Somewhere on the second loop of the Psycho Psummer 50k trail run, I admitted a deep-seeded fear of that course. Well, fear may be too strong. Perhaps wariness is more appropriate.
This wariness dates back to February 2005, when Rick ran the inaugural version of what has become the Trail Nerds’ signature race, Psycho Wyco Run Toto Run. That first event dawned dreary, with off-and-on rain, and—of course—soul-sucking mud. Watching Rick scramble up rutted-out hillsides and push himself to exhaustion on his way to his first ultra-distance finish, it occurred to me that something was just…not right…about this course.
Since then, I have met the summer and winter Psycho twins on my own a few times, but only for a single loop. Not two loops. And never three. Oh no. Never three.
It was by design that my first ultra took place on a different course. Maybe if I had more time to train out there—maybe then I would have taken it on the first time. But without proper preparation, I didn’t trust myself to head out for multiple loops of self-flagellation.
The week after the War Eagle 50k, I felt that I could take on the world—and so I set my sights on Psycho Psummer. Six weeks between races felt optimal. Recovery went well. Training peaked with a 45-mile week (including an 18-mile long run). After that week, I had some assorted foot and ankle issues that prompted a slightly more exaggerated taper than I would have liked, as well as some last-minute shoe experiments. The Wednesday before the race, I got a new pair of trail shoes, took them on a four-mile test run, and decided to go for it…but still wasn’t fully committed until I registered the morning of the race.
When we set off for our first loop at 8 a.m., the sun was shining, humidity felt moderate, and the temperature was in the 80s. The first few miles seemed slow, and my legs felt good, but I had purposely tucked myself a good distance behind Mindy Coolman (who essentially owns this course) during the opening 100 yards and insisted that I must maintain patience. After about three miles of hilly bridle trail, the course shifts onto cambered, shaded singletrack dubbed the “Boy Scout section”. Three weeks before on a training run with Rick, this section had put my feet and ankles into a very bad place and tempted the ITB out of remission. So when we were cruising this section at a 9-minute pace and my feet felt happy, I relaxed and really started to enjoy the run.
I was running happy as we came to a clearing. A large group of runners were walking this section and, without any thought at all—just going with how I felt—I passed them and continued onto the singletrack. Moments later, I heard Mindy call out from behind me, “How’s your IT band doing, Kristi?”
Crap! I passed Mindy. She was undoubtedly going to win the women’s race, and I knew I’d be lucky to crack the top ten, and I did not by any means belong in front of Mindy.
Mentally flogging myself, I continued on at a comfortable but brisk pace. I was in and out of the Shelter 11 aid station in about 20 seconds and prepared to head down Fall Down Hill. At that point, Rick Troeh’s footsteps and voice appeared behind me and we chatted as we took the steep switchbacks and hops over logs at what seemed breakneck speed to me.
The hill spat us out onto the bottom of the Wyandotte County Lake dam, undoubtedly my least favorite section of the course for a number of reasonably valid reasons: 1) it’s grassy, and I hate running on grass; 2) it’s a steep hill and the course runs diagonally across its length—going up; and 3) it’s completely exposed, and that translates to windy and cold in the winter, sunny and hot in the summer.
I survived my first pass of the dam at a good power-hike speed, though, and continued onto the singletrack to Shelter 14… and the Three Hills section. Many of the runners around me were chatty, happily anticipating the end of their first loop. I mentioned to one out-of-town runner that there might be a few hills ahead. Shortly thereafter, the chattiness had died down as a clump of runners focused on grinding up the bridle trails.
When I rolled into the start/finish area to refill my race vest with GU and E-caps, my mom informed me that I was hurting. She could tell, she said, by the way I ran in. “No, I’m fine,” I insisted. Temperatures were well into the 90s by now, so I took the bandanna off my head, filled it with ice, and tied it around my neck. With fresh ice in my bottle, as well, I took off for the second loop.
As soon as I got away from the crowd at the start/finish area and back onto the bridle trail, I knew she was right: I was hurting. There was a hot spot on the back of my left heel, so I pulled over and readjusted my sock and lacing on that foot. Once moving again, I acknowledged significant discomfort where my shoe was pressing into the bottom of my outside anklebone on the right foot. And about a mile later, the left ITB seized up on a downhill—officially out of remission.
In spite of these red flags, I moved well until I hit the Boy Scout section. That’s when things started to fall apart. The cambered nature of the trails had my right foot (the uphill foot) angling straight into that sore spot on my anklebone. The IT band hurt. I fell into walk-run intervals that increasingly favored the walking. I was eating a gel every 30 minutes, and that seemed to be working: the stomach felt good, and I didn’t feel terribly low on calories. I was salting with the E-caps without any particular schedule—just making sure I had one or two every hour or whenever I started to feel crampy. But on the Boy Scout section, my back and sides began cramping hard. I responded by upping the dose to one or two with each GU.
Meanwhile, I could feel myself falling apart. Negative thoughts didn’t creep in. Instead, they busted down the door and assaulted me. The first loop felt relatively effortless. I told myself I hadn’t gone out too fast—it was just these points of pain that were slowing me down now, and those weren’t really a result of poor conditioning. They were pre-existing conditions that I had been aware of weeks before the race. This was exactly why I wouldn’t commit to the race until the last minute. I was running in brand-new, untested shoes. I shouldn’t have signed up for the race. I shouldn’t be here. What’s the point?
