STORMING THE DESERT
Sand, heat exhaustion and extreme temperatures were just part of the appeal of the Javelina Jundred
I was about 68 miles in to the Javelina Jundred and this had been my third stumble in half an hour. It was midnight, and I was lying face-down on a Sonoran desert trail. Coyotes ‘sang’ somewhere in the distance. Apparently they sing to keep tabs on other family members. I liked this idea; my wife has never enjoyed me belting out Bowie songs at the top of my voice.
I had begun to topple over with alarming regularity, and I realised I was rapidly becoming a danger to myself. I diagnosed it as jet lag meeting heat exhaustion, while recognising I was, without doubt, a slightly unfit Old Codger.
This latest accidental communing with nature was to last just a couple of minutes, until a couple of concerned runners approached and hovered over me. A coating of blood made the cuts on my hands and face look bad – worse than they actually were – and I laughed to myself as Monty Python played in my head. “‘Tis but a flesh wound, ’tis but a flesh wound”.
A looped course in over 90 degree heat, fancy dress strongly encouraged, with runners fed and watered at aid stations that morph into Studio 54 as the sun disappears. I really fancied this.
I’d signed up late for the race. As a member of the C-Tribe my race schedule is now primarily determined by the good medical folk at King’s College Hospital in London, and where I’m at with treatment regimes. However, I was (and am) in a good place and it was a green for go. I was motivated to do the race by three things:
1. I wanted to continue the fundraising for KCH first generated by running down the Grand Union Canal at the beginning of September (see Allan Rumbles’ article in issue 8 of this magazine).
2. It’s a Western States qualifier, and pretty much one of the last for access to the ballot for 2018. I didn’t want to lose my brought-forward ticket. I had to DNS my planned qualifier, the Lakeland 100, in July. Like many others, it’s a Bucket List thing...
3. I really, really wanted to do it for myself. Unsupported, alone. Me versus the desert. It was before, during, and after the race; my proxy, my metaphor, for beating my illness. I cannot describe the release, the sheer happiness that comes with bellowing ‘Fuck you, cancer’ into that sandy darkness.
Jamil Coury, RD, and his Aravaipa Running crew were to put on a great event. Ultrasignup revealed there were 600 people entered for the 100 miler, with around 200 opting for the 100k... more peeps than I had encountered at UK ultras, but interestingly the race retained an intimacy that added to the weekend’s fun. Crikey, there was pretty much a tented village at ‘Jeadquarters’.
The race weekend kicked off with ‘Packet Pickup’ on the Friday – located about five miles from the start line, in a large open-sided barn. I had two thoughts: what a fab goody bag, and jaysus it was hot… damned hot. Resisting the specially brewed race IPA on sale, I bought a pair of 50 SPV arm sleeves. It was to prove an inspired purchase.
I didn’t really have much of a race plan, beyond finishing under the 30-hour cut-off. The course ‘only’ had 8,000ft of cumulative ascent, which seemingly made it very runnable, but a 50% DNF rate (and the reading of several race blogs) painted a picture of hot, energy-depleted, thirst-sapping triumph… and much defeat.
The race allowed you a drop bag at Jeadquarters, and another at Jackass Junction, which is the half way(ish) aid station on each loop. I pretty much mirrored my gear in each, though with a spare pair of trails in one and road shoes in the other I rather erred on the overkill side of things. Stuffing both bags with Ella’s Kitchen Baby Food was, however, to prove a godsend.
5:55am race morning. I found myself near the front, arm sleeves ready, ice cap poised for filling, and with a passing thought that it was pretty much a year since I’d last run a continuous 100-mile race. Ah well, I could always blag it... couldn’t I?
And then we were off into the breaking dawn, headtorch and fancy Salomon lightweight jacket firmly – and probably unnecessarily – on. I noticed a few runners had struck a ‘Jesse James in bank hold up mode’ note with Buffs and bandanas pulled high over their mouths and noses. I wish I’d done similar. What with the desert and the odd runner bottleneck on the singletracks throwing up dust, one was to inhale a beachload of sandy particles. The two Brillo pads grating in my throat took some twelve hours to form, but once they did, swallowing became painful, only really soothed by iced water. I never got to eat the pizza, burgers and burritos that were to become available.
The opening hour seemed gentle, the trail was mostly semi-compacted sand at this point and I felt I had made a good footwear choice (the new Columbia-branded Montrail Caldorados), though by the time we reached the first aid station only some five miles away, the sun had got its hat on and was playfully reminding me that I needed to keep the factor 50 regularly applied. I then went through the same routine that was to characterise the next four scheduled stops: a lot of water, a little Coke, PBJ sarnie, salted potatoes, pretzels, banana... and an overly long contemplation courtesy of the Port -A-Johns. Weirdly, the latter remained unvisited for the next 23 hours or so...
