[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
I didn't really want to write this blog, because this isn't a success story. Last year, I attempted to run Kodiak 100 and dropped at mile 56. I'd had a long spring/summer of injuries, and to make a short story even shorter, one of those injuries flared up. It wasn't a sexy reason to drop, but I couldn't stomach more long months off the trails.
Because I had so many setbacks last year, I was undertrained going into Kodiak. This year, I planned to write a different story. I felt strong, well rested, and well trained. I was smarter about my workouts and smarter about my rest, and when I stood on the start line this time, there was no doubt in my mind that I would finish.
This year, Kodiak was a new UTMB race as well as a Western States Qualifier, so the start line was packed and the energy was electric. I know enough to not get in over my head, so I started steady. For the first 6 miles or so, people were jostling to get around others, running hard downhill and up. I let them go, figuring I'd see most of them later. The front of the pack was well ahead of me, and I settled into a comfortable rhythm.
Normally, I'm a very strong uphill runner, but for some reason, the climbs were leaving me thoroughly winded. Around 20 miles in, there is a large climb and more than one group passed me going up. What's going on? I wondered, and assumed that the elevation was simply getting to me. I live at sea level, but train in the mountains all the time. About a month ago, I did mount Whitney and didn't feel nearly as winded as I did in Big Bear on Friday. So, I let myself climb steadily and decided I'd make up ground on the downhill sections.
After mile 29, there is a 10 mile stretch mostly on fire roads. As I climbed again, I found myself short of breath, and slowed once again. Once again, I made up ground on the downhill sections, making sure to consistently eat and drink water the entire time. By the time I got to mile 39, I'd drank two liters of water, eaten 400 calories, and was starting to perk up. At the mile 39 aid station, I left without my poles and had to turn around and go back, adding half a mile to my day. Rookie mistake, and I cursed to myself as I saw another woman run by me. Now I'd have to catch her, but I always liked running from behind.
At the mile 47 aid station, a man was dropping out. "I never do this," he said, "but nothing is working today." I understood what he meant, and the pain of dropping out, but I didn't have any encouraging words for him. Watching him stop made me even more determined to get to the finish line. An aid station worker offered me bacon, which I gratefully took. "I'm getting tired of all my gels," I told him. "Do you have crew waiting at the next aid station?" he asked, and I nodded. I would see Mike at the next aid station, grab some warm clothes, and pick up my bright light before heading into the darkness.
The seven mile stretch from 47-54 should have been mostly runnable, but I was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe, like I was running uphill when I was actually running flat or down. About a mile away from the aid station, I pulled out a headlamp. A runner I'd chatted with earlier that day ran behind me, and we entered the aid station together. I didn't tell Mike how I was feeling because what could he do? I thought maybe, everything I'd been feeling all day would subside. I thought maybe, I would be able to pick up my pace during the nighttime. My pacer was picking me up at mile 67 and I thought if I could just get to him, the rest would be easier.
The next section was six and a half miles and it took me an inordinate amount of time. Every breathe I took was strained and wheezing. I stopped a dozen times to try to catch my breath, and finally admitted to myself that something had to be wrong. "I'm having trouble breathing," I texted Mike, and he called me immediately. He could hear me strain for air, and notified the folks at the aid station that I would need a medic. I was bewildered and annoyed. Why is this happening now? I wondered. I trained hard all year and never expected that my day would be derailed by my lungs.
I slowly walked to the next aid station, breathing heavily as I walked and sitting down on rocks when I grew dizzy. Other runners passed me and inquired about my safety, but I waved them on. Eventually, I saw the lights of the aid station where Mike and my pacer, Brock were waiting for me. Brock is an EMT and had a pulse oximeter with him. I didn't know what it read, but he said it was "very low." Later, Mike told me my oxygen saturation was 86 percent, and I had to Google it to find out that it is, in fact, very low.
I sat in the tent with a medic for a while, but there was nothing anyone could do to help and I knew my race was over. I wasn't disappointed in myself so much as I was confused. What just happened? I wondered, and why?
That night, I tossed and turned, wheezing and coughing my way through a fitful sleep. The next morning, we drove home and I spent the entire day on the couch, reading, napping, and cuddling my cat. I scheduled a virtual visit with my doctors office and explained what had happened. "It sounds like bronchial constriction," the doctor said, "were you running a marathon?" More like two marathons I told him, or four. Exercise induced bronchialspasm (EIB) commonly occurs among endurance athletes, he told me. Dry air, cold air, dust, or pollen can make it worse. I told him I didn't have asthma and he told me that's common, too. I asked if there was anything that could help, and he gave a short laugh, "Of course," he said, "you just need some Albuterol. You can come in for further testing if you'd like, but I'm going to send a prescription to your pharmacy."
Getting a prescription, I thought, should not be so easy. But now, I have an inhaler that I can use should I ever need it. I'm not naive enough to think it could never happen again, or proud enough to think I could have muscled my way through it. Low oxygen saturation is apparently very bad, and also, apparently, fixable.
So, I'm not disappointed in dropping out, nor am I angry about what happened. I'm a little annoyed that I'll have to go back next year to finally finish this goddamned race, but that's life. Nothing is ever guaranteed, and the best laid plans are apt to be broken.
P.S. Big love to the Kodiak organizers and all the finishers. Next years' race is open for registration here.