Kodiak 2014 - 165kms & 5000m ascent - 1st woman & 6th overall
It is hard to explain the energy I garner from and the fulfilling feeling I am offered by the simplicity of the mountains, their perennial beauty and potent peace-giving. It is something that penetrates me and smooths my view on the world and myself.
|Copyright to Impact Photography, no infringement intended|
I love the Mountains and the dignity and solemnity I am infused with up there. Mountains pilfer my soul. I decided to run the Kodiak 160k/5k m ascent race on a late notice. Feeling strong after my fairly easy 3rd woman place and 6th overall ranking on the Fat Dog 120kms and 3k m ascent, I wanted to be in the mountains in a race context again. This time however I wanted my preferred distance i.e. 160kms and more ascent, which is what I long for.
I landed in Los Angeles airport quite tired from a demanding, yet fulfilling work week. I was sleep-deprived but soul-replenished from the beauty and allaying power of British Columbia's scenery. As I drove up to Big Bear Lake, CA, I was withdrawing from the city's smog; the epitome of one reason I love mountains and mountain running: to elevate myself and abscond to the heights where I belong, where views are clear and the mind can be free and heedless of the unnecessary.
Big Bear Lake is a cute little mountain town, that seems to have remained 10 years back, a bit kitsch but in a sweet way. There are log homes tucked in the trees everywhere and every other property and business have the name bear in it: honey bear, bear creek, grizzly manor, teddy bear, etc. This is bear territory then and for the ones who know me, that means Gratianne's territory! The atmosphere is rather low-key and this is what I was looking for. The race, with a 2nd edition only, is also a bit under the radar, very much to my taste: when I ask where to pick up my bib number, nobody has heard about the event. They do know however about the other one happening in town, the "October Fest Wine Tasting". I thought Oktober Fest was about beer but since I don't drink, I could be wrong... And you know what they say, 'never mind the bottle, just drink it'. A bit like running really: no matter the distance, just run it. After I (finally) find the information, I traipse around town. I'm really happy to be here, I beam inside and out. It feels like one of those moments when you know that you are where you're supposed to be and I go to sleep very soothed by the crisp and pure air only found up in altitude.
I manage to get a staggering 8h sleep night, uninterrupted which had never happened in the last 6-7 years racing and I get ready till the unusual 12pm start. I feel impatient to go and discover those mountains I haven't seen in 10 years, and in summertime, after I came here to ski while an exchange student in Santa Barbara.
In the start area, I discover with amusement my fellow companions, this is definitely So' Cal: Vin Diesel-looking buff guys, extensively tattooed bodies, colorful garments, flat era hats, yesterday's first impression cool vibe continues. This is my first time racing in the States and it meets the laid back spirit read in magazines and witnessed on American runners on the European circuit. They run it as they wear it. That is another reason I love racing as a travel-type: I want to discover different places (read: mountains), different racing approaches and spirits, organizations and rapports to the sport.
A few minutes till the gun start, we are 59 on the line enjoying this convivial setting. It is bluebird sky and scorching hot (again, this is So' Cal'!). 12pm, time for me to escape for the next 160kms and 5k m ascent.
After about 10k in, and despite a presentiment something good is going to happen, the legs are still not warm (much in contrast to being on fire myself from the heat!). I don't over analyze (rare for me!) and put things in perspective so until they are ready for 2nd gear, I make the most of the scenery, my main drive in any case. I watch the different size boulders, harking back to the landscapes of beloved Sweden, the hug-inviting cedars, the pine trees' enthralling smells and their dead needles on the ground that make a smooth carpets to run on, the chipmunks' screeches as they scamper on the dried barks as I approach, and how about those cute flowers I almost stepped on! I stare so much as I pass by them that I fall flat on my left flank, not in the most ladylike manner... I feel quite dizzy and my hip really hurts. I feel it has moved 10cms higher up that the right one. I trudge on the next kilometer or so but continue to soak in the surroundings to keep the pain away and feed off the views instead. That it requires a little pain or hindrance, a little extra effort only adds to the beauty of the inner quest that mountains and trail running represent. Happy the one who goes through hardship because once on the other side, life is upgraded. (Below is a shot actually taken moments after -Copyright to Impact Photography, no infringement intended)
I am rather known to be able to discard pain with an impervious indifference. My doctor once told me my "resistance to pain was way too high"... Well, we all have our flaws... And moi first. I struggle more when it comes to the beating heat. My Scandinavian-adopted me melts but the glass if always half-full and the aid stop is coming up soon. Once there, I quaff liters of Coca Cola and Mountain Dew, which I had never tried before. This is so good! What did I miss all those years?! In addition to my accent, the volunteer serving me seems to be puzzled wondering where the heck I'm coming from, Mars maybe?...
