By: Jourdan Esquenazi
On November 2nd I attempted to complete my first 100-mile race. I had been wanting to try my hand at this elusive challenge the moment I discovered ultramarathons. Rio Del Lago 100 perfectly fit the race criteria that I desired with its elevation profile and higher-than-average finisher rate (around 70%). Surrounded by an amazing crew of friends and a crazy supportive mother I woke up on race day knowing that regardless of the difficulties I would face in the next 30 hours, I refused to quit.
At promptly 5am around 350 athletes began their journey through the Sierra Nevada foothills. The first 18 miles were mostly on road and I was feeling confident. Thankfully I had my friend, and NTTR Vice President, Ray Liberatore there with me to talk with and fight off my urges to go too fast. I will never forget the hundreds of bobbing headlamps as we all surged through the dark morning. At one point the road went downhill and we were facing the Folsom Dam. Since it was so dark, I remember thinking that it looked as if we were running off the edge of the earth.
The road portion went as smoothly as possible. At the end of the 18.5-mile loop I changed out of my road shoes and began running on the trails. I did not know what I expected the trails to look like, but they surpassed whatever idea I had previously constructed. Racing in and out of the woods and along cliffs was nothing short of amazing. At one point there was a beautiful clear stream running along the right side of us, and I could see fish jumping in and out of the water. The views seen during this race are something I’ll forever treasure.
All things went according to schedule until around mile 50. I had not previously practiced running downhill as much as I had liked before the 100 and my lack of training became a cruel reality. Rather then listening to Ray and “letting gravity take me” down the steep hills, I would “put on the breaks” and lock my knees to prevent myself from cascading too quickly. However, after several miles of repeating this improper technique, I began to feel excruciating pain in my left knee.
However, there was a highlight around this mile marker as well. Up to that point in my running career, I had never surpassed 50 miles. Once Ray, our friend and pacer Justin Langhorst, and I hit the 51 mile marker, I realized I was in new territory. I was extremely excited to be breaking through new personal boundaries. It was also at that point where the trail path interrupted a wedding ceremony. My friends and I had to briefly, (and quietly), walk through the vows of the bride and groom to stay along the designated path.
As the course trudged on, I remained in high spirits. Every aid station became a mini mental victory and seeing my mother and crewing team meant more than I can describe. My mother had never been to a trail race before, so seeing her deeply involved and eager to help brought me so much joy.
Around mile 59 I went to see a medic about my knee. The sun had set hours ago, so there was only the headlights of the runners and saving glow of the aid station around us. I remembered being somewhat tired and seeing a runner laying down in a cot as the medic wrapped my left knee. Without thinking I said, “I’m so jealous of you! That bed looks so warm and comfy!”, before realizing that the man was extremely sick and had dropped out of the race. It was definitely embarrassing.
After being taped and shoveling as many quesadillas as I could into my stomach, I went to check on my friends. Unfortunately Ray wasn’t feeling too well. Without going into detail, we all decided it was best for him to hydrate and take care of himself rather than continue. I’ve never known Ray to quit, so it was hard to see our good friend stay behind as Justin and I continued. Ironically enough, it would be Ray that would be taking care of me and my injury in just a few short hours.
After mile 59, the next aid station wasn’t for around 9 miles. Justin and I went on through the darkness to the next point called Goats Hill at mile 63. Once we reached the section, I instantly realized why they had chosen that particular name. I felt as if I truly was a goat on the side of a mountain, even though it was only a 20% grade climb. With darkness and exhaustion at their peak, this part was challenging, unexpected, but definitely fun.
About a mile or two before the next aid station, my headlamp began to dim. Thankfully Ray had lent me a tiny flashlight which I used to illuminate the rocky path. Unfortunately the dying headlamp and small flashlight did not help me a mile later when Justin spotted a mountain lion.
Justin walked in front of me the majority of the time. At this particular moment there were woods to the left of us and a drop off on our right. I remember seeing Justin facing the woods and mimicking a jumping jacks motion. I asked him what he was doing and he didn’t answer. Again I asked him and he replied, “There’s a mountain lion right there!” I turned but my lights were so low I could not see anything in the trees. However, a man that had been running along with us said that he could see it staring at us as well. At that moment we decided it was best to pick up the pace and get out of there we soon as possible. We shouted back to the runners behind us to be weary of the animal they were about to pass.
Once we reached the next aid station, Highway 49 Crossing, I was shivering and absolutely freezing. I remember instantly going to grab some broth in hopes it would help. I recall having a conversation with Justin about how incredible the stars looked in the sky and tried to take a moment to soak it all in before continuing onward.
