By Samantha Wilson
The rolling hills of Santa Barbara create an amazing location for a 100 mile trail run. Most think of Santa Barbara as a wine mecca with an amazing university, completely blind to the fact that the city offers an amazing landscape of trails, mountains, and unforgiving heat. My friend Maggie opened my eyes to the SB 100, and after doing minimal research I quickly learned through the extended 36 hours cut-off time and the overall 24 thousand feet of elevation gain and loss, that this would be the most challenging ultrarun and experience thus far in my running career. Currently I had been training for an iron man and a 220 mile thru-hike, so I wasn’t sure I was in complete running shape for this challenge, but reluctantly I decided to do the 100 miler instead of the 100k (62.14 miles).
This run was unlike the other ultraruns I have competed in, in that instead of it starting in the morning the start time was 6 pm, in addition (and more importantly) just two days prior to the run I found out that I was pregnant. This was a shocker! I got in to see my doctor immediately and talked about the race. She said to watch my heart rate and to make sure I stay hydrated. With my resting heart rate at about 40-45, she saw no reason that continuing my same routine would be harmful. I was excited about the race and about the extra company suddenly a part of my body. Race day was on Friday, so Maggie and I worked in the morning and then made the five hour drive to Santa Barbara. By the time we arrived, we were just in time for the debrief and to gather all of our running items for the long night. The route of this course was 50 miles out and 50 miles back, so the finish was at the start. For this run I was fortunate enough to have my husband; my best friend, Ama, from Chico, CA; my parents; and friends from Paris on my crew. As we were preparing to start I looked over and saw all of my family eating cheese, crackers, and drinking wine, and I felt like the luckiest lady in the world.
There were (?) who started the race, including my running idol Dean Karnazes. It was a small, beautiful, and exciting start. Within the first two miles, I became increasingly aware of the challenge we were up against. I felt myself feel slightly overwhelmed looking around thinking it would be 97 more miles until I would see this scenery again. I was also overwhelmed that the nighttime hours were only a few hours ahead. I was nervous and scared, but determined. Not long after starting the race Maggie and I met Natalie, a fellow ultrarunner, and she was a welcomed addition. She was kind, motivating, and positive; which are all characteristics necessary to make such a journey. Ten miles in and the sun was down, the air was cool, and morale was still up. My main concern was my history of nausea so I was adamant about making sure I was taking a nutrition every 30 minutes or so, and it was working. At the ten mile aid station Jeff and Ama were waiting for me, and they gave me just the boost that I needed to get through the long night. I knew that the next time I would see them would be in the morning, when we reached mile 43, and I was determined to get there.
The night was not as dreadful as I was anticipating. With the addition of our new friend, we had tons of topics to cover and adventures to share. What was challenging about the night wasn’t the elevation gain, but the loss. Thankfully it was so dark that we could not see the dangerous mountains we were running down. At one point we all slid on our butts across a ridge so we wouldn’t fall off the other side. Almost in unison we said, “thank God it’s dark out here.”
We reached mile 43 by the next morning at approximately 7 or 8 am. Seeing my family gave me an extra burst of energy, but as quickly as the smiles came, so did the realization of the extreme heat that we were going to be moving through all day. At 7 am it was almost unbelievable how the sun was already relentless. Growing up in Las Vegas and then the Central Valley, CA I am no stranger to dry heat, in fact I love it. But there was something about this heat that made me nervous. We were fully exposed, hiking, with no shelter from the sun. Everything as far as the eye could see just looked sucked dry. The wildflowers, the people, even the dirt and rocks just looked miserably dry. Ama asked me at this point if I wanted her to pace me but I was feeling good, and to be honest I wanted to make sure that she was fresh for the way back because at that point I knew I would need her.