So far so great and next up about 15k later, is the climb up Sugarloaf Mountain, standing tall at 3033m, highest point of the course. I am baffled to see on the aid at the foot of the climb, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches... You gotta love racing in North America! It is not my mountains' local cheese but this bodes for a well-fed race... I shamelessly gauge on those and if I don't suffocate from this sultry temperature, it may be from those... (Below, caught red-handed...)
More than refueled then, time to hit the summit. I utterly love climbs and I am drawn to them, so much that once at the top, the two men that were right behind me thank me for "pulling them". I knew they were drafting! On the way down, as it is an out and back, each and every single runner greets the other one with "good job man", "looking great", "great job". That is very American and very nice. North Americans have this community/socially natural way of living which is very nice to experience. I also meet with Mark on the way down. He lets me go in front and therefore sees my Swedish flag on my back pack. He asks if I'm from Norway, to what I reply it is a Swedish flag but I am French. He then says that he has been there and loved Lausanne. I neutrally comeback that this would be Switzerland but that Europe is made of so many countries anyway, it is hard to keep track. He wittily retaliates: "Oh, look at me the typical dumb American who doesn't know his geo". To his defense, he has lived in many countries of which geographies I wouldn't be 100% confident. And to salute his fairplay further and great persona, a few minutes later after I made a quick pit stop and re-appeared right in front of him from the bush, he said: "Oh look, that's the Belgian girl!". I'm lucky he will be back as my squire further in the race.
The sun remains relentlessly hot despite descending towards the desert in the backdrop but I prefer revering in the reddening sky enveloping Big Bear Lake in the closer distance. The night quickly falls and in case I didn't mention it yet, this is So' Cal, which means, hello starry nights, whose magic is heightened by the light-free environment of being far from the cities. As I take out my lamp, it quickly shows signs of feebleness. This is my no-failing lamp and I don't have time to blink before it dies... A flutter of anxiety enwraps me. I distressingly take out my back-up lamp until it shows the same fainting signs a few minutes later. I change the batteries before it goes completely out and start to ruminate anxiously. What if my back-up batteries on my back-up lamp give up on me? Why am I even in this situation? I have 16kms till the next aid station and 16 more till the next one where I have a 3rd headlamp in my drop bag. And I continue to slightly loose my newly imbued So' Cal' coolness when markers on the course prove useless in the pitch dark since they are not reflective. I decide to stop running and pause. I take a deep breath in and look up. The riveting stars grace every piece of the sky by their presence. The dim milky ways act as patches amongst the starry ensembles, softening the picture as the cedars and other trees' lichen beards do in the forests back in Canada. How many of us in the world in this very moment or any given time get to witness such beauty, in such a simple form? I annihilate any further black thoughts I may have had seconds ago. I just have no cogent right in this context. I am blessed to be here. So far I have been feeling great. So I take one more big breath and start running again, gazing through the darkness for those small orange flag, beacons of hope that I am still on track and not astray in the wild in bear's territory...
Km78, phew, I see some light in the distance. My lamp made it to camp 2. I feel great though a bit dozy, the lack of this past week's sleep and the sun's hammering all afternoon is catching up with me. I thus bestow myself a good 20-25 minute break. I am taken care of by RD Paul who tells me I am minutes behind the top. #7 I think he says and just as for the Fat Dog race 3 weeks earlier when I was told I was #2nd in the race, I freeze, wondering how many dropped out or who paid them to DNF (papa/Doudou, sur c'est pas vous??)... After grabbing my 3rd lamp hoping this one will make it without hiccups, I head out. About an hour later I join-up with Trevor with who we do nott speak much until we get lost... Some smart pants have taken the glow sticks markers into another direction and we lose about 20 minutes before getting back onto the right course. This has definitely woken me up ensuing the pulse rise from running faster here and there looking for the course and the anger from such stupid attitude. I give myself the right to remain exasperated by men's selfishness and actually use this energy for my purpose. And then go back to happy runner mode and the known night-running automatism when each step if calculated, would be the exact same distance. Human body and mind's wonder...
