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Part of our series: Voices of the Mountains

Voices of the Mountains, the latest series for the Uphill Athlete Podcast, is devoted to the unique stories of those who choose the mountains. Each episode explores what it means to be a human in complex and challenging environments.

Steve House welcomes guest Guy Cotter to the Uphill Athlete podcast in the latest episode. Guy is a New Zealand-based IMGA guide and owner of Adventure Consultants guiding company with multiple Everest and other 8000m peak summits. Steve and Guy begin the conversation around Guy’s foundations as a mountain athlete and his newly released book, Everest Mountain Guide. The two continue with a discussion on the evolution of Everest climbing and Guy’s personal experiences on the mountain. They share stories of experiences with clients in their heydays of guiding and their personal evolution as climbers, parents, and mountain lovers. Steve and Guy bring years of wisdom and knowledge of high altitude climbing to the Uphill Athlete podcast.

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00:00.00
Alyssa
Welcome to the Uphill Athlete podcast. Our mission is to elevate and inspire all mountain athletes through education and celebration. My name is Alyssa Clark and I will not be your host today because I will be on the other side of the microphone. Actually we have Will Weidman and I say that right? He will actually be taking the interviewing position and we will be discussing the Dragons Back Race which is a pretty insane race in Wales that I just completed a little over a week ago. So thanks, Will for doing this.

00:46.20
Will
I’m excited to be here I’m excited to turn the tables here and get to hear more from you. So you’re a coach with uphill athlete, you’re our podcast host and wear a few other hats at uphill athlete. But you are also a world class athlete and have had just an incredible year of performances. So I think this is probably long overdue here I know we want to dig into the amazing adventure that was the dragons back race. But I can’t resist going back at least a little bit because it really feels like it’s been just an incredible year. Ah, bit of a breakout year. You know I think you know if you’ve had a lot of successes in recent years and some great race performances but it does feel like it’s almost been a steep change even from there and so maybe just going back to the start of this year with the HURT 100.

01:39.44
Will
I think hurt was your first hundred in 2017 and so I think at that time you were around the same age as when I ran my first hundred I know I certainly felt like a deer of the headlights in my first hundred mile race and then you know you came back six years later you came and won the race, came in second overall I think set the second fastest female time on the course. So what was it like you know, coming back to what was your first hundred mile experience six years later with everything you learned and gained since then.

02:13.79
Alyssa
Yeah, well thank you for that. Um, and also wow you’ve done your research! I think of hurt as one of those races where almost everything went perfectly. I just I had a great time the entire day like it was the most fun I think I’ve ever had for 24 hours and 35 minutes and I think a lot of that stemmed from just I mean for me, Hawaii, I lived there for 3 years, it’s where I met my husband. It’s where I got married. It’s where I really started my life out as an adult. It’s where my ultra running career started. It’s where I first really realized what an ultra running community is and so it really felt like this love story coming back in a way I know that sounds odd of love stories and ultra running but it truly felt I just felt so much gratitude and love the entire time on the course that it’s just it’s hard not to do your best when you feel such a positive energy. Around you and supporting you and pushing you forward and I just everything clicked really well. I was patient, I have worked really hard on getting my nutrition in a much better place that went really well.

03:42.31
Alyssa
I had an amazing crew, just amazing support pacing and so just all the pieces came together really well. It’s actually why I’m not doing it again this year is because I’m not sure I can. I want to break 24 hours desperately like I really want to do that but I had such an amazing experience. I want to give some space in that before I try again because I’m not sure that I can have much more fun than I did. So I think that was a huge part of it and I’ve really I’ve talked about this before but I’ve really worked on changing my mindset about how I view myself which dragons is interesting because I don’t think I was as fully in as I have been in other races of this change in mindset. Which is just really believing in myself and betting on myself that I’ve put in the time the effort, the energy to do my best and I should believe that I can do my best when I stand on the start line. So I think that just all of those pieces came together really well and I’m very competitive, I love to win but it really wasn’t about winning. It was about celebrating how far I’ve come personally as a runner and bringing that celebration to a community that truly has supported me since day one.

05:13.35
Will
And you think that’s why it went so well is that mindset going in the community and well then support or was it also just you know some days things click and just go well or maybe a bit of both or any thoughts on that.

05:26.45
Alyssa
I think some of both. I think there’s also you know I know that course like the back of my hand. I mean I’ve run it so many times and by the second lap it was just like oh yeah, on that rock you move this way and on that portion you step here. It’s so just my body remembered how to run that course and I think that’s a huge advantage going into HURT. I think it’s why locals do really well is because knowing the course is just such an advantage so that all I think played into it as well. I’ve also been doing this for 8 years now and you just start putting the pieces together and knowing yourself really well not to say that you can’t have bad races. You absolutely can. But I think that while my training wasn’t absolutely perfect, I felt confident I was in a really strong place standing at the start line.

06:26.77
Will
Yeah, it’s so hard of everything go right for a race that long you know I think of all the ones I’ve done I think only one has been truly smooth from wire to wire but that was my third time at hellbender.

06:41.69
Will
Which is also a race I love that race the course I love the people the community around it was actually really terrible weather like we had awful storms and hail and freezing rain up on Mount Mitchell but probably for reasons you describe you know, it just went well and went smoothly I think that’s a good thing to keep in mind in terms of when you know these are such big challenges to take on why are you signing up for them? What’s that motivation I think also really interesting your point of maybe waiting to go back after that basically sounds like perfect experience and that question of risky right? Can you replicate that? Can you top that? That’s really hard. So I think that’s really interesting in terms of how you think about which events to do and why?

07:24.32
Alyssa
Yeah, well and it’s your turn. So maybe the spot that I gave up is the spot that opened up for you.

07:33.45
Will
Yeah, there we go. I will be there this year for my first shot. So we’ll see how it goes I’m excited.

07:39.70
Alyssa
I’m excited for you. I can’t wait to to help in as many ways as I can it’s a special race.

07:47.18
Will
I’ll be picking your brain and those always are the best kind of races where they have that long community around it and the people who love the race there I think there are some races where you really see that and that’s something I’ve heard a lot about hurt I have a good friend. He’s run it 15 years in a row. He stopped at 15 but he’s going to keep going back because he just loves being there. He’s going to volunteer and support and continue going every year.

08:11.91
Alyssa
Alex yeah, he did dragons back so I got to know Alex really well while I was over there.

