“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way….”
~ A Tale of Two Cities
A tale of two cities, sure, but also an apt description of a single hundred mile race, wherein even the best of times can hurt like the dickens! Our Tale of Two Women begins at the start line of the High Lonesome 100, on the morning of July 21, 2023, in the post-dawn brightness of the Sawatch Range, a playground of Colorado peaks rugged and extensive enough to inspire and intimidate the most seasoned trail runner. And Tara Warren, from Ogden, Utah, is plenty seasoned. This is her third High Lonesome, and her fifteenth hundred-miler overall, almost all of them over rugged courses in the western mountains from Utah, to Colorado, to northern Wyoming. Her first 100-miler came in 2015 at The Bear, which starts in her Logan back yard. She had crewed for her husband, Bryce the year before, and was completely wowed by
the experience. She loved the organizers and was blown away by the sense of community.
“I loved the vibe. It was hard not to be inspired,” Warren says of the experience. “I thought, ‘Huh, I wonder if I could do that?’”
A year later the answer was a painful yes. She crossed the finish line in neighboring Idaho with ‘shredded’ feet and a sense of purpose. “I was unsatisfied that the problem with my socks (after a bit off foot-care advice went horribly awry) kept me from tapping into my potential, but maybe you need to do one, fail hard, and learn from it,” She laughs. “And here I am, still learning!”
Fifteen races over the 100-mile distance can instill a lotof knowledge, and a lot of confidence, but also an abundance of caution. At the2022 version of High Lonesome, Warren battled hypoxia, which came completelyout of left field, given Warren lives and trains at altitude. Warren sufferedearly, but rallied to finish, the last runner to cross the line – andexcruciatingly – an hour after the time cutoff to be counted as an officialfinisher. The episode is still unexplained, though dehydration may have playeda part.“I was that stubborn redhead puking by the side of the roadin the last miles, with all the cars driving by on their way from the finisharea.” She laughs. “It was kind of mortifying.” Her voice goes suddenlyserious, steely. “But now I get to come back and make it right.”And so, the girl who never ran in high school, opting forbasketball – “Running was a punishment,” she says, laughing – stands in the astringent,post-dawn Colorado light, a smile on her face and resolve in her gut, waitingto be released into the wild.
Lindsey McDonald, who is toeing the line of her first 100-miler, may not be as seasoned an ultrarunner as Warren, but she is every bit as salty. Like Warren, she did not run in high school, but rather, played soccer. She did run in college, however, running the marathon for Park University, a small, private school in Missouri, garnering All-America honors with a 3:00:52, fifth-place showing at the 2013 NAIA Championships. As is true with many former college runners, the next couple of years were a bit rocky, running-wise, and not in the good way.
“I was burned out,” McDonald says, “I didn’t take care of myself. I was injured a lot.” Her answer? Hit the trails!
“I had some friends I ran on the roads with who had started crossing over into the trail community in Kansas City. They introduced me to the group there, the ‘Wyco Wolfpack.’ I decided to do the 50k with a few folks from that group.”
The 50k in question was the 2019 Whiterock Ultra in Coon Rapids, Iowa, a race in which McDonald promptly dispatched the other women, finishing sixth overall. It would seem she had found her calling. COVID would decimate the racing calendar for most of the next two years, however, so McDonald would have to wait to run her next ultra. Contenting herself with virtual races in the interim, she returned to Whiterock in 2021, winning again and running ten minutes faster. Quick study though she was, there was nothing in these Iowa victories to predict that the terrain over which she would soon excel would be the high and technical slopes that loomed one time zone to the west.
Fast forward to July, 2023, and McDonald, now a Flagstaff, Arizona resident and veteran of some of the gnarliest, most competitive shorter ultras in the West, has produced a large enough data set to suggest that, 100-mile newbie though she may be, she could well be ready to hold her own out there. Especially with a couple of her old Wyco Wolfpack crew on hand as pacers.
In a video posted by rabbit on social media shortly after the race, McDonald, filmed just before the start, looks exactly nervous and intense enough to jump out of her skin. A few seconds later, however, she is moving easily away from the start line, laughing with friend and training partner (and – spoiler alert! – eventual winner) Georgia Porter, her nerves, as they always are, chased away by the sound of the starting gun.
Two months before the race, neither Warren nor McDonald was in the field. Warren’s summer had been built around the Val d’Aran, a 163 kilometer (100 mile) race in the Spanish Pyrenees. Twenty kilometers into that race, with Warren running well, severe weather moved in and organizers decided to cancel the race. Warren and her fellow competitors were evacuated from a high mountain pass, and suddenly, the super-fit Warren found herself literally all dressed-up and nowhere to go.
First on the waitlist with three days to go before the race, she drove to Buena Vista with her racing kit and a heart full of hope. The next day the last spot opened up. Game on.
McDonald and her training partner, Porter, decided to do their debut 100 together. McDonald knew she wanted something high and fairly technical. “Maybe it’s not logical,” she said with a quick laugh, “but a more ‘runnable’ race is more stressful to me. I want to look at a course and say, ‘You are going to hike a lot of this! I had done a couple of 100ks, Black Canyon and Gorge Waterfalls, and they were great races, but the courses really didn’t suit me. I wanted to pick a course where I’d spend a lot of time above treeline. My muscle typology makes me feel great between 10,000 and 14,000 feet.”
A true physiology nerd, McDonald uses a lot of terms like ‘muscle typology.’