The runnability of the course was attested by the fantastic winning time of a smidge over 13 hours... but the eagle-eyed back-of-the-pack runner would have noted that each loop is basically 10 miles of up-ish and 10 miles descending. Not difficult to figure out what one’s pacing strategy should have been. The loops offer a variety of terrains: sandy washes, hard-packed granite, rock and that pebbly stuff… much of the downhills were somewhat ‘technical’ and required eyes firmly fixed on the yard in front. The first loop was slightly different (it visited the Escondido Trail, the others did not) and nearly three miles longer. The following four were run ‘washing machine’ style (alternate directions) to keep the interest and the contact with other runners-up. And it worked. Throw in night-time, and at no time did I feel ‘I’ve done this before’.
I finished the first loop in 4:37 and felt pretty good. Besides the loo stops, I was hydrating well and managing to get a fair few calories down. But the heat was rising fast, and despite depositing the equivalent of a small iceberg about my person every time I hit an aid station, I could feel my level of comfort fall a little. It could have been far worse. I spoke to a few runners after the race that had dropped out, and the common theme was that they struggled to control this to the level they needed
to dog it out.
I was receiving a huge amount of encouragement and support from Facebook and Twitter, and rather emotionally called my wife at the end of a heat-sapping loop two (some 41 and a bit miles in) to say I was tired, hot, but determined to get it done. I figured I’d get in around 26 hours at the latest, if all went reasonably well. In assessing that statement post-race, I pondered did it go ‘reasonably well’? I can’t but answer ‘yes’. Sure it took me quite a bit longer to get round, but I did get round, as unlikely as that seemed in was the first half of the third loop. It was here, in the heart of the furnace, that probably took the race away from most folk who DNF’d, me nearly included. It was still damned hot, the Brillo pads were doing their worst, and I find in 100 milers, it’s usually after 50 miles that my legs begin to really feel it. They didn’t disappoint this time.
Even though I’d managed to get back on to a ‘run the flats and downs, walk any and all ups’ rhythm for the previous ten miles, I clocked 50 miles on the old Suunto and, as if by Royal Command, abandoned any notion of running for nearly the next two hours, though obviously jogging through Jeadquarters to the raucous support of the tented village at the end of the loop. But I was, to use the vernacular, pretty fucked. Spurning the mountains of pizza shipped in from Costco (where the hell was the closest store?!), I sucked on a couple of Ella’s sachets and found avocado was an excellent accompaniment to the watermelon and orange slices that were to make up the majority of my food intake for the next 40 miles.
I couldn’t fault the aid stations, they had lots of food and drink choices, fab volunteers – including the Hoka-sponsored athletes who weren’t running the race. I had my flasks filled by Sage Canaday and I told him a very (un)funny anecdote about why I would never run the UTMB. Jim Walmsley was out and about too (along with, I understand, a couple more elites that my lack of fanboyishness failed to spot). Boy, does he need a sandwich.
A comedy falling-over at mile 68 made me consider withdrawing from the race. I wasn’t in a good place and it took me an hour to negotiate the last two miles to Jackass and the half-way point of loop four. I ran it through my head: no-one would fault me for stopping, nothing to prove, safety, the bloody heat did it for me… blah. I felt myself reaching to unpin my race number from my shorts, but stopped as the idea of having a nap hit me full-on. Of course, a tactical 10-minute kip and I’d be as right as rain. I spied a free camp bed in the medical tent among a number of crashed-out runners and told the good folk there that I wasn’t retiring. I didn’t bother to set an alarm on my phone and, 65 minutes later, woke up.
Race rules stated that you needed to have completed this loop by 6am (24 hours in) to be allowed to continue. I was more than good for this and as I shuffled my way along the final loop you could tell those returning runners who were going to make it and those who were resigned to an 81-mile DNF. In both cases I could hear pacers gently cajoling their charges to greater effort and found myself joining in too. So close… yet, so far.
Sun up on the second morning was spectacular. Beautiful. Life affirming. And I wept. I don’t know why…maybe just the sheer relief that the finish was reasonably nigh, maybe because I could chalk one up for the C-Tribe.
But 15 miles to go was still 15 miles to go. I spied a man in a tutu up ahead — which yes, would normally have been somewhat surreal, but not at the Javelina. The man, Fabrizio, was to prove great company as we managed to get our running legs back in gear. I couldn’t match him up the hills and he zoomed away, but arriving at the last aid station for final ice, avocado and that soothing cold water, I had five downhill miles to go, easily runnable. I jogged 200 yards and promptly stopped. It wasn’t going to happen, this running malarkey, nope. But I could walk. The trail was easy, the sun unforgiving (spot the recurring theme) and the chap out with his son who told me I had about 1.5 miles to go was unerringly accurate. I had thought 600 yards, tops.
The final lap around Jeadquarters was filled with high-fives, cowbells clanging, and a rather splendid sense of bonhomie. I loved it. A fabulous end to a fabulous race.
And ‘Jackie O’ won the fancy dress competition. Givenchy-style two-piece dress, pearls, pillbox hat, that hairdo/wig and lipstick… all still present after one hundred miles. Outstanding.