Trails Collective

The Twisting Branch Part 4

Leave it to me to get four parts into this blog before even giving the race report! This is what I wrote on social media in the immediate aftermath, and though I spent some time trying to find what was authentic within me, I’m not fully bought into the narrative I spoke at the time. If I had to write a race report from scratch today, it might be different from what follows.

Twisted Branch Trail Run 100k Race Report (originally posted August 23, 2022)

Total distance: 64.42 miles, Official time: 19:18:48, 110/119 Overall Finishers (48 DNF), 26/27 Division

Part 1: The Plan

In the picture, Shea Coleman, in all her Vegan Unicorn glory, is embraced by her friend, Olga Huber, who paced her from Bud Valley to Urbana. I took that picture in 2021 to document the feeling of elation that comes with completing the Twisted Branch 100k race and achieving a Western States lottery ticket.

I was first aware of this race from a picture of Jen Malik crossing the finish line in 2017. At the time, my brain could not fathom what running 100 kilometers would be like. I gradually pieced it together, tackling marathons and even the Mighty Mosquito 100-miler. Given its reputation and status as the only Western States qualifying race in New York State, I knew this would be an even bigger challenge, so I needed a plan.

I once told my friend Chris O’Brien that a plan is something you put on a piece of paper – it’s what you get out of it that matters.

I planned the crap out of Twisted Branch. My crew chief, Keith Sardone has the spreadsheet to prove it. Months of preparation, from the moment I clicked on the UltraSignup register button in January. I assembled a team of coaches: Jim Sweeney at Sundog Running, Carly Brady at OnTrack PT & Performance, Jen Nguyen at Sweet Pea Plant-Based Kitchen. (Shout out to Ellie Pell as well, who helped me figure out a few things throughout the process.) As the day got closer, I added Keith, Pat Dennie, and Tracy Hardes. The week before, despite lingering doubts, the love I felt from those around me energized me. 3am race day, I was buzzing with anticipation.

I started slow, not just because my plan called for it, but also to walk off the nerves. Pacing was always my struggle, so it wasn’t long before I finally had to scratch the itch. 2 miles in, I tried to ramp up to goal pace. I breezed through Cutler (Mile 6.0). I shared a couple of miles with my Trails Collective friend, Kuwanna Dyer-Pietras, then I continued my mission to make it to Naples Creek (Mile 12.5) by 7am. My plan was to only stop at 4 crewed aid stations to minimize downtime – I could walk and eat. That plan looked good, or so I thought.

Part 2: The Why

I negotiated the steepest climb of the course with Kuwanna, and breezed along the road beyond the Sneaker (Mile 18.2). When I previewed the section beyond Italy Valley with Rich Ibbotson, it was hot and miserable. It wasn’t quite as bad now, but I started feeling a bit low. Chatting with Jen Campanella gave me a fillip, I came over the ridge into the breeze, and I found some flow.

I caught up to my training partner, Rachel Betts. We both struggled as we neared the marathon mark, and I was happy to go at her pace for a while. Suddenly, while checking her watch, she tripped, fell to her hands and knees, and her calves immediately started cramping. I got her to sit with bent knees to get the pressure off her legs. Jen came up on us, and we instructed Rachel to breathe deep, take nutrition/hydration, and rest. We got her up on her feet and started walking; she eventually was able to jog. We all stayed together for a while, then Jen went ahead on the open road, and when I felt comfortable Rachel was able to move smoothly, I let gravity take me down to my crew at The Lab (Mile 29.3).

Photo credit: Ron Heerkens, Jr./Goat Factory Media

In Addie Bracy’s Mental Training for Ultrarunning, she opens with finding your why, and links this to your value system. I had trouble pinning down my why (accomplishing hard things, being a student of life). In talking with Rachel after the race, I remembered what I had celebrated with my citizenship oath: I find most joy when I’m helping others. In ultrarunning, the unconscious energy boost that helps you overcome just one more obstacle can be the most important.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but by being 100% committed to helping Rachel, even if it meant sacrificing my own goals (which I was unquestionably prepared to do), I may have saved my own race.