08:21.57
Will
Yeah, we’ll have to dig into that. Yeah, he’s a good local friend here. But then so you know get a phenomenal result at hurt and then canyons about three months later so you know you’ve had a lot of like I said winds and great performances. But canyons also it felt like a breakout in terms of you know it’s a utmb major race really stiff competition of the race. You had an international deep field. Also maybe a bit of a different course than you know some of the ones you’ve done really well on. It was a faster runnable course, especially this year because they had to do some reroutes given snow up high so it made it a pretty runnable course. So how did canyons and the result you won the race there. How did that change how you think about goals, think about what’s possible, did it change some of your thinking about that?

09:16.35
Alyssa
A thousand percent I mean I had honestly put myself in a box and I said my box is gnarly technical hundred plus mile races and I probably can do okay at other things. But might not be able to really excel. Canyons was just this honestly wild out of the box like I have worked a lot I say all of this I have worked very hard at speedwork and faster paced running. Because I am strong in the mountains for the most part but I’m not as strong as a pure runner and so I was doing a lot of speed work like double speed sessions. Just putting in huge amounts of that focus.

10:14.84
Alyssa
I was selling myself short on I think what I was capable of doing and canyons was just like blasting the door open of what I thought of what kind of a runner I thought I was and all of a sudden. It’s like, I used to think there’s just no way I can do a western, like I can’t compete at that and then it’s like Canyons was basically in many ways. Not that far off of a western the heat, it’s on lots of the western course and now I’m like oh maybe I am maybe I could be that type of runner. Maybe I shouldn’t just box myself into these more masochistic races. Maybe I can really run and I think that was just a huge eye-opener to me of the narratives that we tell ourselves are often incorrect. And even when you see someone who is having a good year or you know having a good race series like they probably have limiting beliefs about themselves and it takes that step outside to be like oh wow I was super wrong about that I should reassess. That’s really exciting because all of a sudden these races I thought just really weren’t my style are now on the table and things I thought weren’t possible. It’s like no maybe it is possible.

11:40.71
Will
Yeah, yes, awesome I mean the power belief we can all channel our inner Ted Lasso and put our belief sign up right? And then you know from putting our coaching hats on I think what you said is interesting and you think part of that is training the things that were you know. But strong on right or the things we don’t like as much I think often part of our coaching job is to say you know you’re good at what you’re good at right? So the things that are not what you like to do as much are probably the things you should be doing more of and working on some of the relative areas of weakness and then. How much that can do for you right? I think that’s an amazing example of how far you can go with that.

12:21.82
Alyssa
Yeah! My coach and I have been working together. I mean this is a plug for the relationship you build with a coach when you stick with them for years. We’ve been working together since 2019 so coming up on 4 years of a consistent relationship he knows me really well and so he knows that he can push me in ways that frankly I would be concerned pushing an athlete. But we know each other he’s seen me, he seen what I can do and so we actually took a risk this spring I was doing I would do these kind of longer more thresholdy type workouts of like 4 by 25 to 30 minutes and then in the afternoons. It would be like much more Zone fourish type work in that like 7 to 10 minute range six reps so it would be totaling 20 miles of work twice a week. Throw in like 5k time trials in there and it was hard I mean really hard work and he was like this could be. risky. This could backfire because this is a lot but I think this will take you to the next level and he was right and so that comes from though like I would not do that unless I knew my athlete really well and knew their capacity. It takes a lot for me to have a metabolic stimulus and so I’ve just like built that up over years where it takes really high. I’m a high volume runner. I have been I owe it. That’s always sat really well with me which is not for everyone. So that just speaks to your coach. The longer you stay with the coach and that’s not to say you should stay with a coach thats not good for you but the longer you stay with the coach and the more you trust them, the better. They know you and the more dialed the workouts and the more you can challenge yourself.

14:32.85
Will
Yeah I think if you’re going to be walking that fine line and want to get the most out of yourself while making sure you stay on the right side of that line and don’t push too far into injury. It is really hard and having somebody who you know for a long time and that expertise to help. That is really important because otherwise it is hard to know and it’s hard to manage that process than that risk I think for canyons you also I think you came to that race signed up relatively soon before the race right? It wasn’t like that was the long term plan and I think it was really soon before and then also some back and forth on which distance. Which I think you know maybe there’s a good aspect of that right? Where you don’t have too long to overthink something or overtrain for something and you know I’ve had cases where for whatever reason.

15:14.30
Alyssa
Oh yeah, I was a mess.

15:29.68
Will
Life circumstances and I’ll sign up for a pretty big race where there’s an opening in the race a couple weeks before and sometimes those are actually some of the best performances. How do you think that affected your race you know coming in is that a positive or a negative?

15:42.97
Alyssa
I think it was totally a positive. The nice thing is that so I was supposed to do Istria and then I have an autoimmune disease it flared right before and was like I shouldn’t go to Croatia with this flaring and in an unknown kind of an unknown factor of a country I mean Croatia is amazing. I just my doctor’s not in Croatia and so opted not to go just because I thought it was a bad idea and then was like Canyons. I’m in a really fortunate position that I do have one of my sponsors who is a sponsor of the utmb race was able to get me in and it was like oh you’re in the hundred mile now you’re in the 100 k and so I really I love the hundred mile distance I always say it’s like I need the time to do my work. And the longer I have to do my work the better it generally goes and so a hundred miles is probably my favorite distance or read about and so the day before I went up and I was like hey, can I switch up and they were like no one does that I was like. Yeah I know but like I think I’ve trained for it like do you mind and they’re like okay you weirdo and then I saw the woman who is like super helpful after the race and she’s like good job, glad that happened and I went. Yeah, thank you for helping. But I think you know sometimes like I was so I was just excited because it felt I kind of snuck in onto the radar how there’s all these, and they’re super fun, but the fantasy polls and like the pre-race reports and all the articles and hype and buildup for it I wasn’t in any of that because I wasn’t supposed to be in the race and so I think just by avoiding all of that. There’s just not that pressure that I think some of the other runners could have been feeling. It was just oh I’m just like lucky to be here, I’m lucky to stand in the start line I’m stoked to do my best and put my best foot forward and I think that that was a huge positive and then everyone’s like where the heck did she come from which I always find a pretty fun position to be in.

