Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Lake City and Beyond.

Five days have now passed since I ran my first Ultra in Lake City, Colorado. To be honest, it barely seems like it happened. I am not crippled or ill or suffering any great trauma physical or otherwise from it. Even on Sunday I commented that I was indeed feeling "freakishly well," just a lot better than I thought I should. I've hurt a lot more for a lot less. Regardless a quick and smooth recovery is nothing that I am going to complain about.

I did chronicle a good part of the weekend and the race on video which can be found at . There are a lot of details regarding the race in particular that are not evident in the video so I will include them here.

The morning of race, time was going by too fast. As I was getting ready I wanted time to slow down and give me a few moments to mentally prepare for the day ahead. Maybe I was just wanting to stall? At any rate I walked to the armory in Lake City prepared to meet the day and whatever it had in store for me.

It is hard to explain how I feel at the beginning of a big race like that. The nervous energy is so different than any other kind I feel. First there is fear, fear of a lot of things, not finishing, getting hurt, other things going bad, fear of trying to start and just having nothing in the tank. All of those unknowns flying around in my head. Emotionally I am usually on the edge... If I speak my voice will crack. I am typically on the verge of tears, not because I am sad but I guess it is all of the raw emotion trying to bleed off somehow. Anyway, this morning was no exception. I tried to stay as calm as I could, keep things in perspective and also just look ahead without allowing the magnitude of the course, the time I was going to be out or just the day in general overwhelm me.

The race starts and I begin running with everything feeling just great. Breathing is fine, legs feel miraculously fresh, and no significant aches or pains are present. My confidence went up 500% in the first few minutes of the race as I continued on in the dark.

This was my first Ultra. I've done some other hardcore races but nothing on this scale, ever. From a self confidence point of view preparing for this was tough. For example the night before the race there is a dinner where you check in and they give briefings on the course, etc. When I was there I looked around the room. To me, most of these people look like hardcore veterans of some nasty Ultra races and here I am the nube trying to fit in. I felt like an impostor, like I didn't belong, intimidated. To set things straight I was not there to compete with anyone, I just wanted to finish.

As we ran through the dark up the first canyon, I could feel that I was in a good place in the pack, maybe too good of a pace. I didn't feel like I was burning out or at too fast of a pace so I kept it up.

In order to break the course down into manageable pieces in my mind, I decided to look at it in four hour chunks. The first four hours consisting of the climb up Alpine Gulch, some time above the timber then a run down to the Williams Creek Aid Station. Approximately 15.7 miles. In retrospect this first segment is very similar to the second segment, but about 1/2 the size in distance.

I knew going into that the climb up Alpine Gulch contained a few creek crossings. Getting wet was going to be unavoidable. I'm not talking a few inches of water here or some rocks to jump across, no. I am talking about knee to mid-thigh (for me) water which until probably hours before was still in the form of snow or ice. COLD WATER. Here is one of Andy's dirty little secrets... despite how much I love the outdoors and love spending time in the mountains, whatever, I will do whatever is necessary to stay dry and warm. Wet and cold I do not like at all! The first creek crossing was simple with some logs across the water but the second one was unavoidable. I had to go in.

I stopped sort of to the side in case anyone wanted to pass. I knew this was going to happen. I planned for this by having dry socks in my pack to change into once we got past the water obstacles and also by having dry shoes waiting at the net aid station. Still I did not want to go in. Someone passed me on the left and without hesitating right in they went and then so did I. To be honest it wasn't that bad in the water but once out, the freezing water which was still being held by my socks and shoes would numb my feet to the point of extreme discomfort. The water would be shed, some feeling would come back and then it would be time to go back into the creek. The good news was that as we got higher, the creek became more shallow and easy to cross.
I did slip once and I did end up getting the bottom of my shorts wet. That was as bad as it got really.

The rest of the climb up Alpine Gulch was just like any other grind. The aid station at mile seven was great and it was there that I changed my soaked socks for some drier ones. That felt soooo good. Even though they were soon damp from my shoes, it was still a great improvement.

From this point there is still some climbing (about three miles) then next comes the descent to Williams Creek (another 5 miles with a 3500 foot elevation loss.) This descent took a lot longer than I anticipated and the distance felt longer too. This would happen a lot during the day... certain distances or climbs would end up longer or steeper than I had imagined in the scale in my mind. Finally I made the Aid Station at Williams Creek at about 9:15 in the morning. 15.7 miles down... a hell of a lot more to go. It was also here that I picked up my Garmin Forerunner to help me keep track of distance, pace, etc. I sent it here as it only has an 11 hour battery life and I wanted to have it work until the end of the race as opposed to dying before the finish.

The Aid Station was great. I changed shoes and socks... filled up bottles, got my ball cap, ate and drank a bit. I was happy to be there. I was more than 1/4 of the way done both time wise and distance wise and so far things were feeling pretty damned good. "Let's just keep it that way," I thought to myself.

Leaving I knew the toughest parts were about to unfold ahead of me. The climb from Williams Creek to the summit of Coney Peak is about 4000 vertical feet over a distance of 10 miles with the greatest bulk of the climbing in six miles. Now is when the work started.