At mile 50 I was feeling great. It was insanely hot but the aid station provided so much excitement for us. People were motivating, there was a bunch of food and goodies, and best part—we were half way! Yet things suddenly took a turn. I was experiencing nausea or morning sickness or dehydration, not sure which but it wasn’t good. At one point I remember looking down at my feet as they stumbled up a dry hot trail and I could not remember where I was. Was I in Arizona? Or was this race in Nevada? Where am I? I then asked Maggie, “Maggie, where are we?” Just as the words came out of my mouth I was reminded of this amazingly horrible decision to run a race in Santa Barbara. I immediately drank more fluids and ate something. Things continued to get difficult at this point and not even the joy of seeing my family and my friends in from Paris (hi Loic and Vincent!) snapped me out of it. Once we were at mile 57 Jeff decided to come with me for the next 13 miles. There were highs and there were definitely lows, but at mile 65 I was more determined than ever to finish. At this point it was about 2pm and the warmest part of the day. Then the dreaded six mile climb to the 71 mile marker. I knew this would be the toughest part of the race. They warned us the day before during the debrief that this was going to be hilly, hard, and fully exposed to the heat. Right at mile 65 there was an aid station so I fueled up. I wet my buff (scarflike protection), put ice around my neck, and gave myself the pep talk that always seems to work, “Get it together Sam.” So we started and it was rough. The hills were okay, in fact physically my body felt great. My feet didn’t hurt, my legs weren’t muscle burning, and my neck from the pack wasn’t aching; but the unbearable heat zapped every last bit of energy out of me. I would live for the seconds of shade. There was one ridge that I started imagining that once I get there and turned the corner, there would be luscious trees filled with fruit and wet from dew. Jeff got there seconds before me and I stopped and asked him, “What does it look like?” I will never forget his words, “I won’t lie to you, it is very hilly and no shade, but keep moving.” It was as if someone took the little hope I had and just destroyed it. An hour or so later I started hitting another really low point, but this was different. For a split second I remember losing all of my balance and nearly falling over. All I kept thinking about was getting to the aid station. I no longer thought about the joys of the finish. Physically my body was done and I had something else to think about besides me. It took three grueling hours to go 6 miles. At this point there were only six ladies left in the race. Once I reached the aid station people were there cheering and Ama came up to me and said, “everyone who surfaces over that ridge looks like death, you still look great!” (This is what best friends are for.) My mother-in-law told me that just an hour before ultrarunning legend Dean Karnazes was at the aid station and sought her help because like everyone else who did this portion of the race this time of the day, the heat was sheer destruction.
At the station any cushion time that I had was quickly dwindling. In order to stay in the race I had to be up and moving in twenty minutes or I would not have made the cut off time. There wasn’t a wrestling choice, in fact there was no choice—my body made it for me. I remember talking to Jeff and he said “Sam, this is it for today.” I told Jeff before the run that I will push myself but as soon as I feel that my body is saying enough, that I would listen. There was no regret in withdrawing. I was proud of completing the most difficult 71 miles of my life and to date, the most challenging experience that I have ever known.
About a week later we went for the first ultrasound and saw the heartbeat. At six weeks that little thing had a 175 heartbeat. All I thought was WOW! This little bean just ran 71 miles with me and look at that heart. The doctor told us at this point that based on the heartbeat our chances for miscarriage were extremely low. But as life tends to do, we had a curveball thrown at us. Three weeks later just before 10 weeks I had a miscarriage. Obviously it was difficult and something that is not talked about often. I debated on whether or not to even write about it in this blog, but I can’t deny that being pregnant added such a different dynamic to this race; so by leaving that part out I would be missing so much of the story. I also can’t deny that I thought about the judgement I would face. Although my doctors were on board with me continuing the same amount of exercise my body was used to, and although there was a heartbeat post this ultra, I automatically thought about people’s reactions. But then I thought, you know what? I don’t care. I did nothing wrong. Not every outcome is a result of something or someone; some things in life have a purpose we don’t understand or could ever know anything about.
It was a rough week because I was blindsided; but after a week of living under a dark cloud I decided it was time to get myself together. When I went for my first run my head was clear and I allowed myself to really think about the ramifications that a pregnancy and then a miscarriage had on my life, myself, and the excitement about this life I’m living. I just kept thinking that it didn’t make sense, how did this little thing not make it with such a strong heartbeat? I then thought about my state of being at mile 71. No doubt the reason I did not continue was because I was pregnant; had I not been pregnant I never would have allowed myself to withdraw, but maybe physically that would have been a horrible decision. Ultraruns are dangerous and if you run an ultra, you are responsible, even despite your incessant will to continue, to play it smart and play it safe. I have said it before that people who do endurance sports are so in tune with their bodies, but sometimes the desire to finish outweighs the physical need to stop. Looking back at this race, whether it was the pregnancy, the heat, the intense course, or the combination, it was safest for me to call it good at mile 71. I allowed myself to easily do this because I was looking out for something smaller but so much bigger. At the time, I just assumed that I was supposed to protect this little bean inside of me, not realizing that maybe this little bean was actually protecting me. This whole process has again reminded me that not all relationships are meant to last a lifetime, sometimes we have to take the good, the lessons, the periods of joy, move through the sorrows, and just let it go.