18:09.80
Will
Yeah, it’s awesome and a lot of races logistically like you said are just hard to get into and do take a lot of that advanced planning. But I think one thing is interesting for athletes to think about is if you’re training and feeling good and you’re fit. There’s often a lot of really cool local events that you can get into pretty late in the game and you know it can be fun just to out overthink it and jump into something and hold it a bit loosely and sometimes surprise yourself so it’s good thing to keep in mind and you don’t have to train heads down for something for twelve months exclusively focused on it. Just be out there training and enjoy it when it comes okay so good.

18:52.13
Alyssa
Yeah, and I think that’s the really fun part when you start to know yourself is that I felt like oh I have the fitness for a faster 100k to a hundred mile like that I can judge where I feel my fitness is at and I was like yeah I think that’s about where I’m at. So it didn’t actually matter that much what that race was, it was just like I want to see what this fitness can do for me on a race day and that happened to work out really well.

19:28.41
Will
That’s awesome. All right? So bit of a selfish question on this one so canyons got super hot. It was up into the 90s I think you know those canyons just kind of hold the heat in it was April so people weren’t heat acclimated. I was among those people I was there. And struggled a lot during the day in the heat. Any just tips or tricks of managing heat or things you did especially given you know that wasn’t you’re planning a race in a different country in a different climate so anything to any wisdom to impart in terms of hot weather races which probably was as well. You know an off season hot weather race and how to manage those.

20:07.23
Alyssa
Um, yeah, I think part of it is just going in with the mindset of I was like oh cool, I like heat that’s fine and so I think a little bit is just your mindset going into it. If you’re really dreading it or concerned not that you shouldn’t be concerned but if you’re like I suck at heat. This is going to suck like yeah, it’s probably going to suck but I try to be whatever the weather is I try to be like awesome I love this weather. This is great. This works to my advantage and so I try to use that mindset aspect of it. Um, the other parts really just every aid station. It was like ice down the shirt ice in the hat, get the body wet, I did that a lot of Dragons back. Not so much with ice but just getting into cool water and, just checking myself I think so I was okay during the day but then actually I was fine between the hours of 3 PM and 5 PM are actually the hottest hours of the day and I was roasting at about four PM and so I was right with another woman we were in first and second and I just went this is not the time to push. So I let her go and I backed off I settled myself, took it easy. Just really took the pressure off during the hottest part of the day and was like I’ll move at night and so I think just being aware of yeah this is really hot and this is not the time to be making moves. This is not the time to be racing. This is the time to be conservative and play it safe and cool I think that really helped me to manage that super hot section and get to the cooler weather. And just feel a lot better.

22:04.93
Will
Yeah, it’s very good smart advice and I think it’s a great mental trick to tell yourself like you said whatever the conditions are tell yourself those are good conditions for you. So if it’s hot say that’s great I’m great in heat. If it’s cold and rainy say that’s great. That’s perfect for me because you can’t change it.

22:22.76
Alyssa
You can’t change it. Yeah and the other thing is that if you’ve been training you know that’s I think part of the the experience component of all of this is that you’ve run in the heat you run in the rain you run in the cold you know unless San Diego is a little bit rough for that. There’s not a lot of.

22:23.42
Will
Right? So it’s good mentality just embrace it.

22:42.82
Alyssa
Variability but I go to the mountains. Whatever and so you draw off of those memories you draw off those and then go into your toolbox. Okay, here’s my heat set and so just the more that you can build up and use those memories, those experiences the better off it ends up going because you’ve done it.

23:06.77
Will
Yeah, hundred percent and then I think next after that was Val D’Aran which maybe was just a reminder that sometimes the mountains just win right and have their own day. So I think that was a just sounds like unbelievable wild storm canceled the race relatively early on so any takeaways from that other than you know, just the nature of the mountains.

23:36.35
Alyssa
Yeah, I think that was just a really good reminder that I’ve really been harping on this that being a good mountain athlete is above all else. The most important thing I really advocate that. We don’t kind of put ourselves into the box of like oh I’m a trail runner, I just I run and that’s what I do. It’s like well if you’re going to be in big mountains. You need to be a mountain athlete and you need to be prepared for situations like this, you need to know how to self rescue and make decisions based off of safety, not Position. Whether you’re going to win or not and so I think that was a really humbling way in some ways it was almost like what you learned from a bad race or a dnf is just that there are things out of your control. And your safety is above all. The most important thing and I think that was great because I did even though it was shortened I worked through some self limiting beliefs I had just even in the first 20 miles and I was ready to rock and roll coming out of that. So I think it was really good. I would have loved to see how it played out for the rest of the eighty something miles. But that just wasn’t in the cards and that’s okay, sometimes that happens and unfortunately I think with climate change becoming more and more of a player in these races. We’re going to see this more often and I think to me nothing is more important than the safety of myself and my fellow runners and that was very clear to me of like a no brainer and I hope that some other runners that I saw who were less inclined to make that choice whether that was just out of less experience or a competitive push.

25:54.26
Will
What are some of those mountain skills that are important to cultivate and have?

26:00.94
Alyssa
Yeah, great question. So I think the number one is not number one but super important one is like your gear. Carry your mandatory gear and know that it works don’t try to skate by or just do the minimum have what is required because they’re pretty spot on I bore everything that I brought with me. The other thing is to understand how weather works in the mountains so going up on a ridge line in a storm is a bad idea. It’s very exposed. You’re not going to have much chance for protection and so just understanding how storm systems work in mountain ranges. Knowing that as weather turns you’re really going to struggle to keep your body temperature up so getting your clothing on asap.

26:58.50
Alyssa
Knowing how you’re going to layer and just making sure, especially if it’s raining getting the waterproof out as much as possible keeping moving, taking care of others, trying to think, just also working as a team So if for example, I think 3 other runners and we kind of made a quick pact that was like okay we’re in this together. We’re going to work as a team. We’re not going to leave anyone behind and we are going to look out for each other. And so I think that’s super critical is not this kind of solo mentality for us. All of a sudden you have 3 people who are watching out for you and making sure that you’re not going hypothermic or having other issues and so we made decisions quickly. We didn’t second-guess them. Often or not often but a lot of times turning back to the point of safety rather than pushing into the unknown is so much wiser of a decision. So for us it was like yeah we need to turn back down the mountain. We should not continue up on the ridge line because it just got a lot worse up there even though you’re essentially like giving your race up.

