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Sean O'Brien Race Report

February 9, 2017

No crew. No pacers. Those are the rules. Despite the fact that my crew would only see me at the start and finish, they still flew out from three different states to be a part of my race. Even though I wasn’t able to have them physically on the course with me, they were still with me every mile along the way. For the past 5 months they’ve been my training partners, coaches, shoulders to cry on, stress relievers, and encouragement givers. At Malibu State Park at 3:19 in the afternoon, on February 4th, we were shouting to no one in particular, “We’re going to Western!”  


Every day for the last 5 months, I’d worked toward this moment. Because this is a race report and not a story about my training, I’ll spare you the details of running in the bitter cold for hours, and what seemed like lifetimes spent on the treadmill… or at least I’ll try.


My brother Reece stands next to me at 4:55 AM, like he has at almost every race over the past few years. We’re waiting for the start of Sean O’Brien 100k. There is a sea of headlamps around us, but for me the atmosphere was devoid of nerves. I was ready to see what was going to transpire, all I had to do was run. Pretty simple and easy enough to accomplish, all the hard work was done, this was the fun part.


The game plan was to go out conservative for the first 40 miles, then turn the wheels on, and slowly check off the leaders one by one. That lasted an entire two miles. After two miles you start a long climb on a service road up to the first aid station. Everyone was walking, except for one woman. I slipped in behind her and let her set the pace, as we worked our way by the other runners. Then the descent came. There’s something about losing yourself when you fully embrace running downhill, that turns you into a child running for the pure love of running. I get this urge to spread my wings and fly. On training runs by myself I do. When running with other people I lift my arms ever so slightly, to feel the wind beneath them. Hopefully to the untrained eye, it looks like I’m merely using my arms to keep my balance, instead of a delusional hippie pretending she’s a bird. I started cruising by people. I was in flight, and oh how I love to fly! The downhills are made for birds, birds don’t think or care about saving their legs. I’m a bird in this moment. I flew into the first aid station filled one water bottle and took off to an explosion of shouts from the aid station volunteers “WRONG WAY!”  Apparently birds don’t pay attention to course markings. Back on course to my delight it kept going downhill for a few miles, this time on single track. I was running in a pack of guys. We were all birds, soaring, jumping from rock to rock, zig zagging in and out of trees. Running as if our breathing would never get heavy and our legs never grow tired. I assume these are more things birds don’t waste time thinking about. We just ran, and we flew. As it happens too often, reality got in the way. I started stressing I was going too fast, too early. My biggest fear was blowing up, hitting that wall that I’ve grown to dread encountering, based on my previous rendezvouses with it. I expressed my concerns to Ryan, a guy I’d been running with for a few miles now. His response in true bird fashion, “If you’re feeling it go with it, you’ll know in a few hours what ends up happening.”


  I left the second aid station to a cheer from one of the volunteers, “Yes! You’re the first woman!” Wait. Stop. What? It was so early in the race, what had happened to my game plan? I felt great, but I knew there was a wolf pack of amazingly talented, and experienced women chasing me down. They hadn’t been wooed into letting their spirits fly as they ran down hill. They were on fresh legs, waiting for me to break, and then they’d circle in for the kill, taking my golden ticket. I was committed now, whether I wanted to be or not, I wasn’t slipping out of a golden ticket spot. I’d just have to hurdle the wall instead of hitting it. Why had no other runner in the history of running thought of this? Genius.  


Aid station three, my first drop bag. I didn’t need anything, only to lose weight. Rain jacket, arm sleeves, and headlamp all relieved of their duties for the day. Aid four, I grabbed a handful of watermelon while a volunteer filled a water bottle. Emily flew by. I don’t think she even noticed there was an aid station there. I wasn’t super concerned, I was getting calories in me I’d appreciate later on, I’m confident in my climbing skills and we were about to start a decent ascent. Ryan and I tackled the climb and the descent into the next aid. It was nice to have someone to keep my mind off of my pace, and the conversation encouraged a more controlled stride downhill, which my legs were thankful for.


Roughly a quarter mile outside the aid station we ran into Emily leaving it. I was content with that distance knowing she was starting another long climb. The course here was saturated in mud a few inches deep that stuck to your shoes, making it feel like your feet weighed 5 pounds each. Nobody was moving fast. My training, running in soft snowpack up mountains all winter, was about to pay its dividends. This aid (#5) was my longest stop. I was there maybe 75 seconds. My socks had been soaked since the stream crossing at mile 2. The mud showed no mercy in allowing them to dry out. I’d been debating changing them out for quite some time, since my feet were feeling pretty tender. I decided the wasted time was worth it, and I put on dry socks. With fresh socks I charged out of aid 5. An uphill grind in mud made it almost impossible for me to feel like the running goddess I had embodied earlier in the race. At one point, I hit a pile up of 15+ people, all slipping and sliding with every step. They’d take two steps and the mud would pull them back down to the ground on their butts. It was a single track section and the runners were heading in both directions. It was absolute chaos. They were having a party. It’s not often you see so many adults playing in the mud. Any other day I would have loved to of joined them, but today, I had a ticket to earn. My only solace was that the other female competitors would have to navigate their way through the hodge podge of people too.


