A 100-Mile Race and Finding Sprout Again!
“LEFT SIDE!” “STRONG SIDE!” “LEFT SIDE!” “STRONG SIDE!”
“Nicholas – what kind of power you got?” “Girl, you know I got SOULLLL POWER!”
At the risk of breaking the promise of ‘what happens and is said on trail, stays on trail,’ I would be remiss if I didn’t recount to some degree my transformative 10.5 hours on trail pacing Nicholas in his solid 34-hour finish at a high alpine mountainous 100-mile race in Colorado: High Lonesome 100.
But let’s back up. Neither of us was planning on this adventure. I was supposed to have left Colorado 6 days prior, and Nick had been in 40-something place on the waiting list to participate in the race.
On July 11, I fell while running down Mt. Shavano (a 14er in Shelley & Robbie’s backyard) and knew immediately it was bad news. I had been here before, exactly 7 years prior, in Picos de Europa, Spain; different knee this time.
In very rural Spain, July 2017, my toe caught a rock while running downhill, sending me down and puncturing my knee deeply. I was cleaned and stitched up poorly (the Dr. directed an intern because my surprise visit to the tiniest town "clinic" you can imagine interrupted his midday vino tinto). Needless to say, the wound was prime for infection. I didn’t get antibiotics until 30 hours after the accident, and it was too late. Amoxicillin couldn’t handle the infection. The infection raged for 4 days until I finally upgraded to a stronger antibiotic. Attempting to give this antibiotic a chance (72 hours longer and 7 days post-fall), my system was completely failing on all accounts. I had an unbreakable fever while taking 1g of Tylenol. Forget about holding down food. The pain was so intense I couldn’t stand or walk, and my entire leg was streaked with red stripes and immense pain to the touch; full-blown cellulitis was actually killing me. Finally, I begged for an IV antibiotic in a larger town clinic, and once assessed, they gave it to me immediately. It still took days before I turned a corner and it was a painfully slow recovery. It took me 6 weeks before I could run again, and those 10+ days of full-body infection might have been the most physically excruciating days of my life. Infection is no joke, and it left me semi-traumatized.
Repeating my Spain accident was not an option, so I was adamant about getting on something stronger than Amoxicillin this time. The NP in Salida cleaned my wound as best she could, but despite her efforts, the wound was just DEEP and dirty. She stitched me up as best she could even though there was skin missing, and I was on my way. Distracted by great company and a beautiful mountain drive on Ute Trail, I completely forgot to get my antibiotics that same day, and there’s no 24-hour anything in these small CO mountain towns.
That night, I relived some of that 2017 infectious pain and couldn’t sleep. Was THIS the worst pain of my life? I didn’t have painkillers this time, and the sting+deep throb of infection brought me to tears. Bearing weight was impossible! This felt too familiar. I was scared. However, reassuring words of “it’s gonna be okay” and feeling nurtured and tended to for what felt like never-ending hours of worsening suffering kept me at bay from a full-blown meltdown until I got my hands on antibiotics the next morning. (Thank you, Bryan!). I missed my flight the next morning due to a complete inability to function and decided to stay in CO until I reached some sort of homeostasis.
Two days later, my friend Nick asked if I wanted to pace him in his 100-mile mountain race, which was only 30 minutes from where I was staying at my sister’s house. I gawked at the idea, knowing I was the worst possible choice for the task. “Have you seen the state of my knee?” “Do you realize I’m in the worst shape of my life after taking a year essentially off of running to dive all-in on starting a business and freezing my eggs?” I hadn’t run trail or done any vertical anything in over a year, and I hadn’t run anything longer than 10 miles in many months (maybe a year). Nick wasn’t even sure he would make it off the wait-list and wouldn’t know until the day before, so we didn’t make any plans.
July 20, the day before the race, Nick got word he was off the wait-list and was officially running the race. I tested the waters on a solo 10-mile hike on the Colorado Trail. I still had (have) a seeping/gaping puncture wound in my knee, stitches were not ready to be taken out after the normal ten days because “the wound is just so deep,” but thankfully, antibiotics curbed any real crisis and I could move, walk, and exist without painkillers.
I was inspired by my 10-mile cruiser on the Collegiate West Trail (CT & CDT) between Monarch & Marshall Pass to at least try to pace him in some capacity. Flooded with nostalgia and a reconnection with my inner Sprout, I texted Nick, “I’m in.” I would be at Monarch Pass in the middle of the night to attempt to pace him for 15 miles.