28:20.40
Will
And so you made the choice to turn around on your own volition before the race was canceled which ultimately happened but it sounds like you made that call first in that case.

28:35.42
Alyssa
Yeah, other people we tried to convince as many people as possible because obviously the lower you are in the valley, the better. It seems the storm was less strong and so people are like oh it’s not that bad and we’re like no, it’s really dangerous up there. So few people went on I wasn’t first and the 2 women behind me continued forward and that’s fine. That’s their choice. But yeah I mean if the race had continued I’m not quite sure what would happen which is actually something I really want utmb to figure out what does race neutralizing mean because they neutralized the race before they canceled it. But if you have runners who are still progressing forward and other runners who are either staying in place as I think you’re supposed to do or going back to safety if the race had started again, all of a sudden I am way behind and have six miles to go back up and so I really would encourage utmb to figure out. What does race neutralizing mean in trail running? In biking, it’s you know the peloton kind of slows down like there’s ways I think they can enforce it and in trail running much different so that was something I kind of took out of it of like how do we figure out these situations I think ultimately most of the time they end up getting canceled. But yeah I would be really curious to see what they come up with of what actually does neutralizing mean.

30:20.92
Will
Yeah I think you’re right? It’s so often a gray area and you think about TDS two years ago where there was a tragedy on the course and it wasn’t a full stoppage. You know there was some number of people who continued and some who were stopped and its hard when you have that kind of gray area. So I think that’s a really important one and I think a good lesson to take away from this from what you shared that’s applicable to a lot of these mountain sports of that aspect of knowing when to turn around and I think sometimes you know we feel the risk is lower in trail running than it is and say mountaineering. But big mountains, big storms, you’re still up at altitude things can happen and things do happen. So I think that’s a very important takeaway for people to remember I just want to before you jump from Val D’Aran, I do want to go back when you said before that happened you know you were continuing to progress some of that self-belief. That came from canyons as well. What did that mean in Val D’Aran did that mean going out more aggressively or more confidently and having you know that belief to be at the front of a stacked international field or what form is that taking up to the point where you did have the race results they canceled and you had to turn around.

31:35.34
Alyssa
Yeah, you know I think I went into it I definitely was not flying under the radar in that race as much as the the number one seated female. So I think I just carried that confidence more of like yeah I do belong to be here I work really hard. I have had previous challenges starting out fast on a really big climb like most of these races you get like a 3 to five thousand foot climb right out of the bat and I take a bit to warm up and so I find that really challenging I can kind of get out of breath and struggle a bit on that first climb. So one of my goals was just like stay cool, stay confident.

32:23.90
Alyssa
On that first climb I didn’t fully succeed at that I definitely struggled a little mentally of just like oh my gosh I’m doing it again, I’m dying. But then once I kind of settled into the race. It was like okay I feel good, I’m like doing what I can do and before I would have gotten pretty panicked had that first time not gone well and carried that panic with me. But this race I felt a lot more that I could allow like yeah maybe the 5 minutes of that wasn’t great or 5 minutes you were there but I was still doing just fine. And so I just felt like my confidence was really growing and my coach told me right before the race he was like the body will do whatever the mind says and so I would just be like your mind is strong your body can do it or something on those lines and so I just kept on the next like really big climb just kept repeating like your mind is strong. Your body will do it and so I think that was really a great mindset to bring in and I felt really confident. But I was going to keep that up as well.

33:43.54
Will
Yeah I think a lot of times you know the body will play tricks on us and goes into the self-preservation mode and you know it’s easy to feel like you can’t keep it up or the legs aren’t there, but it is interesting right? When you get the mind behind it and then you can feel totally different miles down the trail and I think so much that is confidence and belief that things will come around. They’ll be fine. The training, the fitness is there and that’s great that you’ve been able to harness that.

34:14.29
Alyssa
Yeah, I would say I did not do as good of a job at that in the beginning of Dragons Back. That’s kind of interesting yeah to reflect on. For those listening I said to Will, I really don’t know how I feel about Dragons back I can’t quite unpack it and so this will be very interesting because I still can’t. It’s why I’ve struggled to write much about it. Because I just don’t know how I feel about the race.

34:53.63
Will
Well let’s get into it. First you want to just tell the listeners. What this race is it’s a bit of a unique race and format so just help us understand the beast that is Dragons Back.

35:06.64
Alyssa
It yes, it is a beast. So dragons back is a race that goes essentially the length of Wales. It’s six days, it is a total of three hundred and eighty kilometers so it’s about 200 and thirty five miles but oh gosh I think it’s like 6 or seventy thousand feet of climbing something along those lines. It’s broken up into stage racing. So you race a day and then they set up this beautiful camp, you camp. They set up the tents for you. They have food like they move your luggage around with you. But each day is its own race. So it’s very different from a 200 miler where you’re going continuously. Stage racing is very complex and challenging. But the first day is well I guess the other thing I should say is it’s completely unmarked. So it’s an unmarked course it’s also not on trails like there are some parts that are on trails but a lot of it is not. And so you are route finding you’re following a gpx track or for those who know the route really well they preview it and so course knowledge is massively huge on this and a massive advantage.

36:39.35
Alyssa
I got served a lot of humble pie of my lack of course knowledge even though I have seen three days of the race from 2019 which we can get into and I have spent some time out there I had not been back to Wales since 2019 and I’d forgotten a lot of it and, yeah, you’re losing, I would say you’re losing upwards of 30 minutes plus just figuring out where the heck you’re going even if you’re following a gpx track that’s pretty good. It’s very easy to get lost a lot. But the first day is about 30 something miles about fourteen thousand feet of climbing and descent which is a big day, the next day is thirty five miles and about twelve thousand feet of climbing in descent and just gnarly scree fields et cetera.

37:25.84
Will
Yeah.

37:37.28
Alyssa
The third day is forty four miles and about 11,000, the fourth day is easy at about forty two miles and seventy five hundred feet, fifth day is another big day of 44ish miles and over ten thousand feet of climbing and the sixth day is forty two miles and about forty five hundred and five thousand feet of climbing so any one of those days would be a pretty rough day, not rough, but challenging. You get to string them all together and that’s dragons back.

38:20.69
Will
So it’s a lot of race to go through but maybe take us through so those first couple days, how those went and it sounds like maybe there wasn’t that same strong feeling of belief that you had in the last couple of races. But how those couple days played out. Where you were in the field? What was going on in your head and go from there?

