grind. And it was.
The race boasts over 11,000ft of climbing and a little more descent into 53.5 miles along the Elkhorn ridgeline in the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest of eastern Oregon. I thought I had put in the work – and I had – and I thought I had prepped all my gear and drop bag and tested my fueling routine thoroughly. One thing I had not accounted for? Altitude. On paper, I could see that the race started at 5500ft and climbed to over 8000ft and it didn’t seem like a big deal. I’ve submitted Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire which sits at an elevation of 6288ft. I hadn’t had any issues in the Whites, and besides, how much time was I spending above 6000ft anyways?
The race start is a 40 minute shuttle ride into Bourne, OR and starts at elevation on a fire access road. As the sun starts to turn the sky every shade of purple and pink, the race participants line up and get counted down by the RD. It’s a 4.25 mile climb up this road to the first (and second) Aid Station at Cracker Creek. It’s a beautiful forest hike, which starts to open into flowering alpine meadows within the last quarter mile to the AS.
From here it’s a loop down to an alpine lake and back up to the same AS at mile 10.25. I ran this race with a good friend, Kevin, as we both are trying to acquire points toward a UTMB race lottery. We chase off some curious mountain goats on a narrow, chossy ridge over the lake before climbing back up to the AS. By this time I was already in DFL for the 53 milers who would be allowed to continue through AS3. All those behind me would be asked to drop and do the marathon distance once they got there. Overhearing the AS volunteers relay my bib # in this way ahead to AS3 was gutting. Granted, there were only 40 participants in the 53M race, but still?! DEAD $@^#ing LAST?! We were only at mile 10.25!!!
Heading out of AS2 the pressure was on to stay ahead of the cutoffs. I had expected the next section to be runnable as the elevation profile made it seem like a low-grade climb, but I just couldn’t run. My heart was beating in my ears, my head was pounding, and my legs felt heavy. Fortunately, the alpine meadows were blooming and the views were absolutely stunning. The Elkhorn Crest trail is truly a gem! I power hiked the majority of this section and my anxiety was through the roof. I needed to be running to stay comfortably ahead of cutoffs, but my legs wouldn’t turn over. The steep drop to AS3 was also slower going than I would have liked. There were bad washouts on the dirt trail so I didn’t want to risk a rolled ankle here. I also didn’t want to wreck my quads so early on. Dodging cow pies and swatting flies (apparently they release beef cattle up here in the off season to try to curb invasives? I’m totally guessing, but there were loads of annoyed cattle up here who were upset by the intrusion of all these silly runners), AS3 was a quick touch-and-go pitstop. Grilled peanut butter and jelly? Heck yes! Pee break. Then time to start the heinous climb out of there and back up to the ridge. This climb mentally almost broke me and at the ridge I sat down on a rock, head in hands and came very close to tears. I wasn’t sure my legs could do that again, especially not after almost a marathon and 5000+ft of gain between now and then. Only one way to find out, though. TRY!
The next section was a brief stint of a few miles more along the crest before dropping way, way down to the Twin Lakes AS. Again, lots of hiking and not running on this section but at least there was an incredible butterfly migration under way! It was like a snow storm of monarchs…and it was dead quiet up on the ridge and felt rather dream-like. Likely due to my oxygen level being low, but more on that later.
There is a brief mountain pass where the trail switches from one side of the ridgeline to the other, and you arrive at the overlook for Twin Lakes. Two men who had been leap frogging with us for most of the race caught up, and we collectively discussed how close we were to the cutoff, and how fast we were going to have to do this descent (4.5 miles and 2800ft). We had about an hour until the cutoff. Let’s find our happy places and GO!
I got chosen to lead the assault on the Twin Lakes Trail and man, we were flying. It’s too bad because I honestly believe this to be some of the most beautiful trail on the entire course, but I never really saw it. It’s a blur. We coasted in with 10 minutes to spare, and I had volunteers fill up my hydration pack and soft bottles while I crammed salt-covered watermelon into my mouth. This was the one and only AS where I had a drop bag, but I never saw it. Couldn’t even tell you if it was there. We lost one in our group to GI distress and again I heard the AS volunteer relay my bib # ahead to AS5 by walkie-talkie: LAST RUNNER.
Now it was time to turn around and go back up to the ridge, back up 4.5miles and 2800ft. The AS was 8 miles away and I had two hours to get there. Yikes! I kept my head down and I pushed as hard as I could to get back to the ridge. There was a lovely forested section for the first mile or so, but once you really started climbing you were mostly on an exposed and rocky trail.
