By Holly Ryerson
They say the watched pot never boils, but I say, the unwatched fire never burns. You must tend to your fire. Stoke it. Feed it. At least keep the embers smoldering, or your fire will go out like a wet dubee.
It’s May of 2020, and like a lot of runners, I was forced to be creative in executing some of my big goals. Races were cancelled, plans upheaved, and life as we knew it was very different. I’m fortunate to live nestled in a nook near the base of Castle Peak, on Donner Summit, CA, so I began running my own routes from my back door. I got myself into some real backwoods, bushwhacking, navigational mania.
As I expanded my route-finding prowess, and tested the limits of my courage, I went farther and farther. Or is it further and further? Who cares. I began to catch glimpses of the Sierra Buttes to the north of me on these long solo efforts. I became obsessed, as I do, with the craggy figures yodeling out to me. They remind me of the Tetons. The Tetons remind me of my best friend Jimmy who passed away so many years ago, but that’s a story for another time.
Sometimes I get these ideas, I call them seeds. A seed was planted when I decided I wanted to run NOBO on the Pacific Crest Trail from Hwy 80 on Donner Summit to the Sierra Buttes, in Sierra City, CA. Section L. It’s about 40 miles with 5500 ft of climbing. Very remote, very runnable, with a few tedious sections that require patience. 15 mile stretch with no water. No FKT had yet been established for this route, so I went ahead and submitted it to FKT for approval. Now all I needed to do was train and do it!
I trained like a woman possessed. It was literally all I could think about. I devoured maps, crowd sourced water sites, and came up with a plan.
One morning while training, I went for an 8-mile run before work. I began to feel a small pain in a very specific spot on my left femoral shaft. It just felt like muscular stuff. Whatever, I can push through that. I ran through the pain until it was so severe, I was forced to completely stop. Things came to a grinding halt. I had a stress reaction in my femoral shaft. I had over trained. Too much volume, too much intensity. Now, the FKT is off the table and would have to wait until next season. Perfect example of when I want something, I sometimes squeeze too hard.
June 2021 rolls around and I’m finally ready to make the attempt. I’m trained, I have pacers. My sister Vanessa drops us off. I’m ready to rock and Maddie Tight and I get going. Around mile 18 I started feeling more tired than I should have been. Lots of poop stops. My fueling was not dialed. Carrots and peanut butter balls, lol. At mile 23 the first twinge of IT Band Syndrome began to emerge. Shout out to my people out there who get IT Band Syndrome…I see you! At one point I was supposed to eat but knew I would see my crew in a few miles so I said eff it. Big mistake. I highly recommend you stay on your eating schedule. Once you go into a deficit, it’s very hard to come out of it. I sat at the rest stop at mile 27 for 8 fucking minutes. What am I doing? Sitting?! Rookie moves from a naive little lady. I left the aid spot, with fresh pacers, and pressed on to finish the last 13 miles. That’s when things really turned south. I ran out of water, and just couldn’t eat. My knees felt like rusty hinges that would not bend. I was reduced to a pathetic stick walk. I felt sorry for myself. I cried. I snapped at my pacers. I bonked…hard. So embarrassing. Humble pie to the FACE! The time to beat was 8 hours 30 mins, and I finished in 9 hours 30 mins. Hey, at least I completed it, but it was not the glorious jubilee my illusions of grandeur had envisioned.
I thought about just leaving this route alone. My fragile glass ego couldn’t handle getting stomped out again. Why rip open the wounds of failure and embarrassment? If I try and fail again it would be disastrous.
I decided to try again. One more time. I felt like that old guy in the heist crew that says “okay, one last job.” I had to do this. It was calling out to me…like Grendel’s mother. I drive past the trailhead on my way to work every day, just hidden in plain sight. It was time to go see some old friends. And I needed to run alone.
It’s a bit taboo for a woman, a mother, a wife, to be out running 40 miles alone in the mountains. I would constantly have to explain every safety precaution to secure a person’s confidence in me. Convince these people that know nothing about what I am doing that it’s okay for me to do this. Meanwhile, some dude is out there with no cell phone and purple crocs, and nobody thinks twice.
I was ready for war the day of my FKT and I made the decision that nothing would stop me. Yeah, I’ll say it now and I’ll say it again, come at me bro!
Not to say I wasn’t afraid. I was terrified. And everyone’s questioning of my decision to run alone started to infect me with doubt. I didn’t want to die out there. All I want to do on any run is come back home. It’s Homer’s Odyssey in real time. The two days before my third attempt I was crippled in fear. I didn’t sleep. I was so nervous. I thought about pulling the plug. Nobody cares anyways, your time will be obliterated, so why even risk it?