Knowing full well I was not in any sort of shape to take on a long “run,” and the section I would be meeting him on began with 7ish miles of steep descent (sounds familiar Grand Canyon), I felt compelled to give it my best shot while not endangering the healing process of my knee. Descending made me nervous – especially on uneven terrain from my recent fall. At the very least, I was prepared to give Nick ánimo, keep up with him as far as I could, and possibly turn back if he dropped me early on. But we both knew a friendly face at mile 68 would be worth it.
The morning of the start of the race, my friend Will and I spontaneously threw together a 14-er summit on Mt. Antero. He was in the area for a work trip, so with less than 12 hours' notice, we took to the trail. I wanted to save my legs a little because I had pacer duties in the middle of the night later that day, but I couldn’t resist a chance to break free from my computer screen to play in the mountains. To my surprise (and lack of planning/research), the route for the High Lonesome 100 race course overlapped the exact trail we were hiking up! We got to see almost every single runner on their way down at about mile 14 of the race. I saw Nick, and he was in good spirits but out of water. Luckily, he was only 1.5 downhill miles to the next aid station, so I wasn’t worried.
This Antero adventure ended up being a longer and harder day than I had initially imagined. And in typical Jackie fashion, I struggled to see the point of reaching the summit when the view at 13.5k’ was beyond good enough! The scrambling at the end to get to the summit was fun, but I was cautious and slow. I felt much better nausea-wise this time than I did at this same elevation when I had climbed Mt. Shavano just ten days prior, so why not go to the top? We submitted and jogged-hiked the downhill switchbacks on the way back to the truck. I was tired.
Back in the land of cell service, text alerts were flying in, “Nicholas has made progress…” with time stamps for in/out of an aid station and updated projection times for the upcoming aid stations. It was the best/most accurate live race updates for a trail race I've ever experienced (kudos!). I monitored closely to figure out my arrival time at Monarch Pass. Initially thinking I would go at 1:00 or 2:00 am, my plan included an evening nap, eating, and then maybe having some mushroom coffee to perk up and stay up late. But as the night wore on, his projections showed a 5:30 am arrival at Monarch. This meant going to sleep and waking up early? I fell asleep after a 12:30 am text alert confirming this pace and woke up at 3:30 am to head out.
Shelley (crew for the crew!) helped me shuttle their van to where I planned to finish near Blank’s Cabin aid station around mile 83, then dropped me off at the windy, cold, dark Monarch Pass (mile 68). I have many memories of this pass at 12k’, and in some ways, there’s a familiar comfort in its harshness. With no layers to spare, I shivered and waited in the dark with other crew and pacers. There is something special about conglomerating with a group of strangers with the same shade of crazy in the middle of the night on a mountain pass with no cell service. We huddled around a tiny fire, and each time a headlamp came down from the ski resort it was accompanied by the symphony of bells and spontaneous/tired applause. I would leave my fire spot and excitedly skipped over to lay my eyes on each runner. Nope, not him…
Finally, the first light of a sunrise began to sprinkle color on the mountains, and in came a blue-hooded Nick! He made it through the night (the toughest part of the race), and it was my job to keep him motivated, fueled, and moving so he could finish what he started. He threw on a jacket, I ripped off my headlamp, and at 5:50 am, we left Monarch Pass, running! We ran a lot of this section (Monarch to Fooses). We chatted, laughed, and the miles ticked by. The weather was pleasant, the terrain not too steep or technical, and we kept passing other runners with a decent cadence to our steps.
At one point, a few hours in, Nick asked if I would stay with him until the finish. It hadn’t crossed my mind, although somewhere in my subconscious, I knew this could be a possibility as I was carrying enough food to do just that. I chewed on the idea for a mile or two and assessed the situation. I was fine. Legs felt good, I was having the time of my life, and there was zero chance Nick could drop me as his running was more of an “ultra shuffle,” and my Sprout body and mind could hike for an eternity. Game on.
From my well-timed dad jokes, anecdotal taboo-style tales, lessons on the differences of the sexes in the context of hunters vs. gatherers (Alison Armstrong plug), positive psychology and financial independence cliff-note lessons, sharing vulnerable stories of darker days or sides of ourselves, inventing new terms like “side boob thunder clouds” and “Open Badger,” the loopy-lucid Sprout-Nicholas team was born. Nick became a Spartan warrior and was now Nicholas “HOOO-RAH!” and I was Queen food-nag, story-teller-motivator, pole-drill sergeant, and ultra-shuffle encourager.