McDonald and Porter took a long look at High Lonesome. They liked what they saw. “Maybe seventy miles of the course requires poles!” McDonald enthuses to me before the race. “OK,” said Porter, “Let’s get in!”
Porter did exactly that, being selected in the entry lottery. McDonald, however, was waitlisted.
“I was bummed. I decided to wait until May, and if I had not been moved off the waitlist, I’d find another race.”
In May fate intervened in the form of a sponsor’s entry from rabbit. McDonald was good to go.
Warren’s plan was to start conservatively, then listen to the body, or “Go with the flow,” as she put it the day before the race. Early on the flow was good. She was in about 100th position at the Raspberry aid station, 7.3 miles in. By Antero (16.9) Warren had moved up to 84th, and coming into St. Elmo at 25.1 she had cracked the top 70. It was there however that the wheels began to wobble a little, and race officials kept her there for a bit to monitor a medical issue. When she emerged from St. Elmo, she began to show what she was really made of. The day was not going as planned, but Warren became the very model of grit and consistency, bringing every bit of racing experience to bear on problem solving and finding ways to manage the heat and nutritional challenges faced by everyone in the race.
“It was hot!’ she said afterward. “I have never stopped and lay down in creeks. I did that lots, maybe ten times or more.”
Warren soldiered on, managing physical and mental systems, not to mention expectations, as the hours and miles ground past. She blew through aid stations, lingering only once, dueling with some demons at the aptly-named Purgatory aid station, before slaying them and moving on. And after thirty-five and a half hours, with five mountain passes and countless slain demons behind her, Tara Warren crossed the High lonesome finish line for the third time, running, like every other finisher, into the waiting arms of race director Caleb Efta, to whom she muttered “something delirious” after doing a masterful job of keeping the wheels on when all systems were most definitely not go.
McDonald too, started conservatively, with a plan of running with Porter for the first 50 miles. “We hit lows pretty early, but came out of them. We hit lows at different times and were able to encourage one another and push each other when we were going through those lows. The outcomes of our races were significantly better because we had each other.”
The pair caught Silke Koester, who had been running in second place, at Tin Cup aid station (41.2) and the trio left the aid station together. By Hancock (49.3) McDonald had begun to gap Koester, despite the onset of intermittent vomiting, even as Porter began to pull away from her. After being able to eat a whole bowl of Ramen at Purgatory (65.1) McDonald was able to push the following climb, opening a margin on Koester that would continue to widen until McDonald’s eventual third-place finish. Not that any of it was remotely easy.
“Says McDonald, “The last twenty miles were the hardest. The aid stations were farther apart, and it was so dark, there were no physical benchmarks to measure your progress against. Miles 85-90 were the toughest section. I had a few little trail fits – mini meltdowns – never more than a minute or two, then my pacer dragged me along.”
Dragged her along to a smiling third-place finish, in 26:59:20, and into the welcoming arms of tireless race director and hugger-in-chief, Caleb Efta.
It was the best of times, it was, well…
“I enjoyed the experience,” Warren said, looking none the worse for wear after a quick nap in a gas station parking lot, somewhere between Buena Vista and Logan. “It wasn’t the race I anticipated, but you never know going in just how it’s going to go. I swore off ever doing a hundred miles more than a handful of times times out there.” And in the next breath: “I had a great time!”
She continued, “It was so well-organized, such a wonderful group of people putting on the race. I would recommend High Lonesome to anyone.” She gives a wicked grin. “Just know you’re going to suffer.”
The next day, McDonald concurs. “It was the hardest mental race I’ve ever worked through. Physically, you’re hurting, but it’s such a low-level burn. For me, it was having such a hard time getting food down. I had the legs, I could have run harder. If I’d have been able to get those fast sugar hits from gels, been able to keep them down, I think I could have been able to run quite a bit quicker the last twenty miles. But it was all about keeping the stomach happy. Really,” she says, “I’m not actually all that sore, which is frustrating because I know there was a lot left in the legs.”
I can practically hear the wistful grin on her face when she continues. “But I guess that’s what you learn when you run these races for the first time, to find out what your limits are, what you can’t control, different strategies for when your nutrition goes to crap!”
But all-in-all, McDonald was pleased with the effort. “High, high altitude and heat are some of the toughest conditions you can face, and I think I managed that okay. Nobody comes out of that unscathed, so all things considered, I think I handled it well.”
As for when her next 100-mile race might be, McDonald is, um, noncommittal. “I don’t know if I would say I necessarily love that racing style. I don’t love that long, slow, grindy burn. I like the more acute burn of a 50k.” She pauses a moment. “It might be a bit before I try a 100-mile again. 50 miles, 100k, keeping races under twelve hours for the time being is where I might stay.” Another pause. “But then again, I’m fresh off this experience, so….”
“But,” she says, “I’m glad we tried, glad we did it. My crew and pacers were amazing. I’m looking over at my husband, who is equally sleep-deprived.”
All-in-all, McDonald seems happy to marinate in the moment, maybe idly consider her next big race, the Cape Town Ultra Trail, in South Africa in November. Her last words on the experience are about the woman with whom she spent months training, and the first fifty miles of High Lonesome in lockstep.
“My biggest advantage on the day was racing with my training partner and friend. I would say that accountability to one another is a huge advantage, and we both had that; we had each other. The results may have been quite different if she wasn’t out there!
READ PART TWO →