Most days I don’t even want to drive 100 miles, it’s too far and with the traffic in Southern California it takes to long. But for a small elite group of endurance athletes they skip the drive and tackle that 100 miles in a run. My husband and I were only recently exposed to ultra marathons because of our daughter, Rhea, whose began competing in them 3 years ago.
Before I get into our recent adventure as Rhea’s crew, let’s start with a little background on how she started this crazy sport. Back in 2012 Rhea and I both decided to run our first 1/2 marathon. We chose The America’s Finest City 1/2 Marathon in San Diego because Mike told us it was a great race. It truly is a beautiful race starting at the top of Point Loma and running through Shelter Island, along the bay around Harbor Island, pass the Star of India into Downtown San Diego to Balboa Park. The end of the race was murder. We were in Downtown San Diego, it was 85 degrees and we’re running up hill the entire way until we finally finish in Balboa Park. Rhea still remembers feeling exhausted by the end of this race. Me too, but when it was over I feel such an amazing sense of accomplishment. We both did reasonable well, finishing around 2 Hours and 14 minutes. We celebrated with a nice brunch and tattoos on our feet, commemorating our accomplishment. Since then I’ve ran six more 1/2 marathons but that’s the most I’m willing to do. However, Rhea’s blown that accomplishment out of the water and has left me in the dust. She decided her next goal would be a full marathon, which she completed, although she struggled with some hip pain from road running. It was about that time when she started running with a group called the Coyotes, that ran trails rather then on the road and that’s when she really fell in love with running. Getting off the pavement and out into nature sparked a desire to go further and further, so she made a goal to run a 50K (33 miles) called the Leona Divide in April 2015. She laughs now when she looks back at the HUGE pack and leggings she wore to run that first race. She’s continued to up her game and go for longer and longer runs until the first 100 mile race she signed up for in August of 2017. A grueling race with over 20,000 feet in elevation climb in the hot Southern California mountains called The Angeles Crest 100. It was her and her boyfriend, Andrew’s first attempt at 100 miles. Andrew completed the 100 miles in about 32 hours but sadly Rhea had to withdrawal from the race at mile 75. It was devastating but the injury to her Achilles was pretty serious and had she continued it could’ve resulted in a debilitating injury with several months of rehabilitation. She just wasn’t willing to take that chance. So for the next year she trained, worked hard on her nutrition while running and entered the lottery for the Cascade Crest 100 in Washington. When she got picked and asked us to join her as her crew there was no way we were going to miss it.
When race weekend finally arrived, Mike and I checked out the weather (it seemed to change everyday) and did our best job to pack for whatever might come our way. We left Orange County Airport on Friday morning, August 24th, and meet the kids at Seatac airport and in our rented van, all of us headed to the Cascade Mountains together.
Our job as crew for the runner is basically to support them with whatever they need when they come into aid stations. This means filing their backpack with water, replenishing snacks and electrolytes and getting them whatever food they want on their short break including helping them change clothes if needed. A runner does not require crew, many people run without it, there are plenty of race volunteers and food at each aid station and you can prepare your own drop bags with the things you need. But as a runner I will tell you, there is nothing better or more motivating then seeing your loved ones during your race. Aid stations are generally every 6 to 10 miles but some are not accessible by crew, so we may go as much as 20+ miles before seeing our runner. So while Rhea runs for 30 hours, we wait, drive to the next spot and wait some more, try and sleep and then wait again…
The Cascade Crest was awesome because it didn’t start super early in the morning. We arrived at around 7:30am, there was a meeting with information for runners and crew and then we sent them off at the Start Line at 9:00 am.
The first station we could access wasn’t for 26 miles so we knew we had about six hours to kill before we’d be seeing Rhea again. Our drive time for this leg of the race was about 45 minutes so we decided to go get lunch and do a little wine tasting at Swiftwater Cellars which was less then 10 miles from our hotel. What a treat! We had a fantastic lunch and Mike enjoyed a tasting flight of red wine and I did the white. The wines were all really good, the view was gorgeous, the staff was amazing and it was a great relaxing way to start what is to be a very long day.
After the wine tasting we headed back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the crew (Andrew and Kelly) and make the drive to get our first look at Rhea. The interesting part of being on the crew is having no real idea when your runner might show up at the aid station. Obviously Rhea knows when she plans to be there because she understands the pace that she typically runs. But get there to late and your runner might be having a great day and is arriving earlier then expected and you end up missing them. Or they may be struggling and their pace is much slower and you end up waiting. The first aid station is always the most nerve-racking. You’re waiting with serious anticipation to see your runner for the first time and find out their mood and how the run is going so far. If they come in feeling great and smiling at the first stop, it’s an amazing feeling and you can take a breathe knowing it’s probably going to be a good day. On the other hand if they’re struggling on the first leg you worry that it might be a really rough day. When Rhea saw us all at the 1st station at Mile 26, she was teary-eyed, which had me worried that things weren’t good. Had she been throwing up already, had she hurt herself, was she in pain? In this case they were tears of happiness and relief just seeing us all there. Then she was all smiles, she was feeling great, we filled her water and she ate 2 pieces of pizza and was back on the trail in less then 10 minutes.