He was allowed 3 minutes of chair time at aid stations, and I raced around to load us up and get us out of there as fast as possible. “Can he have a burrito with avocado, pickles, and chips, please? To-go and wrapped in foil.” “Can someone dump water on him?” “More Coke!” “PB&J bites in a baggie, please?” While my dad jokes only scored a 6 out of 10 rating (which we decided is the highest ranking for a dad joke because after a 6 they just turn into regular jokes), I scored a 10 out of 10 for food-nag duties. He didn’t want the entire burrito and was grumbly about it, but of course, ate the whole thing. Getting food in him was a chore, and after hours of reminders, I eventually conditioned him to take a bite of something or sip on his electrolyte drink at the crinkling sound of my own food wrappers. His job was to keep his pacer pleased – which meant eating and drinking to avoid being nagged!
The day got hot as we lost elevation, and the sun scorched us. Running became more of an idea, and we endured some long hiking stretches after mile 80. Nicholas was still in decent spirits and moving, but his feet were in rough shape, and quads were cashed. He dug deep and got gritty, and I am honored to have witnessed it and just be there with him while he pushed. It was a grind, and no mile came easily in the last part of the race.
With about 7 miles left in the race, running became a thing again. We left the single-track trail and joined a dirt road and then a paved road. We ran. The whole way to the finish (about 4 miles uphill). Some sleep-deprived road rage toward a truck that wouldn’t give us an inch got Nicholas sprinting and spewing about how that driver didn’t stand a chance in a fight with the crazy in his eyes at that moment. Moments later, we were belting out Disney duets and quoting/shouting favorite lines from “Remember the Titans.” I almost felt bad as we were deliriously hyper, laughing, singing, and running uphill, passing other runners, slouched over their poles, death-marching in the baking sun with their pacers.
Nicholas’ finish was emotional and inspiring for me. I felt beyond honored and even bewildered that he entrusted the late game of his race with me. I had felt broken and out of shape, to a level I hardly recognized myself, but he believed enough in me and saw/remembered parts of my ultra-running/hiker self that I have felt so disconnected from for the last year and a half. He saw and woke up Sprout when I couldn’t. THANK YOU, NICK!
This experience turned on some lights and allowed me to see and reconnect with a part of me that had been dormant while I took care of business. The last year and a half has been about survival. My financial wellness has suffered due to the chronic stress of negative cash flow. I purchased a condo at the worst possible time market & interest-rate wise in an unaffordable city and realized with three income streams, it still isn’t enough.
The candle has been burning at both ends, and I joke that I have to be my own husband and wife to myself. While working two full-time jobs and managing a side hustle, I still have to do all the life stuff like taking my car to the shop for a monthly tire change (it's been the year of flat tires and other car issues), cooking, laundry, cleaning, bills, and an unforgettable broken refrigerator hassle. Medically, it hasn’t been an easy ride either. I’ve had mammograms for a suspicious lump, a colonoscopy/endoscopy to investigate GI issues, and never-ending EBV + long COVID (and COVID twice), keeping me fatigued and foggy-brained. And the emotional, physical, & hormonal rollercoaster of preserving my fertility for a 7-month period has been one of the hardest things I’ve attempted to navigate in my single hood. It led me to some of the darkest places I’ve been inside my own mind and heart, and I had to take FMLA toward the end of the school year just to breathe. I’ve been surviving with my nose to the grindstone and haven’t looked up.
This unexpected knee wound prompted a spontaneous extension of my stay in the Arkansas River Valley, Colorado. And I looked up. I had been treading water for so long, and all of a sudden I was forced to stop, full halt, and my feet found the ground underneath me. Head above water, I started to catch my breath. A spark ignited, or maybe the coals never really burned completely out. But above tree line and with ground-feel under my shoes, I found ambition again to push myself beyond survival mode and dream.
For the first time since my ~100-mile Grand Canyon FKT, I feel a little itch inside to dream big for myself again. I want to run a 100-mile race in the mountains of Colorado. I want to put on my rock climbing shoes and feel my strength as I dance across a vertical wall again. I want to thru-hike the AZT. I want to be the first female to set an FKT for double S.C.A.R unsupported in the Smokey Mountains (~140 miles). I want to prioritize being outside and unplugging. I want to train with intention and focus – and for the first time in 1.5 years, I finally feel motivation inside, and a new inner “why” is being born.
My body fared perfectly after a 33-mile, 10.5-hour trail day with Nicholas. And my heart and soul feel full and revived after 3 weeks in the mountains. While I know I am essentially starting from scratch regarding my fitness, my ambition feels sharper than it has in a while. I have an appetite and a hunger to chase down new BHAGs (Big Hairy Aggressive Goals), find time for free-spirit feminine play, and continue to support myself.
I know finding a balanced routine will be critical once the school year commences, as social interaction remains high on my priority list (because what’s the point of it all if there is no one to share life with?). This must mean loosening my financial-stress death grip some to allow space and room to spread my wings and fly.