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!
Love this so much! The humor and humanity come through. I can relate to your description of a “sleep run”. I had a similar if not quite as deep experience for a 5-6 mile stretch at TRT last month. I saw a number of dear friends on a two-way section of trail, and couldn’t mumble a word. I did manage to baffle my pacer when I sat on a rock to look for a peppermint lifesaver. For once, the sunrise helped revive me. Congrats on your run and stay safe at work 😊🌈🦄🙏🏼💯
Thanks!! Would you recommend the race (TRT)? Such a beautiful part of the world. (And did you find the lifesaver? 🙂 🙂 )
Yes, I love TRT! I ran the 50 in 2017 and the 100 the last two years. The view of Lake Tahoe at night is amazing. We saw a beautiful moon set last year, and a moonrise this year. Lots of single track, occasionally technical but usually runnable. About 18-19k of vert, with most of it over 8000 ft. High points just under 9000ft. Volunteers and aid stations are top notch.
Oh, and yes, I found the Lifesaver!! 😄🌈🙏🏼🦄💯. I turned around, backtracking 20 ft to sit on a rock, and pulled my pack off. My lovely pacer Beth has zero clue what I’m up to. She keeps asking me questions, I continue to look goofy without saying a word, until I proudly hold up a peppermint lifesaver in a little cellophane wrapper. I have this huge goofy smile, and Beth is like oh geez, cmon, lets get moving 🤭😂
You not only have amazing stories to tell, but you tell them well.
A true treat to read.
Thanks so much for reading!
I had to read the part about the sleep-run to my kids. Great story!
Ha! Amazing. I should have put a disclaimer: “don’t try this at home, kids…” Lock the doors at night! 😉
I found your blog while doing research on sesamoid injuries. I’m amazed to read through some of these posts. You are truly inspiring on a number of levels. It’s certainly given me hope of working through my own issues with months of foot pain and a recent diagnosis of a dying sesamoid!
Ooooh hang in there!! It isn’t a death sentence to your running – far from it 🙂 I hope it resolves!
Another great tale from the heart.
And what a great charity — freetorun.org!
Thanks, Nick! We are a passionate bunch willing to try crazy things. Which also describes the ultra community 😉 Same same 🙂
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If you ever find the secret to stop vomiting, can you please let me know🤔😉
Endless variety of food and eating constantly (not too much, not too little) to keep a steady stream of food in the belly. I’m terrible at it, but as long as I can switch up what I’m eating, I can usually keep the nausea at bay. Just not this time (facepalm).
Ha, I am try exactly that, I just need to persevere!
Thanks for your posts; they are awesome and a real inspiration to women like me getting in to the sport. I am writing to chip in to the question; “Where are all the other women?” I am a mother of 4, a professional, and a runner. I’m just getting back into training seriously after mostly being pregnant or nursing for the last 11 years (and I’m still not sleeping through the night.) Unlike some other countries, US jobs have only a 3 month maternity leave (and mine was only 60% of my salary). I worked up to my due date all 4 times and then returned to work 12 weeks (once 6, because I had changed jobs and they weren’t required to give me the full 12 weeks) after delivery–and that is exhausting- a real physical toll and one that takes a long time to recover from. And most female colleagues of mine in our field (medicine) have done the same.
I feel like my husband is really supportive, but to be real: he does not do 50% of the parenting or housework–and I don’t know any of my friends’ husbands who do.
I know that there are female runners out there who have a baby and get right back into it–they are an inspiration to me; but, in my life, practically, it has been really really hard. I probably could have managed running more seriously with a newborn or older baby, but not both of those + working enough to be the breadwinner of my family. Something has to give.
Getting back into more serious training now that my youngest is 2 has uncovered a lot about general attitudes for women in sport who are not professional athletes–some really supportive people and some really negative ones. And I’ve had to examine those attitudes and find which ones I was unconsciously agreeing with–my husband, for example, doesn’t have any feelings of guilt about going for exercise if the house is messy or laundry is piled up–so why should I? Understanding those answers has helped me to claim some time for myself to train, but I find in general there is a lot more support for superwomen who can somehow go for a 3 hour run, take their kids to swim practice, volunteer at the library, and bring everyone home to a gourmet dinner in a spotless house than the average woman like myself who makes peace with the fact that going to run = some household chores are just not going to get done.
I’m grateful for the fact that I *am* free to run, that I could attain an education and have earning potential to support my family in a field that until recently was male-dominated. That is awesome and far more opportunity that many women in other countries do have. I think however when you are looking for women to equal men in sports that are so time-intensive, and that require training over years, you have to look at our society in general, and differences in what men and women are currently doing and *are expected to do* to find the answers.
I’m curious to hear your advice or if anyone else has had a similar experience!
ABSOLUTELY! Thanks for sharing! I FULLY AGREE. Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely NOT blaming women for not being in the race 😉 I think societal factors play a huge role in preventing women from being able to equally engage in this sport and they are most pronounced in a race like Andorra (which requires significant training time away from family obligations, years of participation in the sport, the ability to run without fear of getting harassed including at night etc etc…). I have written about some of these issues here: https://www.outsideonline.com/2312071/ultrarunning-has-gender-problem. It is why I have also tried to push race directors to think about their own policies in a way that encourages more women to enter in order to help level the playing field: https://www.outsideonline.com/2236961/why-cant-pregnant-women-defer-race-entries. A lot of people still like to believe that everyone starts at the same point and women/men have equal chances and opportunities to train and race, but it simply isn’t true. I didn’t get into all of those issues in this post, but they absolutely play a factor.
That sounds brutal! Well done persevering to the bitter end. My first ultra next year is tame in comparison. Firstly it is “only” 100km and secondly it is essentially dead flat, following the course of the Thames. Gotta start somewhere! Funny write up, thanks.
My 16 year old daughter has been suffering with a big toe injury for over a year. She recently got diagnosed with having a sesamoid fracture. Recommendation from two doctors are the same. Bunion surgery and remove fractured sesamoid. I stumbled on your old post from 10 years ago talking about your experience with this. Now reading your current post it seems the surgery was a success. So worried about proceeding with correct treatment. Do you have any advice or thoughts on this?
Hi there! Well, every situation is different, but I seemed to have bounced back okay 🙂 My docs didn’t know there was anything wrong with my sesamoid before the surgery, so I never really had the chance to make a decision about what to do about it – I just woke up from the bunionectomy with no sesamoid. Eep! There really was no other choice at that point though. I had been in pain for a while and nothing had worked. I had tried injections and other methods. Before surgery, I did a lot of research on various doctors and approaches. Depending on where you are based and the type of access to medical care you might have, I would suggest reading up on various doctors available and ask questions about the surgical technique they will use (not all bunionectomies are done the same way, at least that is what I know from 10 year ago!). Good luck – ask lots of questions!
Thank you so much. Reading your blog is so inspirational. I will keep researching and will ask lots of questions.
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