The sweeper caught me here, but as he was simply collecting ribbons he hung back and gave me some space. Unaware of how long I’d been climbing, I found a speck of shade in the rocks and sat down. “I think I’m going to have an asthma attack.” I sat here for a few minutes and had a conversation with myself. “You’re fine. You’re almost to the ridge, you’ll catch your breath up there. The last 3.75 miles on the ridge to the AS is all downhill. You’ll get it back. Oh no, you’re really going to have an asthma attack. You are all alone. You are DFL. You are 4 miles from help.”
I set my trekking poles aside and held my face in my hands. How could I let this happen? How did I overlook bringing my inhaler? The trees to my right rustled and moved, and I remembered…THE SWEEPER! I clawed my way to my feet and stumbled back towards where he was hiding (again trying to give me some space to run the race). I called out and I was done with the back and forth and bullshitting myself. “Hey! Are you there? I think I’m having a medical emergency. I can’t breathe.” He lept out and into action. He had me sit down, take off my vest, and tried to cool me off and have me BREATHE.
The problem was, I couldn’t. My airway was so tight and my lungs so stressed that I could not take a deep breath. I was wheezing badly. He explained that he had a spotTracker and would message ahead to AS5 to the EMT to ask for next steps. They advised not going back down to AS4 as they had already cleared out. We were going to have to continue to go UP to get OUT. I tried to focus on keeping calm, but it occured to me just how “in the middle of nowhere” we were. Hearing that I needed to keep climbing in this state felt like an impossibility. I started to panic, my blood sugar dropped, and the asthma/panic attack took over my entire body. I was shaking uncontrollably, trying to plead with Sweeper Rob that I could not go back up to the ridge. I was crying and the tunnel vision started. Thank you Rob for being so calm and for really, truly being there for me. It’s been so many months since this happened, and I am still getting choked up about it. Rob kneeled down, squeezed me by my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and told me “I’m not leaving you.” Paraphrasing: We will sit here until you can get your breath and heart rate back, and we will take this as slowly as we need to. But I need you to work with me and try to sloooooow down that breathing.
After an eternity a few minutes my breathing slowed down a bit and Rob fed me a salt pill and some snacks. My body temp was dropping from the stress so he had me put on all my layers and we very slowly started the climb to the ridge. The EMT responded that he would come out to us and take over for Rob, and it seemed like he materialized out of thin air he got there so fast. As Rob turned to go on ahead, I asked him to please tell Kev not to wait for me, I was sure he was close to the cutoff as it was. He nodded and took off, and then EMT Reagan and I had the 3.75 mile trek to get to AS5 and an albuterol treatment.
Poor Reagan rushed so badly he didn’t think to bring regular shoes, so he was walking his mountain bike in his clip shoes the whole way out. Sorry, Reagan! It was slow, we saw the last few runners heading back toward us and the last 16 miles of the race, and we moved aside and cheered them all on. I took a seated break every few minutes and Reagan laughed at me because I kept getting worked up that “I totally could have run this if I could’ve just made it the ridge”….ya, probably not. Kev ran by and was now holding the coveted DFL title. We hugged, and I told him to give the rest of the course hell for me.
When we arrived at the truck Reagan’s first order of business was to check my O2 level which was well below the average (you want 95-100% blood oxygen saturation. My was below 80%). Supplemental oxygen and an albuterol treatment later, and I took the first deep, refreshing, mountain air breath in many hours! We drove back to the start/finish area where my husband was waiting. I called and told him I missed the cutoff and to meet me there, leaving out the other stuff so as not to make him worry. When he saw me hop out of the mountain EMT vehicle he shook his head and smiled at me…what happened? Where’s Kev?
I got some hot food in me as I relayed the tale of my first DNF and then headed off to the showers to get clean and cry. Back in warm clothes we grabbed a beer and waited at the finish for Kev. He finished DFL, bringing it in strong with Sweeper Rob in 17:05! Congrats, dude!
Having my first DNF was hard, having to be evac’d for a medical emergency was scary, and not getting to truly put my training to the test was devastating. But, I learned a lot of things about mountain safety, listening to my body, and making tough decisions when in the backcountry. I will definitely be coming back for this race in the future, as well as some of the other events alpine running puts on…they are great! The AS’s were very well-stocked and the volunteers stoked, friendly, and competent at helping the runners. The start/finish had great food and beer, and the RD’s personally were there to hand each finisher their award. They were also so so kind and checked up on me once I came in and continually while I waited for Kev to finish.
If you have an allergy or any medical condition, regardless of severity, take the extra time and care (and weight) to carry whatever information to alert others or medications you might need as a precaution! I will never run another race without my inhaler in my pack or vest. Health and safety are paramount during any mountain adventure!