I recently got second place in a race and I’m not happy about it – but not for the reasons you might think. Read on to find out why.
A few weeks ago, I ran Ronda dels Cims, a 170 km race with 13,500 m of climb in Andorra. It’s a race I’ve been wanted to do for a number of years, but I just haven’t been able to make it work. In Europe, there are small handful of Hardrock qualifiers – Tor des Geants and Ronda being two of them. Given my love affair with Tor, I knew Ronda wouldn’t disappoint.
Ronda is known to be a wild race. It has 35% more climb than the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and much of the race is run above 2000m. While it is technically a marked trail, there really isn’t much of a trail to speak of in certain sections (I swear I’m still finding leaves in places I shouldn’t be). With only 450 people in the race (small by European standards), you have the chance to really get out into nature alone and enjoy the mountains, which was exactly what I was looking for. Yes!
I started off the race conservatively, knowing that my legs weren’t really prepared. I had finished Lavaredo three weeks prior, but hadn’t really done much else. Work had been intense and my health situation hadn’t been great (thank you weird Afghan-induced infections), so I was just looking forward to running with no goal in mind.
I can tell when I’m doing well and when I’m not – I feel it. I knew I was running slowly and it didn’t bother me one bit… until a random volunteer told me I was in fourth. Fourth?! Instead of excitement at my high ranking, I was bitterly disappointed. My performance did not warrant a fourth place by any means. It just didn’t. I should have been around 20th place at best and I wasn’t happy that I was so far up in the rankings. I felt like a total fraud. I kept looking behind me, willing the other women forward.
Despite being at high altitude, the temperature still felt quite hot – hotter than it should have been. Maybe it was mental, but the heat seemed to take away my energy and I struggled to get any food down. At around 50 km, I ran into the check point at Comapedrosa and saw my dear friend Cristian Caselli, who I’ve run with many times in Tor and other European races. He doesn’t speak English, but we’ve got a bond. I’m pretty sure he proposed to me one time post-race as we were comparing our bloated belly sizes, but that’s a story for another time. I may or may not have said yes. All this to say, I love the guy as much as you can love someone with whom you mainly communicate via mime. He indicated he was dropping out, to which I profusely protested. John Kelly, whom I “know” from the Barkley, was also dropping out. Nooooo! I tried in vain to convince him to keep going, but the look in his eyes said I’m done. The desire to join these stellar athletes in the shuttle back to the start line was strong, but I forced myself to sit down and eat a bowl of pasta. Keep going, Caser, I thought. If I was in fourth, there was zero reason to drop out. That meant every other female except for three in the field were struggling more than I was, so I just needed to suck it up.
As soon as John and Cristian left, I went outside of the refuge and threw up on the steps. Spectacular. I often throw up at least once in a race, but I can usually keep it at bay by switching up my food choices. For this race, I didn’t have crew, so I knew that the pasta I had just thrown up would be my main food source for the next day or two. Awesome. The doctors were incredibly cool about it. Normally (and understandably), race doctors taking puking fairly seriously and they try to make you stop the race for a period of time (unless I can avoid their attempts at restraint). These doctors looked at me and said “ca va?” To which I responded “oui, si, oui!” They took out a bucket of water and washed off the steps and wished me well on my way. Practical medicine. Gracias.
The first night was brutal. My puke-and-rally-and-puke strategy was failing miserably and all I wanted to do was sleep. I should have been fine to run straight through until the second night, but without enough fuel in the tank, I was sputtering along. I decided to curl up on the side of the trail to try to get a bit of sleep for a few minutes, when another runner came up behind. “There’s a refuge just a couple of hundred metres ahead!” he said. “It’s much more comfortable to sleep there.” I groggily got on my feet and trudged ahead, looking down to see that I was covered in night spiders. I didn’t even mind having a few extra friends along for the ride 🙂
I came into the life base around 73km at Margineda and saw Liza Borzani lying on the floor of the auditorium – my heart sank. I’ve raced against (behind J) Liza in a number of races, most notably Tor des Geants. She’s not only a fantastically strong runner, but an extremely humble one – someone who exudes positivity and encouragement. To see her near where I was on the race, not to mention lying on the floor, was not a good sign. I chatted with her briefly and found out she was stopping the race. Shit. I was genuinely disappointed. With so few female runners in the race, I cared much less about improving my placing than I did about seeing the women who were running finish – and finish well. At that point, I believe I was still in fourth position, but getting into third was nothing to celebrate. Lisa deserved to be at the front and I wanted to finish strong behind her. I took no pleasure in jumping up in the ranks.