38:44.24
Alyssa
Yeah, so the first couple of days actually played out quite badly for me. So it’s interesting, my coach said you’re probably not going to feel great the first few days. Because I’ve trained to excel towards the end of the race and so I think I took that really way too much to heart of like I’m going to feel terrible because guess what I felt terrible and so I think that that’s something. Maybe we could have discussed in a different manner that would have allowed me to be more positive on myself rather than just like I’m going to feel terrible and guess what I felt terrible. So I think I set myself up a little bit for failure just by going into the first few days expecting to feel bad and shockingly enough I felt bad. I had a horrible shakeout run two days prior where I was like I feel awful. My heart rate’s super high. Oh my gosh and that’s not uncommon for me.

39:53.56
Alyssa
But I think it got in my head. And so I started out and there was really good competition like there are fast women in that race that caught me off guard I’ll be perfectly honest. I was not expecting quite that level. And on the first day probably 10 miles in or so, I had a panic attack and I’ve actually come to realize that I’ve struggled in the past so actually in dragons back in 2019 I had massive nutrition failures I just wasn’t eating and so I was just running on below empty. But I also realized that when I feel things slipping out of my control whether it’s because of position whether it’s because things aren’t going well, that I sometimes have panic attacks. And I thought it was a heart condition I’ve been tested for that we thought it was maybe an inner ear imbalance or dehydration because I will hyperventilate to the point of blacking out. And this happened to me in tor in 2021 and it’s happened in a couple of other races. I bitterly put so huge learning but I figure on the fact that I am fine except that I’m having a panic attack which isn’t fine but that realization of like oh my gosh. That’s what it is. I’m not dying. I’m not out of shape. I’m not affected by altitude. It’s that I don’t manage stress. Well when I’m not doing as well as I think I should be doing and when I don’t feel like I’m performing to what I should be which was a huge wake up call of things that I need to work on. But yeah I was hyperventilating up one of the climbs I just had no energy. I got passed by a few people. It just, I was reliving what happened to me on the fourth day of dragons back and so I called my friend I was like I can’t breathe I don’t know what’s going on like this is so bad. This is so early. What do I do as like why am I doing this race I just want to go home. And just everything that I’ve worked so hard to move past came flying back and I called him. He was like just need to breathe like you know how to do this, you can get yourself out of it and then I had someone come along and just be like hey are you okay and we just started walking together and he got me out of that. And I just went. You know what Alyssa? It’s the first day like just keep moving and it was a horrible day I mean I felt terrible the entire day I didn’t have a good section. I had no energy I just was so defeated the entire day I came into the they have like a halfway point where they bring this like drop bag for you. They have water and they just looked at me and were like oh my gosh like are you okay? I was just having a really rough day at that point I think I was in like fourth or fifth. Just not doing what I had intended to do and there they go I was like the dragon’s really getting me. And they’re like why don’t you name your dragon and I went okay. So I named my dragon Grace. First of all one of my best friends name is Grace and I also was like you’re not giving yourself any grace out here. You’re being so mean to yourself and so I named it grace and anytime, because it was really hot, anytime like a breeze would come through or something would go right? I would just go, thank you Grace. Grace kind of became a companion when to like keep me positive and then when things are just kind of I feel badly.

44:08.96
Alyssa
But when things were going, we’ll say cheekier or not quite as well or like you know things were tougher than I expected. My cat looks like toothless because he’s a black cat and his name is Michael so I would be like ah Michael. So Michael is like the cheeky dragon whenever things would get tough. Yeah, the bad dragon which Michael is the sweetest guy ever but he can be a little devil sometimes so it’s like oh the Devil Dragon is Michael um, and so I had Grace and Michael with me from the first day which you know it’s so funny. The mind games that we play but I really finished like day one I just got into camp. Kind of an interesting thing that happened as well is that it was really hot I mean it was really hot the entire time. But I was running about a mile from the finish just like just get me down and I came across an unconscious body a mile from the finish and was like oh my gosh. There’s a body over there and one of the runners had passed out from heat stroke and so I woke him up. I started trying to help him I was pretty much out of water. But we were trying to call for help neither phones were working so I got him awake and a little bit better and then was looking for service. Found some water got it came back up brought it to him. We got him drinking another runner came and then another runner spent about 20 minutes or so helping him. And just like I think that snapped me out of racing again is less important than the safety of other runners in the safety of ourselves and so that was a really good reminder. He ended up being fine. He didn’t finish the day or anything like that but he was able.

46:18.38
Alyssa
They do offer this thing. So if you do half the course you do the hatchling because it is a really hard race I mean 330 people started and only 87 finished the entire course. It’s like a 29% finish rate.

46:28.73
Will
Wow.

46:37.72
Alyssa
So he was able to keep going on. They ended up giving me credit for taking the time because they were like you know we’re so thankful that you did that. They gave credit to the other people. But that was a really good like shake me out of that just pity party that I was having and day two went okay. It didn’t really go that much better just errors of nav and was really in my head about I had women in front of me and I don’t like that. Working on getting better at it. But I didn’t like being behind I think it wasn fourth at that point and just wasn’t running my own race and was still in this like oh you’re not going to feel good mentality so day 2 was okay. It was better than the first day but it still wasn’t I just wasn’t running the way that I wanted to and the way that I knew I was capable of. So much of it was that I was comparing myself to 2019 Alyssa I couldn’t stop doing it because I had my first two days of 2019 were phenomenal like I felt so strong. There’s a picture of me from day two and I still remember it as feeling like I was on top of the world and so I was just caught and my times were slower this year.

48:05.39
Alyssa
Part of it was that it was a lot hotter but I was like oh my gosh I can’t even like I thought I was so much better and stronger and smarter than 2019 Alyssa but like I can’t even beat her and I can’t beat these other women and so I was just so in my head about how I felt like I was failing. And day 3 a little bit better. I started feeling like I was getting my groove. It was a hard long day just again like you know one of the biggest things with dragons back and it’s not an excuse but you have runners who, like the woman who won, she recced the course with the race director and so she knows that course like the back of her hand and that’s amazing I mean heck, that’s how I feel with HURT is that I know the course like the back of my hand and I was losing so much time and mental energy to just like flounder around and being on top of it.