But that was yet to come. My mental mistakes were already starting to creep in. I couldn’t spend too much time dwelling on it – I was still on track with my plan. The relief of fresh shoes was short-lived, and I gradually deteriorated in the heat. I had to narrow my focus, using distractions to drive me through Patch (Mile 35.6) and eventually down to Bud Valley (Mile 39.8).

Part 3: The Darkness

The cardinal rule of ultras is to be flexible and adaptable. 

At Bud Valley, I broke that rule, twice, by being stubborn.

1. I didn’t take the time to take care of my feet.

2. I still believed I could get to my crew at the next planned aid station without illumination.

I picked up Pat as my first pacer. My mental energy was so low, I couldn’t respond, but needed him to keep checking in with me, especially with hydration/nutrition. I’m sure he was sick of hearing me complaining about how tired I was or how sore my feet were, but he kept throwing out snippets of encouragement when I was able to pick up pace for a section, or hike up a hill with purpose.

The mistakes piled up by the time we made it to Glenbrook (Mile 46.2). I had waived the opportunity to get crew help here (although I was glad to see my dietician, Jen) and underestimated the grind to Lake David (Mile 50.6). It was longer than Pat and I figured, and I kept trying to recall the course from my last preview run. Once there, I finally changed my plan and took the time to depressurize my feet, but I was now so far off pace that I risked bumping up against the cutoffs. If we didn’t make it past Mitchellsville (Mile 55.7) before sundown, I would be pulled. As it was, we got there just in time, but there was no hiding it now.

I would be running in the dark.

Pat was my savior. He had brought his own headlamp, and with one light between the two of us, we headed into Urbana State Forest. For 10 mins, I walked ahead of Pat alone in the dark while he fixed his headlamp battery and a slew of runners passed me for good. The biggest disappointment, though, was that this section of the trail was the most beautiful and I had visualized skipping down it as my reward. Now, due to my obstinacy, I could only walk 2 miles when I could have been flying. I even tripped and fell.

Pat eventually brought me in to Urbana (Mile 59.2), and I finally found the relief of fresh gear. I could not have been more grateful for my crew at that point, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind.

How could I have been so stupid?

Part 4: The Goal

To be brutally honest, I feel like a failure. My primary goal was to finish in under 19 hours (the Western States qualifying time was changed to 20 hours the week before the race). My secondary goal was to finish in the daylight so I didn’t need a headlamp again. I achieved neither of these. All of the training has had a toll, too, on my family. These are all things I have to weigh against what my goal truly means.

Back to the race: I had told myself that the race finishes at Urbana and the last 5.5 miles are a victory lap. When I got to the final aid station, I was somewhere I never expected to be: in a battle against the clock, just like Shea the year before.

Tracy was always going to be the person to lead me home. When I asked her to pace me up Mount Washington, she wasn’t sure what pace I’d have to keep. I reassured her that we’d have so much time we could walk the whole thing. Of course, that all had changed, and instead, she needed to push me. In short, I needed the best motivator: one who understood the effort needed to accomplish hard things, but the sensitivity to bring the best out of people.

I couldn’t have asked for more, or better, than Tracy.

My exhaustion was at maximum as we hiked up the hill for 1.5 miles, but once we got on the ridge, the cool night air gave me back the pep I had 18 hours earlier. I found my flow and I forgot about all the travails that preceded. I didn’t look at my watch to check time or pace, as I had confidence again.

The irony of it: I needed to be so slow to reach conditions cool enough for me to be fast again.

The memories of last year: the trail kills (i.e. runners I passed) along the way, the exhilaration of dancing down the switchbacks, the sight of the lanterns marking the road crossing, the sound of cheering as I neared the finish. These were now my memories.

At the finish line, I received the biggest hug from Shea. And so the circle from last year to this year was complete.

I am a Twisted Branch 100k finisher.

I am a Western States qualifier.

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