Once she took off we headed straight for the van and to the next aid station at mile 36. Many of the roads we had to take were dirt and the drive was very slow, so there is no wasting time between spots, because the last thing we want is to miss Rhea when she needs us. We got there in plenty of time and had probably at least an hour to wait before she was to arrive. Aid stations are actually very fun, you meet a ton of other crew members waiting for their runners and it never gets old cheering people in as they arrive. This part of the race was on the Pacfic Crest Trail (PCT), so several times while we waited we cheered on hikers that came through the aid station while walking the PCT (you know the trail Reese Witherspoon walked in the movie “Wild”). I can only imagine how cool that is for the hikers on that trail to come out of the forest and see a bunch of people cheering them on too. When Rhea arrived at mile 36 she looked fantastic, all smiles, no pain and literally came in and out of that station in less then 5 minutes. So it was back to the van we went, off to the next stop at mile 54.
When we got to the aid station at Mile 54, it was starting to get dark and we knew it’s going to be several hours before Rhea arrived. It was 20 miles since we last saw her and she is out there in the wilderness, in the dark, most likely running alone with a headlamp to light her way. These are the other things you don’t even consider when you hear someone is running 100 miles. Obviously at some point it’s going to get dark, and you’ve got to stay on the trail and not freak yourself out too much when you start hearing strange noises in the night. Plus did I mention this leg of the race has Rhea running through a 2 1/2 mile tunnel? As if the dark night wasn’t scary enough, now she has to run through a tunnel alone. Oh and it’s starting to get really cold, like windy and in the high 40s while misting, so you always have a little bit of wetness on your clothes kind of cold. So while she’s out there on the trail, we are sitting in our van, turning it on every once in awhile to run the heat and eating a chicken salad for dinner. We probably spent more then 4 hours waiting at this particular spot as Rhea arrived for her check-in at about 11:00PM that night.
Once again she was mostly all smiles, still not experiencing any of the pain that sidelined her last race. I’ll admit, it’s nerve racking, you hold your breath every time they arrive, just hoping and praying that nothing bad has happened during the last leg. All you want is to know their efforts aren’t in vain and that nothing is going to keep them from getting to the finish line. If they do come to an aid station, and there spirits are down or they are feeling beyond exhausted, your job is to remind them why they are there and that nothing is going to stop them from getting to their goal. Even if they seem broke down, you can’t let that influence you in any way to encourage them to quit. It’s at this point in the race that a runner can elect to bring a pacer with them for the remainder for the race. The pacer is there to keep them on the course, run at their desired pace and to keep them sane as things are going to start to get pretty difficult from this point on. Andrew, Rhea’s boyfriend, was to be her pacer for this leg, about 15 miles, until we see them again at the next aid station. I can only imagine how great it must have felt for Rhea when she left that aid station with Andrew by her side to talk and share her amazing experience. Next stop mile 69…..
It’s the middle of the night, it’s cold, we’re tired and we finally decide it’s time for a nap. It was definitely needed because both Mike and I were out in minutes, reclined in our seats in the van for a solid hour before the alarm went off, signaling to us to get back to the aid station and wait. It was still really cold and each time we go outside of the van I bring a blanket with me to stay warm.
It’s one of the reasons Rhea comes in and out of the aid stations so fast, it’s cold. If she stops moving she starts to get cold, really cold, so it keeps her moving ahead. When they arrive at around 4:00 am Rhea is still looking and feeling as good as anyone could wish for at 70 miles. This was pretty much were it all ended last time, so to see that she was still doing great was a huge relief. We knew nothing was going to stop her this time, her body and mind were fine and she was going to do it! It’s at this point that her second pacer, Molly, took over Andrew’s spot and off they went to finish this race together. The next time we’d see Rhea was at mile 96, 26 miles from now. We aren’t that far from our hotel so we all decide to head back and sleep for a few hours in a comfortable bed.
We wake up after about 3 1/2 hours of sleep because we want to go to the finish line and watch a super good friend of Rhea and Andrew, Sawna, come into the finish. She is several hours faster then Rhea, so we know we have plenty of time to come cheer her in and then head to mile 96 and meet Rhea. This race is pretty cool because at mile 96 anything goes and anyone can join their runner for the last 4 miles. More then anything I wanted to run those last four miles with Rhea, to be part of the end of this amazing challenge. I only hoped I could keep from getting teary eyed while running because crying makes it hard to breath. That last wait seemed like an eternity, all of us were there, including Sawna who managed to amble her way on exhausted legs and feet to cheer Rhea on to the finish. When she finally arrived there was nothing she needed at that aid station, with only 4 more miles to go, she just wanted to get to the end. Andrew, Kelly, me, Rhea and her pacer, Molly left mile 96 together to cheer Rhea on to the end. She was exhausted and was running at a pace that is basically a super fast walk, but she has plenty of time to get to the finish line before 4:00pm and finish the race in under 31 hours.
She had to stop and walk frequently but she always started to run again. Plus she had to pull over to go to the bathroom which she said was happening all the time now. This also brings me to the other reason I don’t want to run 100 miles, I have no desire to wipe my butt with sticks and rocks. As we approach the finish, I run ahead as fast as I can so I can be on the other side and watch her cross over that finish line. It’s strange how much pride a person can feel for someone else’s accomplishment. I felt like I was a part of something amazing, something that reminds me of what a human being can accomplish when they set their mind to it. There is no limit to what you can do and although this challenge is not one I will ever endure it does remind me to work towards the goals I want to achieve a little bit harder. It’s difficult to explain or put onto paper what it feels like to be part of something like this, but I will tell you that it’s so amazing that I can’t wait to part of the next one.