My body shows a little less wonder an hour or so later when I start feeling my cuboid as I did during the last 50k of the Fat Dog and the excruciating pain that went with it, keeping me from staying 1st woman. Here again it is so tensed that I feel I am running on a sharp knife every step I take. I grunt like a bear would (one connection amongst others with bears). I stop to stretch it, I massage it so it loosens but it only helps a bit. And I want to run so off I go and by self-persuading myself it doesn't hurt, it probably, let's try, won't anymore.
Shortly before km 88's aid station, I am caught up with Mark. We head out together and start chit chatting as if around a tea with scones moment, in an English manor's veranda overlooking a pond with ducks dancing like a swan's ballet. Ok, maybe I'm dreaming a bit here but it is close to 3am after all and we do walk/jog with ease that it lulls me (not that you are boring Mark!). Our pleasant time is suddenly disrupted when Mark feels like telling me about this "cool" app (this is So Cal) and realizes we are off course. Damn me, again?! My heart rate and irritation spikes up again until we (he) finds the course about 15 minutes later. I re-center my energy on the moment and the fact that Mark got us back on tracks in a deft manoeuvre. If you read this Mark - thank you again.
I still feel really good as we arrive at Km 96's aid station, where volunteer Pedro welcomes us. He came all the way from Mexico to be there for us... I blame myself for having had dark thoughts earlier on as I realize how lucky I am to be here and meet people like him. Even more so that he greets me as "the first woman"... I beg him pardon but he shows me the list... Ok, can't refute it. At this point also joins Jay, a pretty cool dude with a "stache" that he longs to dip in beer and the lake (not sure which order) as per his own words. He will prove of equally great company as Mark in the next kilometers, not to mention his eyes; a fine melange of the sky's bluebird tint and the nearby Navajo's turquoise stones... So off our trio hits the road again. At least for a little while because they must have had more peanut butter & jam sandwiches than I did on that last stop and they slowly but surely distance me. Gentleman Mark still makes sure however for as long as I can hear him that I don't miss the easy to miss turns thanks to his GPS app. Back alone, I revel in this moment: I love seclusion - another reason why I love mountains and mountain running.
It is now close to 7am and I am about to witness something I'd never seen before, a magical moment that only nature bestows and grants the ones who go look for it. The horizon starts to glimmer into an incredible amaranthine color which slowly separates into a softly layered sky. It has taken the form of a rainbow, from light pink to warm red to dark purple, the assemblage finesse is indescribable. It is only missing the crackling you can hear when watching aurora borealis, as this halo yet vivid light feels very similar. It takes me a while to escape the trans it's put me in and pick up the pace. I arrive at km 116's aid station seemingly impassive and muzzy, not from the fatigue (I'm feeling great) but from what I've just lived... What brings me back to the very moment is the kind volunteers offering me turn after turn a glass of Coke, fruits or a Nutella sandwich. After tens of hours in a race eating regularly, the aid food libations often become a predicament for me but who could say no to a PJ sandwich, even if you're French, there's no "faute de gout" on a race... They also offer a blanket. They are the ones who must have been freezing in this cold night and should be using those. I reply I could use one though and this man tucks me into it as when I was a child. I am pampered and would I not still be feeling great, I'd stay... When I'm ready to go, the latter walks me across the road, warning me not to let him slow me down. Sweet sweet man... And he waves goodbye saying I have a "great spirit" for thanking and acting with the volunteers as I did. I'm starting to wonder if he really existed or if I had slipped into Morpheus's arms in this warm blanket...
After the Sugarloaf ascent, up next is "The Crux of the course" as the organization put it: a 2km descent into the Canyon and then back up 3 kms and ~1000m ascent on the other side. That should say "The fun of the course"! Well, my kind of fun. And I feel great going all the way up. This part of the course has been worked on and reopened specifically for the race. The work has obviously been colossal and I feel grateful once again to be here and to be part of this. Some sections have been literally dug and shoveled and I feel like one of the early adventurers opening routes... Thank you to all the helping hands, this was a special experience.