At Shelter 11, I grabbed a few S-Caps since I had given away some of my E-caps to another runner a mile earlier. Then I took Fall Down Hill as fast as my ITB would allow: not very fast. Next, a trip across the surface of the sun (a.k.a. the dam hill), with my head down, glaring at the brittle, brown grass and wondering how long it would take before someone flicked a cigarette and set fire to this slope. My ice bandanna was almost melted.
On the singletrack between the dam and Shelter 14, I looked up to see Rick on the side of the trail taking pictures. It was the first time I had seen him since the beginning of the race. I ran past him without a word, hoping he would follow me but also hoping he wouldn’t. When his footsteps fell in pace with mine, the emotion broke loose and I shot back at him, tearfully, “I need someone to tell me whether this is important or not.” For the next few minutes, I walked, bitched, and gave my IT band a good hard whack with a clenched fist. Runners passed me. The tirade concluded as we approached the Shelter 14 aid station with Rick saying, “No! You can’t quit. Go.”
At the Three Hills section, people finally stopped passing me. That’s because there’s no one left behind you, I drolly told myself, though I knew this wasn’t true. There wasn’t anyone visible in front of me, either—the field was just spread out at this point. I started moving a little more steadily even though I was climbing hills, and it occurred to me as I swallowed another one of the borrowed S-Caps from Shelter 11 that those were working better than the E-caps.
Looking up at the last hill of the loop, I spotted three runners picking their way along. Something Tony Clark had texted me the night before—about catching a runner on a hill during the second loop—came back to me and I realized this was going to be my last chance to make good on that promise. I took the hill at what felt like a run, hit the top, and cruised down to the start/finish. The area was packed with smiling, cheering 10- and 20-mile finishers, and Adrian sprinted up to meet me, took my hand, and ran with me to my drop bag. As I refilled my pack with GU, she asked me, “Mom, do you have an IT band?”
I smiled. “Yes, I do.”
Adrian nodded, and then informed me: “I don’t.”
Ice in the bandanna, ice in the bottle, a handful of S-Caps, and I was off for loop three before I could even think about it. That second loop ended so positively that all the frustration of the Boy Scout section had been forgotten… at least momentarily.
On the third loop I was ready to roll but resigned to something slightly slower. The IT band hurt and the right ankle hurt where the shoe was pressing, but another issue was getting shuffled into the deck: blisters. I didn’t dare look at them, but two large blisters had lighted themselves on the sides of both big toes and were becoming increasingly difficult to ignore.
I took more time at the aid stations, enjoying the kindness of all the volunteers. At the Road Crossing aid station, I stuffed the most glorious bowlful of ice down my shirt. At Shelter 11, more ice and a cupful of warm Coke. At Shelter 14, the coldest ice bandanna on the course. At Shelter 10, Coke with ice was the delicacy.
On the approach to Shelter 11, I recognized something was amiss inside my right shoe. The blister pain had turned into an odd, rippling sensation. I sat down at the aid station and poked at it through my shoe. “I think it’s popped,” I said to anyone who was listening. Then I got up and hobbled down Fall Down Hill using only the side of my foot. Not being able to put my foot down evenly was distressing. I’ve never had blisters like this, and they’ve never popped on their own, and I had no idea how long this burning pain was going to last. I could not run a step of Fall Down Hill. When I got to the bottom, I sat down and took my shoe off to confirm that it was popped and, I suppose, to assure myself it wasn’t worse than I thought it was. Nope, no blood. Just a juicy, popped blister.
Luke Hoskam came across the drainage ditch and asked me, “Is it popped?”
“Well,” he said, “keep going.”
That’s all I needed.
Right, then. Keep going. I put the shoe back on and crunched my way across the damned dam for the last time. “How am I going to keep going when I can’t even roll my foot evenly?” I asked myself. The answer Self gave me was this: If it hurts when you put pressure on the blister when you walk, just force pressure on the blister and get over it. So, I pressed my big toe down into the bottom of my shoe and walked harder. Eventually, I was back on singletrack and jogging. And then, it didn’t really hurt any more. The un-popped blister on my left foot still rang out with each step, but I was finally moving at what could be called an efficient pace, and I was almost home.
When I hit that last hill, I took off and sailed to the finish line, adrenaline wiping away everything I had been dealing with for the last 20 miles. Coco gave me my medal, race-director Ben congratulated me, and I punched him in the shoulder.
“Damn you,” I growled.
His voice cracked when he replied with a smile and mock defensiveness, “What? It’s a good course! It’s just a little hot…”
So, I finished in 7 hours and 29 minutes. I had hoped for something a little closer to seven hours, and I most definitely had dreamed that I could run without silly strength- and muscle-imbalance problems like IT bands and ankle/foot pain. Some day I would like to run a race and only be at odds with the burn of genuine fatigue.
But this time around, I am happy. Because I know how low my resolve sank—and yet I managed to find the finish line.