I had assumed that I would be quite delirious through the nighttime and had prolonged taking in caffeine for as long as I could. There were only brief moments where I felt myself drifting off, but thankfully Justin kept me from falling off a cliff, and I never hallucinated – or at least I don’t think so.
At mile 74.5 and almost 22 hours into the race, Justin decided to take rest and I would continue on alone. It was great to see Ray and my mother. I sat briefly for a moment, put on more clothing, borrowed a headlamp, and scarfed down some food. I left that aid station tired and hurting but was eager to continue and beat the 30-hour cutoff.
I decided I needed a boost of energy and started playing music for the next half hour. My best friend Ciara had made me a playlist that I turned on to lift my spirits. For awhile I ran alone but could see several headlamps a mile or so behind me. At this point my knee was hurting pretty badly, especially on downhills, and that’s all the terrain was going to be like for the next couple of miles.
I ended up meeting up with a group of runners and following them through the woods. I had no idea where I was going, but company in the night was valuable and they were confident with their directions…until they weren’t. At one point the group was approached by another runner from the opposite direction. He stated that everyone was going the wrong way. The group began to panic. There was a cutoff at the next aid station, so we couldn’t afford to be off course or there was no way we’d make it in time. We all began to run as fast as we could to ensure we were in fact on course. I was low on energy but the idea of not being able to finish the full 100 definitely gave me the push I needed.
Hitting the Rattlesnake Bar aid station at mile 83.5 was a blessing. I was able to see my friends and mother again. I was also just within the cutoff time at that location by around 1 hour or less, so I could still continue on with the race. It was beginning to look a lot like crunch time for this race. My crew and I tried to map out a race strategy which entailed me running 17 minute or less miles for the remainder of the 100. Typically that would seem easy, however the remainder of the course was rolling hills, I had already been running almost 25 hours, and my knee was not in good shape at all.
My goofy mother was trying so hard to make sure I had everything I needed when I was ramping up get out of there that she accidentally forgot to give me one of my water bottles. Less than a mile away from the aid station I noticed I didn’t have it, but didn’t have enough time to go back. It made me laugh. While I was running I imagined her in panic-mode, and was looking forward to joking with her later.
After discussing the race strategy with Ray about the timing, I have to admit I began to panic. I was worried about the clock and that I would miss the cut-off time. Each mile was precious and I banked minutes in my mind as I sped through the course. I remember coming to the next aid station at mile 86.5 and one of the volunteers must have sensed my worry because she instantly ran up to me. Slightly disoriented I began blabbering about the time and looking around at the table of food extremely confused. She grabbed my vest and said “You’ve got time! You can do this!” all while shoving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches into my pockets that I would find a mile later.
To say that the last 10-15 miles were hard is an understatement. Daylight came out of nowhere and I was flooded with feelings of fear, pain, and motivation all mixed together with an exhausted tank of adrenaline. Every single step was a nightmare. I looked down at my knee to see it had grown exponentially larger in only a few hours. Downhills were torture. I would use rocks to shift my weight and help me crawl down, all while still trying to go as quickly as possible.
Around mile 90 I met a man running his second 100-miler. He could obviously see I was in pain and in a rough patch. For the next 5 miles he yelled at me like a coach to keep up my pace. He would shout phrases like, “Jourdan I know you’re in pain! We all are in pain! But you are so close and can’t give up now! Think of how good that finish line will feel when it’s all over!” Fighting back the tears I ran as fast as I could while trying to keep him in my sights.
Mile 96 was the final aid station until the finish line. Up until that point I still did not believe I would compete the course before 30 hours. There was a woman standing there cheering everyone on and shouting that we still had enough time to complete the remaining miles. I couldn’t believe it.
From then on I worked as hard as I could. Those were by far the longest and most challenging four miles of my life. I tried not to walk unless I absolutely had to and definitely was ready for the race is be over with.
As I approached the finish line my heart was so full. Seeing my friends and mother patiently waiting for me to pop out of the woods was such an incredible experience. I promised myself I would not stop running and would cross the finish line with pride, regardless of the horrific pain I was experiencing. I knew I would want to reflect back on that moment later and be proud of how I finished this race.
Hearing my name called and crossing the finish line was one of the greatest moments of my life. I could hear my crazy mom screaming in the background, so proud of her daughter. I thanked God as I crossed the line for getting me through such a life-changing adventure. I had survived and earned my buckle, but not without His help the whole way.
Running 100 miles changed me for the better. I was able to dig into dark places I didn’t know existed to keep going after my goal. Rio also showed me the importance of friends and family. From experience, I can now tell you that there is absolutely nothing better then seeing a familiar face and smile when you’re deep in that dark place. Pushing those personal limits is essential to truly understanding who a person is inside…and 100 miles will definitely teach you a thing or two about yourself.