49:12.97
Alyssa
Knowing the best lines because the other thing is you don’t have to stay on the gpx line. You can run better lines if they’re available. So it’s like you can take shortcuts if you know they exist. So um, that exactly that’s not.

49:22.25
Will
So you have to go just from this point to that point. However, you do it is up to you basically out. Okay.

49:31.83
Alyssa
All the parts of the course that’s certain sections but you can gain quite a bit of an event like you have Alyssa bumbling along and then you have someone who’s like oh I know the 10 minute shortcut on this section like that’s a huge difference and that is part of the race I mean that’s part of the strategy. But it gets really frustrating where you’re like I can’t believe this is happening.

49:54.49
Will
So my mind goes to Barkley right? And is there a strategy for this where you try to latch on to a veteran who knows that course inside out and was that part of what you’re trying to do but how are you thinking about that strategically.

50:10.62
Alyssa
Yeah, so I actually did latch on to someone who led me on a short I knew there was a shortcut on day 2. I did not know what the shortcut was I just had been told many times there’s the shortcut wink wink and I found someone who was going off that direction I went oh my gosh can I go with you and he was like yeah sure and so I went with him which was awesome. But yeah, you do try to latch on a couple of times to people because I knew enough to know there were shortcuts out there. I just didn’t know what they were so shout out to Bill. Thanks Bill for that shortcut. Ah, but yeah, it’s just interesting. Not every piece of the course again is like there’s mandatory sections where you have to run the same as everyone else and as the days go on there become less and less opportunities for those shortcuts. But it’s super interesting. It’s really I think underestimate, it’s something I just did not think about.

51:18.42
Alyssa
I was like oh well if I run well like everything will be great and everything will be fine and then I saw the runners who yeah put in lots of time and effort and preparation and really impressive. This is a lot of wasted time and energy compared to someone who like lives over here knows the train and knows the good routes. So yeah, that was just something I kind of had to accept and a couple of times I grumbled about it with some of my friends who are from the states who were like yep this kind of sucks it I was like yep, it kind of sucks. But that’s a racing strategy and you just have to accept it and be like hats off to them. They put in the time and effort. So yeah, that was part of it.

52:15.83
Alyssa
Day Three went a little better came in and I was pretty. The only thing is that I was dealing with a lot of nausea. My stomach is really sensitive. It was hot. Just was struggling to get calories down and so that was playing my head too of like oh what failed you last time was lack of calories like you cannot do that again and of course as soon as you start thinking, you cannot do something it starts putting on pressure. So I was putting a lot of pressure on myself in that regard I was just quite nauseous most of day three got into camp was still nauseous and of course, all I could think about was the fact that day four was where I dropped in 2019 and so that was just this massive dragon staring me in the face. Are you gonna get through day 4? Are you gonna drop? Is something gonna happen and so I don’t think I realized how many demons and how much fear I was bringing in to day four, into the entire race. Because I just never truly felt like I ran with any kind of freedom or full confidence because I was just waiting for something bad to happen and waiting for the demons to catch me and I think that’s why I am not satisfied with the race. I’m proud of how I manage through it. But I’m not satisfied because I do not think that’s the best that I can do.

54:03.70
Will
So was this the first time there’s a race that you had not finished that you then went back to?

54:11.82
Alyssa
No I have not finished Tor but I haven’t gone back to Tor and gotten much past where I stopped.

54:20.96
Will
Okay, so the first time I guess there’s a race where you didn’t finish. She came back and were successful in finishing it. Um, albeit you know with challenges and unsure how you felt about it along the way but spoil you did finish it. You have finished it, got done, came in second place but I think that is an interesting aspect to think about.

54:44.21
Alyssa
Well yeah.

54:57.22
Will
And yeah, there’s a lot of interesting things there to unpack so going back just quickly on that first day in the panic attack were you able to diagnose what that was in the race and was that the first time you were able to recognize that for what it was versus the previous times when it happens.

55:12.80
Alyssa
Absolutely I think I don’t remember if I realized it while I was running or if I realized it at camp at night. But it was like this light bulb went off when I went that’s a panic attack. That’s what’s happening because I don’t have them in everyday life. I don’t really have, I think everyone has a certain level of anxiety and then some people have you know anxiety disorders. But I haven’t ever really had that except actually one other time in real life I did have a panic attack. It was kind of this like massive realization that was really relieving of like oh my gosh I know what this is I can try to fix it now. That’s fantastic like do I wish that it happened no but what a gift to now be able to to understand what was happening in my brain and that actually I could figure that out and I can work with people to maybe not have it happen again or at least be able to control it and work through it.

56:29.37
Will
Right? And so day 4, where before you hadn’t gotten to the end of that day you did get to the end of day four. So what did that feel like was that a relief? Did you still feel that pressure was there. Did you feel like you play the dragons. Maybe the wrong word or did you change Dragons or did which dragon was it at that point. How did you feel about it?

56:57.15
Alyssa
Oh man I actually got a little choked up when I passed the point that I stopped before and just I felt this massive sense of relief that I had worked through it. I did feel I started running better I did run a lot better 4 5 and 6 once I got past that point. But yeah, it was definitely, I just felt this like weight lift off and I did not realize how much I’d been carrying that. It was also I think it was my first like really big more big international multi-day hard race. It was really impactful I was only 26 I think 26 or 27 at the time 26 that it happened so I was really impressionable and just like I was devastated by that dnf.

58:12.21
Alyssa
And so I think that there was so much that was playing into my head about the narrative of who I was and who I am now. Which is why I think I struggled so much with those? um.

58:29.69
Alyssa
Those self- limiting and negative thoughts. Um, so day four you know is hugely relieving to get to the end I think I moved up to third at that point felt like I was moving better I was starting to eat better. It’s about super nauseous on day 5. I’m just nauseous most of the time it’s not super fun. I think it was on day five. The heat just like really picked up.

58:51.11
Will
Ah, oh man.

59:02.99
Alyssa
And I ran past someone and he was like oh how are you doing I was like I’d really love to just like puke and lay in a lake. That is like my dream come true right now I feel like just saying that actually made me feel a lot better. I also told people I was going to give up running and become a swimmer like that was my running joke with the finish line people.