Once I got through the mud pit I came up on a runner doing the marathon distance. She was in every essence of the word a “bird”. I fooled my brain into thinking I was too, and forced myself to run at her pace. This was me hurdling the wall. I refused to hit it, there was not time for that, I’d put in too much work to crash and burn at any point during the race. I started hammering the gels, I could feel my energy slipping and needed to get a handle on it.


18 miles left. That’s all. I’ve done dozens of 20+ mile training runs in the snow, while it was dark, I was freezing and alone, just wishing for it to be over. Eighteen miles on a packed dirt road, with comfortable temps, in daylight, and with other runners cheering me on, I had this. The stress of encountering the wall had passed. Only 18 miles. It was the last out and back section of the course. When I turned around and passed third place I wanted to have as much distance between us as possible. From a competitors stand point I wanted that cushion to be so built up that she would think it’s nearly impossible to catch me in the last thirteen miles. According to my watch I was 1.7 miles ahead of her by the time I passed her heading the other direction.


It was a long climb out of the 2nd to last aid station. I just needed to keep moving. Six and a half miles left, mostly downhill. I hurt. Come on keep it together. You’re so close. I wanted to fly, but my wings wouldn’t let me soar like I had earlier. Then a running angel appeared, and planted himself in my race. Thomas. My watch had died, I was running by feel, and I felt like I was giving everything to barely break a 12 min/mile pace. I must have been delusional, because Thomas informed me we were heading toward the finish at an 8 min/mile pace. He chit chatted about his past running experiences, and future goals, all the while making sure we kept up a decent pace.  He pushed me, I tried running with him, every time I’d fall behind, he’d turn and holler, “Come on girl!”


 Runners from all distances were congesting the path, Thomas would shoo them to the side, yelling “on your left” leaving a clear path for me, so I didn’t have to break stride. I followed behind him, breathlessly thanking the other participants for moving out of the way. Four miles girl. Two miles girl, come on! Then we were there. I could see the people about a half mile out. I spotted what I thought were my guys, then I heard an eruption of cheers. They had spotted me. My wings were magically healed, and I was flying again. I was so proud of us! We did this! We were going to Western!


That’s it. That’s the race report, but there was so much more that went into Sean O’Brien 100k than the 10 hours and 19 min I was on the course. It feels silly for me to give thank yous, like I’m making a bigger deal of this race than it is, but for me it was a big deal. It was never about Western, it has always been about building a running resume that reflects how good I know I am. There have been certain people along the way that share my vision.


Dean, the owner of Vertical Runner of Breckenridge, as well as one of my favorite people, had blind faith in me from the first day we met. I’d tell him my goals. Goals that I thought were pretty lofty, and he’d one up them. “Dean, you know who my competition is. These girls are fast!” His response is always the same, “But I know how hard you work.”


 Molly and Laurie have always made me feel like I have ladies to run with in Breckenridge (AKA paradise), and remind me nonstop I’m a badass. Which I take pretty seriously considering who it’s coming from.


Reece, has spent hours every few days with me on the phone quietly listening to me talk about my training, upcoming races, and other runner’s statistics. He’s my go to crew chief, occasional financial backer, and biggest fan.


 Jake flew out to Malibu at the last minute, to grace us with his presence and join the crew. We knew we picked a good one when we met him in Ouray, or maybe he picked us. It doesn’t matter, he’s one of us now.


Devon was my main training partner. He pushed me out the door when the temp’s were well in to the negatives, and all I wanted was to indulge in a recovery day in the hot tub. Devon was certain I would get a golden ticket and mentioned it every time the race came up in conversation, as if it was a fact not an opinion. What that meant to me is indescribable.


Avery patiently let me analyze my training daily with him. What do you think about this workout? Too much vert? Too little? Too fast? Too slow? Should I be on the trails more, or on the treadmill? More strength training?  I’ve never ran a 100k, how do I pace for it? These shoes feel weird. My foot hurts. Diagnose it. Fix it. Run with me. And that’s just the start. I ate more than my share of his nutrition, while he never complained once. He reminded me over and over again he would be proud of me no matter what the outcome of the race was. In his eyes I could not fail him.


My social media accounts are full of posts about three main things: 1) My dreams coming true. 2) My amazing runs. 3) My love for Avery. You can’t trust social media so let me set the record straight. My dreams aren’t all coming true, the things that have been happening lately, I’m ashamed to admit I never had the gall to dream of. Not every run is amazing. There are a million average runs and even a handful of really miserable ones. The third thing though, that’s downplayed on social media.


Avery is running Georgia Death Race in April, fighting for his own golden ticket. As of now I’m going to dare to dream of us both lining up at the start line of Western States 2017. The dream goes on for 100 miles after that. The ending is pretty epic. You’ll have to use your imagination for the details.


See you in Squaw.

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