My memory of sequencing after that is pretty hazy. I remember climbing up one of the mountains and reaching the top, only to be greeted by what has to be the most attractive volunteers I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it was the anti-nausea meds he gave me, but I could have sworn he was glowing in hotness energy. And then he apologized for not having whipped cream available (my go-to food during Tor des Geants). I fell in love for at least 90 seconds, fantasizing about our fabulous future life together, before hurtling myself down the mountain towards the next checkpoint and another unsuspecting volunteer. #someday #runnershigh?
At some point on the second night, I hit an all-time low. I called my parents, pretty delirious, and treated them to a rendition of me retching as I was running along the trails (or was that the first night?). It was pretty funny in retrospect. When I got to the next checkpoint, I was nauseous, but I knew I was redlining and needed to try to eat something. When you run on little to no calories for long periods of time, your body takes on a very distinctive smell – like pungent, rotten fruit. It’s not a smell you’d want to bottle up and save for later. I ran into the refuge and in all of my wisdom, drank half a cup of olive oil out of a soup bowl in an attempt to get some quick calories in. I felt good enough to have another bowl of dreaded pasta, but realized too late that I was getting ahead of myself (no surprise). I don’t have to tell you how this story ends…. But just for cinematic drama, picture me hunched over the toilet creating a scene from the Olive Garden buffet in the bowl. GROSS.
The last few climbs in the race were completely incoherent. I’m used to running sleep-deprived, but I’ve never gone more than about 36-38 hours without at least a quick nap. I slipped into a deep “sleep run”, which is not something I would recommend. The best way to describe it is that your brain is switched on enough to physically navigate the trail beneath you, but you really aren’t fully there. You’re running in a parallel universe, drunk with exhaustion. During Tor one year, I dreamt that my friend Michael was accompanying me on the trail and helping me through the dense fog – that was helpful. This particular “sleep run”, however, was not.
The Ronda course was marked with red flags on the ground and sometimes white reflective tape that hung from the trees. In my run-induced delirium, I dreamt that the red flags were marking explosive remnants of war, and the white tape was identifying dead bodies. I remember getting quite annoyed that the government had failed to clear the race course of explosives before letting us go out on the trail, and I swerved to avoid the markings. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like to the other runners or race volunteers.
Before you think I’m a complete nut job, let me assure you – that’s probably only half true 🙂 If you aren’t familiar with my background, I currently work in human rights in Afghanistan, and unfortunately a big part of my job is dealing with the things I was dreaming about. Running is usually an escape for me from the stresses of work – and Afghanistan in general – but this time, the stress followed me. I knew on some level that I wasn’t really back in Afghanistan, but it’s very hard to get out of the dream once you’re in it. I tried everything to wake myself up, but it wasn’t working. In a moment of pure genius, I asked a volunteer at a check point on the hillside if he would give me a little slap across the face to knock me out of my slumber. He smiled, patted my cheek and planted a kiss on me.
Well, that did it. Ahem. I’m going to name that trick the “sleeping beauty”. Score!
With a few relapses back into sleep mode, some incoherent mumbling at the last checkpoint, and a final push to the finish, I made it – in second place female.
Normally, with a second place, I would have been ecstatic. Sure, I was happy, but it was mainly related to me finishing and finally being able to sleep. It was not a good performance, and certainly not one worthy of a podium finish. Out of 47 hours of running, I was nauseous or throwing up for about 30 hours of it. I was weak from the lack of calories and certifiably insane from the lack of sleep. I finished 13 hours behind the first-place woman, who set a course record. (Super impressive!)
It’s not that I’m not proud of what I did. I totally am. I battled, I didn’t give up, and I did it all on my own, without crew. That’s freaking awesome. But I’m upset that there weren’t more women ahead of me. There just shouldn’t be a 13-hour gap between first and second place. I would have much preferred it if I had come in 7th, or 15th, or 30th because that would mean that there were THAT many awesome women in front of me. I’ve frequently lamented the continuing low female participation rates in ultras and it is most pronounced in races like Andorra or Tor, which go a step beyond your ‘regular’ ultras. It’s getting better, no doubt, but we aren’t where we need to be. (That being said, I want to make it clear that I think the race organization behind Ronda are incredible. They did everything they could to facilitate me getting into the race and were hugely supportive of my efforts to raise money for my charity, Free to Run, which is all about empowering women and girls).
Would I go back to race Ronda again? In a heartbeat. It exemplified for me everything that I love about ultras: raw landscapes, kind volunteers, and no fuss. The only thing that was missing was more women out on the trails to enjoy them with. I hope that when I come back, I’m nowhere near the podium. Now that would be something to celebrate.
Thanks as always to Chafex for the support and to my friend Leah for the pizza at the finish line!