59:22.79
Alyssa
Ah, so I did feel a lot better. I moved better on day five and day six but I still don’t feel like again I ran as well as I could have because even though I was kind of past like the day 4 it’s still I mean the girl who was in second place ended up dropping on day five like there’s just so much that can go wrong so quickly in that race that I think the whole time I was just playing it so cautiously that I never really went for it and you know that’s tough because there’s always the question like well if you really went for it maybe something would have gone wrong and maybe that wouldn’t have had a good outcome because I don’t want to say I’m not proud of how it did go well I mean I can’t say that it didn’t. It’s just not the way that I feel I can perform, so that’s tough. That’s a really tricky balance because I don’t want people to think like oh screw you Alyssa. You’re mad about coming in second and seventh overall. And I’m not I’m super proud of that. But also I think when you know yourself and you know like that’s not the best that I can do I think it’s okay to recognize that as well.

01:00:44.30
Will
Yeah I totally get it. It’s always so interesting. You know we’re at home following the live tracker and it can look like yeah, everything seems like it’s going well and on plan right? You were steadily moving up the field and throughout the days it moved in a second but it’s always such a different story. When you’re on the ground and you know what’s interesting I mean you’ve had really good success at this distance in a different format like with Moab before but and you know I’ve only had one time where I’ve had a two hundred plus mile race but I certainly felt.

01:01:21.39
Will
Like I was running with a lot of fear and panic in the second half certainly just because these are such big challenging events and there is just a lot of unknown to it. So one thing I wonder too is how much is that just inherent to a challenge that big or I would hope if I go back to something like that. You know I can stay a little bit calmer and avoid some of that fear and panic and I think because of that there’s also time left on the table but I don’t know, these are such unique hard things that goes so far beyond what we can do in our training. So any thoughts of like you know what? You would take away from this and next time do you feel like you could bring more of that calmness and belief to it or think some of the challenges would still be there.

01:02:11.85
Alyssa
Yeah, you know it’s a great question. I didn’t feel that way at all at moab. It was like the further I got along the more fun I had like I got in my groove I was really having a good time. When I think back on Moab, the first fifty miles were rough but then I just think like wow what a great time I had for the rest of it. I think my pacers would probably say there’s more variation to that story than just wow let’s have fun. But it truly like I think of that with such fondness and it’s not that I don’t think of dragons with fondness I just think of dragons with much more ups and downs I mean it also has more ups and downs of elevation but just a lot more fear and I think part of that is that you are when you’re in camp. First of all I mean the the volunteers are incredible I mean just like above and beyond the best people like giving you hugs cheerleading you like awesome awesome people. But you don’t have a crew that’s sitting there being like fill up your water bottle. You know, change your shoes do this, you’re getting into camp and the second you’re into camp. You need to be getting a recovery drink, washing up, getting your gear ready for the morning, getting food, and getting your sleeping bag and sleeping pad out like you’re just so on twenty-four seven and actually I’ve had people say like stage racing is actually harder for me than doing the continuous 200.

01:03:43.65
Alyssa
I was like that’s kind of ridiculous you can sleep. I could sleep eight plus hours a night which is unheard of you like you don’t do that in a 200 and now I’m like oh my gosh. Yeah like I totally understand that because it is so stressful. I was stressed.

01:04:02.20
Alyssa
Like it took me a while after the race to not feel stressed. Because you’re stressed from the second you wake up to the second you go to sleep and also like waking up in the night being it’s 3 hours till I have to get up and get going. I had a lot of time in camp. When you finish a bit faster you have more time to do all these things there are people coming in at like ten o’clock and then getting up at four thirty the next morning. Which is just so impressive to me.

01:04:32.12
Alyssa
But yeah, it’s tough and the thing is that if you start making small mistakes then things start falling apart and those small mistakes add up and you don’t necessarily always realize that you’re making those mistakes until two days later and so I think that adds to the fear of am I doing enough to keep myself running well at day 5 and the answer is yeah I did enough. I was accelerating I think through the final days which is what I hope for honestly I would have been curious to see if there were eight days to it. Not that I wanted to run eight days but I feel like I was really getting in my groove like especially the last day it was just like it’s something my coach and I have talked about where I am running, running is what I do and that’s all like I didn’t even I wasn’t even really thinking about the finish line which was funny because I had like three miles left or two miles left and some guy went flying past me and I was like Alyssa, get going. You have two miles left like why are you still just like I’m just you know mosying, not mosying but just in this grind mode I’m like freaking move.

01:05:54.17
Will
Yeah, well your mind is probably like I’m gonna go back to camp and I’m gonna do my routine and I’ll wake up tomorrow and I’ll do it again because that’s your life at that point right? And you can’t process like oh no, this is it. This is actually the end.

01:05:59.90
Alyssa
I don’t think I really believed that I was going to finish until I was about like two miles out which it’s all on a bike path along the river for the last eight miles or so but I was still like what could go wrong. Maybe went off route in a way I didn’t need to, any of those things and so it’s like a mile from the finish and oh my gosh, you’re actually going to finish this thing like that’s cool.

01:06:41.37
Will
Yeah I find the multi-day stage race really daunting and I haven’t done it but a lot of friends like Alex who’ve done it you know will say its super tough and it’s harder in a lot of ways and I think I mean that single push 200 plus mile like kind of just get into a groove of you move you eat and you occasionally sleep and it’s a pretty simple life whereas the multi-day stage race does not sound simple. It sounds really complicated and like you said you know, amazing volunteers. But we’re going to be sleep deprived towards the end and you got to be on top of all this stuff and all these logistics and it sounds really hard and more gear you have to carry and yeah, just a lot of different tricky aspects to it.

01:07:25.82
Alyssa
Yeah I mean they’re really good about reminding you that camp, they call it camp management is just as important as racing. It’s like what you do in camp determines how the next day will go it’s totally true. It’s funny I had a conversation with Alex and then another friend Bob and we were talking about who we thought because it is such a unique race. We were talking about who we thought from the US who would be able to hack it and you came up I think you could do quite well at it. And then John Kelly was another one that we brought to the table of because actually there’s a lot of runners who if they asked me do you think I would enjoy Dragons Back? I would probably say no I actually don’t think you would enjoy it. Not because it’s not like it’s a freaking hard race like I’m so thankful. It’s been in my life but it is very unique in the demands and challenges and it is not you have to have a lot of experience for it to be fun and to finish.

01:08:39.79
Will
Lots of experience and lots of spreadsheets is that what I’m hearing. Ah yeah, it could be. It could be so dragons back and you know it’s billed as the hardest race in the world.