Right before km 144, I am joined by Jay again who "took a nap" on the previous aid. We chit chat again till we start seeing the Lake and the city down the plateau we're on. The heat is back but I'm still feeling great, 3h ahead of my scheduled time and still first woman... Hard to believe. And as most of my races, I feel like slowing down because I don't want it to be over yet. I want to maintain the time hold. My wish will be partly granted since the end distance will be 5 kilometers more. As Kilian once said it while getting lost on the Tahoe Rim run, the more kilometers the more fun.
Back on the tarmac, as usual, the feet speed up without having to ask. Automatic mode as always. Last straight line, a handful of people are on the finish line and RD Paul announces me. I can't remember what he said, my smile was covering my ears I suppose. I wish I could say the emotions were the strongest I'd ever experienced on a line but I think because I felt so great all along and enjoyed it all along and in this way, had an "easy" race, I cross the line with a huge smile but as if I was runner X along the list. I just can't sink it in that I am the first woman. Paul professionally tells me that I look amazing and gives me a big hug. I feel ill at ease with all his complements (he is quite the cool guy!). I tardy a few moments on the line, a few people come up to me and congratulate saying I look like I've run 5k and that it is really impressive what I accomplished. I have heard it before (and still disagree!) but in this case, I really feel uncomfortable receiving those kind words and acknowledgements. Do I really deserve them and being heralded "fastest woman in So Cal" when it all went so easy? And what if the woman before me hadn't gotten lost too, she seemed fresh and would have finished hours before me. I feel like Stephen Bradbury, the Ozzie speed skater who won gold but because all his opponents fell in front of him. Sorry, that's not really nice for him, he still made it to the OG and went to the finals... (Copyright to Impact Photography, no infringement intended)
After a good shower, I'm back to the line and the podium area, where I see Mark and Jay again. Their words ("tough woman" inter alia) and jokes appease me and though still feeling odd about this "win", I go back to the happy camper I've been for the last 27h23min. This first place is amazing of course and is the utmost proof of accomplishment that make me do these events. I veer my thoughts to actually be cognizant that if it has been so easy it may be because I have built the shape to reach that point and that I used the small hurdles today in my favour which shows the strength I found to do so. Improving and becoming a better version of myself is another reason why I participate in these events, so I ought to recognize that and this rank I am granted. Again, this is what I long for year round, to just be out there, to discover and write my own story, instilled by the help of my hosts: the summits, the cols, the passes and everything that makes my Kingdom an umbilical attachment.
Back with the right state of mind, I run up the podium as Paul announces "29, from France, Gratianne Daum" and make the most of it all: the actual title, the little crowd, my fellow runners, finishers (28) or not (this time), my prize for being "Queen of the mountain" i.e. being first woman on top of Sugarloaf (I was second but the first one DNF) and one of the best object I've ever owned: a huge bear head-shaped wooden trophy (that will prove quite the carry-on!). (Copyright to Impact Photography, no infringement intended)
It's hard to explain the energy I garner and the fulfilling feeling I am offered by the simplicity of the mountains, their perennial beauty and potent peace-giving. It's something that penetrates me and smooths my view on the world and myself. In a perfect world I'd also be able to take that all the peace and strength to the "real world", as defined by society. That would be in hopes of keeping away from the fusillade of dark thoughts and concerns of whether I'm good enough; of a person, of a family member, of a friend, of a co-worker. Maybe some day. I do take a good part of it though. The Grand Dali once said when working for our family business: "the fragility of crystal is not a weakness but a finesse". If my fragility is a burden in the life down in the valley, up here in the mountains it has no impact and no diktats apply. It actually helps me push harder to prove I can make it without breaking. And I become stronger each time a little bit more. I run into oblivion, to find the lightness of being, where a sharp sensation of being alive suffuses me and where I am intoxicated with a feeling of rightness. So for now, I content myself with cutting myself from the truth of my existence while I'm up there and enjoying the placid state of my entire body and soul. (Below, a sun-baked golden shroud over this life infusing walk in the park as I drove down to LAX).
Thank you again to Paul, Matt and all their volunteers and anyone who made this event happen for us lucky runners. I will for sure be back with great pleasure as your "guest", especially since I heard there will be more ascent. But no more heat for now, next race up is a 100 mile in Alaska next February. Can't wait. Stay tuned! www.susitna100.com
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