It’s okay to be 36 and still be afraid of the dark, at least that’s what I’m telling myself anyway. How do I know I suffer from nyctophobia?Because I ran the Capstone 50K.
When my friend Crystal and I decided we wanted to be ultra runners, we had both just finished listening to Scott Jurek’s book Eat and Run (reading that book will increase your desire to run an ultra by 2000%). At the time we were running around Navajo Lake on top of Cedar Mountain on a bright, sunshiney, summer’s morn Yes, morn, it was really that lovely. The Navajo Lake “trail” is one of my favorite “trails,” it’s shaded, and wooded, with a well-worn dirt path that is littered with a few pinecones, a stray stone here and there, and an occasional branch that forces you to side-step their encumbrance. I hadn’t yet learned that there are “trails,” Trails, and TRAILS. I was used to running on “trails.”
After the Saint George marathon, I knew I wanted to make a little shift and I felt like farther not faster might be the right fit. So when Crystal and I heard about the Capstone 50K it checked all of our boxes.
50 K. Check.
An ultra for beginners. Check.
So we did what brave girls do and clicked register and that was that for a few weeks. I kept my miles up thinking that my treadmill running would translate well to the trails. WRONG. I also figured that most “trail” running looked the Navajo Trail. WRONGER (That’s my best Trump impression). So when I finally went out to explore the Zen Trail, one week before the race, I felt massively underprepared for what I was about to do, but I was still willing to give it a try.
I did do a couple of smart things. I went into the Saint George Running Center and got some trail shoes (I picked Brooks Pure Grit 5’s and they worked great) and while I was there I bumped into Hayden Hawkes, a truly gifted trail runner and pro runner for Hoka, he gave me some great advice and really helped assuage my fears. The one thing I should have done was invest in a better headlamp…remember the fear of the dark…I’m getting there.
Before I knew it, it was the night before the race, so I headed to the start for packet pickup. I’m used to convention centers stuffed full of vendors, samples, and excitement. I drive to the trailhead and there’s a guy, a nice guy, in a van with a little campfire going. He looked up my number and asked me if I’d run an ultra before. I said (shamefully), “Well, no but I race marathons a lot.” He nodded but I could tell he wasn’t impressed. “What’s your marathon time?” he asked. “My PR is a 2:55.” I waited for him to get impressed, he didn’t. Then he replied, “This will probably take you twice as long.” And he was close, it took 6 hours and 54 minutes.
Because the race didn’t start until noon, I got to sleep in on race day. I spent the morning putting together my gear. I brought extras of everything and a lot of food options. My only race goal was to finish, and I really appreciated everyone’s advice from my Instagram post to walk the hills especially early on.
The course was a six mile plus loop that would be run washing machine style (in alternating directions) that way we would be meeting and greeting the other people still out on the trail. For me, a trail neophyte, the course was very technical, and in parts even unrunable. The first two loops were tough and slow and hot. I forgot to bring my handheld water bottle for the first loop and I really regretted it, I needed water at mile three and didn’t get any until after mile 6. Each loop had over 1,000 feet of ascent so I really backed off early on in the race. I was so thankful my friend Ashley, who was there cheering on her husband, ran the third loop with me. I needed the distraction and the conversation. She did say at least once, when we get to that next point we’re running. I needed that push from her.
I added Nuun tablets to my water and because of the drain from the heat of the day, I have never been more thankful for those little circles of hydrating magic. All of my fuel sat really well throughout the race, but I had a harder time gauging my fueling. I used both Honeystinger chews and waffles and they worked great. Every time you completed a loop you had to run back to the start and do a quick check in. I was able to grab fuel and water pretty quickly and then get going again before I had a chance to change my mind. I loved that the race director, Turd’l, a legend among trail runners in Southern Utah, looked me in the eye and asked my every time, are you okay? I truly felt like he cared how I was doing.
On the fourth loop I had a second wind and was so thankful that miles 24, 25, and 26 felt really strong. I wondered if deep in my muscle memory my legs have been trained to find some speed at these points of distance. One of the biggest challenges that I faced is that trail running requires so much attention and focus that you can never really get into the zone where things are clicking and grooving. It made the pain cave longer, but less intense, and the fatigue crept up slower and then hit…hard.
Loop 5, the last one. I was officially an ultra runner! I had stepped into the brave, new frontier outside of the marathon distance and I only had about 6 miles to go. I really was feeling okay, but when I hit that first ascent (for the third time), I felt weary. I walked. At this point the beautiful pink sunset had faded and it was getting dark. My headlamp which works fine out on already fairly lit streets was a complete fail out in nature. When I bumped into the first dark silhouetted runners, they were friendly and told me my friend was way ahead (Crystal you really rocked it). They must have sensed a little apprehension in my voice because they encouraged me to keep going. I did and it got darker. At this point, my headlamp was useless, it jostled so much on the dark trail that the beam made it even harder to see and the trail was so rocky that I was risking an injury. I kept saying out loud, “I can’t see, I just can’t see.” About halfway through the last loop I saw a light bobbing across a dark patch of rock, it was like a beacon of hope. I was so happy to see another person you’d think I had been stranded on a desert island for months.
Me: Hi! Hello!! Hi! Hi!
Nice Runner: Hi!
Me: It’s like really dark! Can you see?
Nice Runner: Yeah I invested in a really good headlamp because I’m smart (He didn’t say that, but he might have thought it).
Me: (Shaky voice) I really can’t see the trail.
Nice Runner: Remember you scramble up the boulders, and then zig zag through the switchbacks until you get to the ridge. Run along the ridge and then down the rocks until you get to the dirt road.
Me: (Voice breaking) Umm okay.
Nice Runner: Good luck!
As he ran off into the night, I almost shouted, “Wait!” and turned back to run with him, but I knew if I went back the wrong way it would be a DNF or I’d have to run this loop again and add on another 9 million miles. If I wanted to finish then had to keep going.
Friends. I cried.
I was scared of the dark, like really scared. I was scared of falling and scared of being alone. However, I didn’t quite let the panic take over. I was still able to rationalize that my husband could come find me, my phone had location services and plenty of battery life, and I could even see the city lights of Saint George off in the distance. However, the darkness did instill in me an irrational fear of being tracked by a mountain lion and an image of my last words being scratched into the dirt would have read: I SHOULD HAVE BOUGHT A BETTER HEADLAMP. So I prayed. I prayed the same prayer over and over. I just said, please get me off this mountain, please help me see the trail. I’m not trying to be dramatic, but it was a lonely, long last few miles. But like all hard things, the only way out was through, so I just kept moving.
When my feet finally hit the dirt path, I was grateful, so grateful…and totally, emotionally wiped. I ran the last mile back to the start, guided by the smell of a campfire and then eventually glow of headlights.
I was embraced by my friends Crystal and Ashley, and I was so tired that I couldn’t remember Ashley’s name for a minute. Is ultra running induced amnesia a thing? Then the race director Turd’l Miller came over with a huge smile and a trophy. When he handed the trophy to me, he said, “Because you ran the Capstone 50K and I didn’t.” I laughed but I didn’t “get” it until the next morning when I was able to read the inscription. With some carbs and sleep, the humor and the feeling of inclusion in this amazing world of ultra runners, was not lost on me.
Anytime we step outside of our comfort zones, anytime we do something hard, something that scares us, something that we are maybe even unprepared for, it is something to celebrate. Don’t doubt yourself or those dreams, just jump in, sign up, and go for it. This was an experience I’ll never forget and I’m pretty confident it won’t be my last one.