01:08:40.75
Alyssa
Yes, yes, which I think seems up your alley.

01:08:57.70
Will
And without a doubt. Super big challenge. So having gone up against it not finishing four years ago finishing it now. Does that sit and I guess the similar question to canyons has it changed how you think about what’s next or some of the future goals?

01:09:15.26
Alyssa
Yeah, so I actually kind of we talked about this idea of world’s toughest and actually the reason why I found dragons back is because I googled in 2018 what are the world’s hardest races and Dragon’s Back came up.

01:09:34.67
Alyssa
And I went oh cool. Well I’m young and stupid either way. Thanks for giving me the positive side of that.

01:09:36.22
Will
I love by the way that you did that and then set out to run all those races that’s amazing. We’ll go with a positive.

01:09:52.23
Alyssa
Yeah, you know I think toughest is such an interesting measurement because I had a lot of people ask like oh was it the hardest thing you’ve ever done and I was like truly no, it wasn’t because I was playing it cautiously and there was never really any point other than the first day where I had to go into the dark depths of you know everyone knows like Courtney calls the pain cave. I actually really never went there which to me means I probably didn’t push hard enough but I was also afraid to go there because I didn’t know what the other side of that. It’s like if I go too much into that too early or at the wrong time I can’t get myself out of it and do the next day. So I think honestly it’s not the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I can think of other very hard moments in life and in running that are quote unquote like harder is it one of the toughest in the world. Yeah I do think it is I think dragons back and tor are 2 of the hardest races in the world. Um, hands down. But I think that how you approach them and I think that’s kind of the beautiful thing about how you grow as an athlete is that moments in dragons back that maybe like five, six years ago would have been like a nine or a 10 like alarm sounding.

01:11:26.85
Alyssa
Are now to me maybe like a five or a six just because I now kind of know like what’s a real nine or a 10 this is like a five or a six like I’m fine and I think that’s the beautiful thing. I had people asking me during the race and afterwards of just like how do you get yourself through these tough moments and well I know what tough means and like this is not that bad. And so that helps you through it also, just being able to throttle back a little bit push forward. And also just life experience where you’re like yeah that’s a 10 in real life like this is contrived like this is totally fine I could walk right off and be picked up in a couple hours and everything’s great. But I think that’s a really. We love the labels of like world’s toughest and hardest and all of that and I think everything is so relative and that’s the wonderful thing about gaining experience is that you understand how to control how you feel about things. So I think that’s an interesting question. That will continue to be debated and talked about for years and years to come but I would say incredibly tough race. Beautiful, incredible. What an experience.

01:12:58.70
Alyssa
And super thankful for it. You know I’d say how it shapes moving forward I’m really excited to do a marked hundred miler. Just like oh cool like date those I may be racing in Thailand in December. Um, and the UTMB world major there and I’m just like whoa. What a fun concept of like it’s actually over a hundred miles but like 108 miles on a marked course with aid stations and like wow cool. Yeah so sick. Yes, yeah, so that sounds.

01:13:28.28
Will
Yeah, simple, easy right now.

01:13:35.14
Alyssa
Super exciting to me. So I am kind of moving forward. You know I am excited to I didn’t I think one of the things that bothers me too about the race is that I didn’t feel I was being competitive. I like being competitive, I am a competitive person and I just felt like because I was so worried I wasn’t able to turn that on ever. So I would just kind of like let people go and I’d be like why are you not competing like where’s this drive that you usually have and I just felt that was really dampened and so I’m excited to go into races. I’m looking towards UTMB next year, you know Thailand is a golden ticket race. And so I’m excited to really be able to race because I didn’t feel like I could race dragons back to the extent that I wanted so I think it was amazing to have that experience of just really manage myself working through a lot of demons.

01:14:45.30
Alyssa
Realizing like I can come out the other side and and have a positive experience and be proud of myself but also I really like being competitive and I am excited that I can that I saw kind of the other side and be like cool now I know how to channel it better. I can understand what gets me fired up and yeah I’m looking forward to really going after that.

01:15:10.48
Will
Well I mean it’s always good. These races and challenges are such good learning opportunities. So it’s always great to take those kinds of things away as it sounds like you have and then you know from an external perspective too. It just seems like there’s just a ton that you did well. Celebrate and be proud of right just from the overall performance of it. But also you know I’m working through all those challenges and a 27% finish rate and I think probably a much hotter year than usual and you know challenging circumstances. But then also some of the other things like you know working through how to understand and process the panic attack and getting through some of that and perspective on that. So I think lots to celebrate there and I think a lot that you take forward and will serve you very well for whatever race. Whatever challenge that may be.

01:16:04.69
Alyssa
Thanks yeah, you know I think I’ve gotten quite lucky the last two races I wouldn’t say Canyons was a perfect race but it was a pretty darn good one of like things going well and you kind of get on the streak where you’re like.

01:16:23.18
Alyssa
Yes, look at me like I’ve really nailed this hundred mile thing and then you just get slapped across the face of learning experiences and so I think it was great for me in dragons back to be humbled by this race that had humbled me before so deeply. And yet again humbled me and to know again, it’s like yeah you can have all of this experience. You can learn a lot and you can still have a lot of stuff happen and not realize how much your past can really come back and be sitting right there on your shoulder going hey remember me I’m still a part of you. Yeah, so I think that was really great for me to go through all of that.

01:17:13.41
Will
Yeah I think those challenges and those learning opportunities are a lot of times what we’re looking for. They can take different forms. You know, racing ourselves from the past or competitive aspects. But I think a lot of times. Least That’s for me what I find motivating about doing these hard things and trying to grow and learn through doing it sounds like you did plenty of that and I’m sure you’ll continue reflecting on it and taking a lot away from this one.

01:17:42.21
Alyssa
Yeah, well thanks for giving me the opportunity to really think through it I feel like we’ve uncovered some things so I appreciate it. Awesome! Well thank you for listening to the Uphill athlete podcast. If you can go on your favorite platform rate, review subscribe that helps us to help more mountain athletes and do our best to educate and inspire. So thanks Will for taking the time to be a part of this.

01:18:26.52
Will
All right? Well thanks for letting me crash and host today this one.

01:18:30.89
Alyssa
Awesome! Thanks! Well, it’s not just one but a community we are Uphill Athlete.

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