It’s 4:30am on October 20, 2022, and the alarm shocks me awake. It’s showtime. I’m running this thing. No nerves…Hmmm okay, cool. All my stuff is dialed in, of course, I’ve only been preparing for this run for like three years. I eat my fried egg sandwich and drink lukewarm water out of my Mt. Baker mug from the night before. I’m wearing the Salomon Pulsar Trail Pros. Dry Max socks, always. So much in my pack, this ridiculous heavy pack, because I am a woman alone in the wilds. I was prepared to fight a cougar to death, fend off a rapist, and survive a rattlesnake bite.
I drive myself to the trailhead in my Tacoma with over 300K. The muffler is rusted out and that sucker is loud. All I can hear is the low octave “hooooo” coming from my trusty steed. I arrive so soon, it’s like 3 minutes from my house. It’s dark. Nobody here. I park the car and stash my keys. The weather is decently warm for this time of year. Not a lick of wind. The only company I have in this moment are the semi-trucks whirring down the highway.
Today is the day. This is my window to run. The last nice day as a snowstorm is moving in tomorrow night. I did a little warm up, touched the dirt, and humbly asked the mountains for safe passage. Then I said “Welp”, adjusted my headlamp, touched the sign, and started my run.
For how frightened I was just two days ago, and maybe I got it out of my system, I was never scared. I felt at ease. I relaxed and accepted my choice. Everything went so smoothly. I was supposed to meet my husband for water at mile 16, but he wasn’t there when I arrived. He tried but missed the trail. I made the predetermined symbols of sticks, took my first pee pee and carried on. No problem at all, I was totally prepared. I passed the place at mile 18 where I felt so tired the year prior, and I felt strong. That boosted me. I passed the spot where I got IT Band Syndrome last year. I felt solid. Strength work baby! Met my crew (my husband Henry and best friend Lauren) at mile 27. We were all so focused and dialed. Not a ton of words, just a quick NASCAR pit stop. Crew was so clutch right there. I had originally planned to go unsupported on this attempt but felt the boost of friends and a quick water refill was the ticket. I’m lucky to have people show up for me.
I carried on to the last 13 mile section. Really just one more climb and then you descend like a mofo. You drop into what my friend Lauren and I dubbed, ‘Rattler Canyon’. Last year it chewed me up and spit me out. This time I moved through with patience and excellent footwork. Except, right at the end of the canyon I came around a corner and kicked an unfriendly rock with my left toe. Yowch!! I howled in pain. I knew something sinister had just happened to my toenail. I didn’t stop running. All my years of soccer conditioned me to just run it off. Plus there’s always that creepy thrill you get when you finally take off your sock. Spoiler alert, I ripped my toenail off.
I made it out of the toe kicker section and onto loamy single track. Oh, hells yes, I feel pretty darn good and I’m just flying. I was of course tired and would sometimes count to keep myself turning things over. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8. It was in this stretch I truly tapped into grit. I made the decision to just keep running strong. Fuck my jacked-up toe, and fuck succumbing. I was Aria Stark saying, “Not Today!” It was time to dig. This is God Mode!
I cross the bridge over Haypress Creek. Omg that’s like 2.5 miles from the end and I was an hour ahead of the FKT. I never allow myself to celebrate or start doing math. Just shut up and run. After the creek, it’s the final climb. Hot, exposed, deciduous labyrinth filled with gnats. I decide to breathe through my mouth with closed teeth to keep the gnats out of my nose. Never an open mouth for fear of aspirating the little buggers. The final few miles are just as sneaky brutal as I remember. It’s like the final boss in a video game, but I’d already met him before so I knew when he would lift his arms so I could stab him in the belly. That last push was a true display of self-respect. I showed up for myself and ran with all my heart.
I can’t see my destination of HWY 49 yet, but I can hear cars and the roar of a waterfall. I get a huge rush of endorphins. Like a bomber hit of something I may or may not have tried in another lifetime. I descend the final switchback toward the bridge at Loves Falls. The first person I see in hours is a red haired lady on the bridge. A man is taking her photo. I holler out “I just ran here from Donner Summit” and fly by, lifted by euphoria and triumph. They were probably like “this woman is insane.”
Boom, there was the sign for the PCT. Hwy 49. I touch it and I’m done. I did it. 8 hours 1 minute. It was the run of my life…thus far. Was able to shave 1hr 30mins off my previous time.
I look around and see a silver Honda parked across the highway. There’s my ride home. My coworker’s husband, Mike, just happened to be free that day and came through in the final hours as the last piece in this whole puzzle. I put my hands in the air and said, “I did it.” No hoopla, no fanfare. Just a beer and a PB&J. What a nice man to drive an hour and half each way to pick me up and drop me off. Good on you Mike Kydd! He took me back to my car on Donner Summit, then I immediately drove back down to my son’s preschool in Truckee to pick him up. I didn’t mention what I had just done when I walked in. Business as usual. It doesn’t matter who knows, I know. My friends and family know. And I appreciate all of you, sincerely.
This personal triumph means more to me than I could ever convey on this page. I’ll keep this lengthy note here as a reminder of the day an ordinary person did an extraordinary thing.
Plant your seeds. Keep trying. Never let your fire go out.
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