The next road up was steep on the way to the Carson Aid Station, mile 22 or so. A combination of things at this point were really slowing me down. I needed to eat, couldn't eat.... breathing was difficult because with every deep breath also came the strong urge to hurl. I had to breathe as shallow as I could to keep from yaking. Generally I was just feeling like crap and if there was a segment in the race where I was contemplating dropping this was it. To admit defeat at mile 22 though? Not even 1/2 of the way through! Unthinkable... but feeling as crappy as I did, tempting,

As I climbed higher it got cooler. I stopped to put on another layer and drink some. I was also starting to feel more comfortable/better. I probably ate too much at Williams Creek and drank to much too. Trying to eat the Cliff Bar coming up the road while struggling to breathe probably didn't help matters much either. No matter the reason I was so glad to start to feel better again with my optimism returning.

One of my fears leading up to the race included the weather. As that week wore on, the worse the forecast became. What was a 10% chance of rain or storms the previous Monday, had become a 50% chance by Thursday. On Friday it got a little better with the forecast adjusting to a 40% chance of precipitation for Saturday.

An hour into my climb to Carson, right at 11:00 am, that 40% chance turned to 100%. The rain came in quietly, quickly and it was very cold. I think it only rained for maybe a couple of minutes before it turned into sleet... I put a light jacket on, the only one I had and my gloves and just kept going. Carson could only be a mile or so away and there I had dry clothes, warmer clothes, things that would be appropriate for the conditions to come.

The Carson Aid Station actually came into view about a 12/ a mile sooner than I thought it should which in hind sight was a good thing as it was not so far past Carson where things got really nasty.

In regards to Aid Stations, losing time, and any other unhappy things... it all seemed to happen here. They could not find my drop bag when I got there. I freaked. If I did not have my drop bag there was absolutely no way I could continue. It would have been impossible. It is raining and snowing, cold and wet as hell with god knows how many runners huddled under one little picnic awning. They found my drop bag (thank god) so I had to change... but where? I found a spot under a tree to get out of my wet clothes and into clothes which were more dry and with a little more insulating properties. Being "somewhat modest" I was trying to figure out how to accomplish this without creating such a show... well there was another runner by another tree and she seemed to not care about such things so I got busy changing myself... this was a challenge as I was wanting to keep the clothes I was putting on dry as I got dressed while the tree was dripping on me. I don't know how I got it all done but I did.

I had on my long sleeve wicking shirt from the morning still, a heavier Under Armor shirt/jacket and my parka shell on top. My heavy thicker running pants on the bottom. A warm cap, gloves, and in my pack I optimistically threw in the dry shorts from my bag in hopes of changing into them at a later time. I accidentally forgot my ipod in my drop bag when I returned to the Aid Station Crew. I had sent it ahead to this point to give myself something to look forward to. Anyway, I went to find my bag again but said screw it, I don't need it and with these conditions I would be better off without it, so it stayed.

With my bottles topped off and somewhat bundled up I headed up the road. My hands were freezing from being exposed all of that time and my thin gloves were just soaked. I shoved my hands as far into my jacket pockets as I could and just kept going. I could feel them warming up in there and it was comforting. So here I am, above timberline, about 12,000 feet in elevation, driving snow storm, I have nearly 30 miles to go to the finish, 9 miles or so to the next Aid Station just plodding along warm dry and comfortable.

I was SO happy that I thought out the drop bags the way that I did and I had the gear that I did. Even more so as I passed runners coming down from the divide who were giving up and just looked miserable.

The climb to the summit of Coney Peak from Carson is about three miles in distance, and two thousand feet in elevation gain. The Coney summit sits at 13,334 feet. The higher I got the worse the conditions got which was not surprising. Probably a mile from the summit visibility was only a matter of yards if not feet. It was like being in a ping pong ball is how I like to describe it. Even though it was cloudy and snowy and nasty the light reflected from the snow was hurting my eyes so I had to dig my sunglasses out which were warm and wet with condensation from being in my jacket. They helped but it took some time for them to dry out and get to the point where I could really see through them. At least I was not squinting anymore.

Ahead of me in the distance I could see the another runner, just a dark shape really. He/or she proved to be a good guide showing me the nature of the trail above. I could not see the summit of Coney Peak but it has to be up there somewhere. Up, up, and up I went, and through a lot of switchbacks to boot but no summit was visible. It was not until I was coming off of the summit, going in the general direction of down that I finally got a clue as where I was. It was here that I knelt in the snow (which felt really good on my knees btw) and retied my shoes.

I made it. I am up on the Continental Divide and though there will be some climbs between here and the next Aid Station some seven miles away it won't be anything like the climb of the previous two hours or more. Rolling terrain, nice.

It took some time for the conditions to get better. I almost made wrong turn down gulch instead of going up to a saddle which would have been disastrous. Fortunately my instincts made me stop and look around to find the next marker instead of just going on. Even though it was cold and wet and snowing and just crappy conditions in general, I was actually having fun. Snow is better than rain in my book and even though it was nasty, there was no thunder and there was lightning. Conditions were relatively "safe" at least.

Eventually the snow let up and it was just beautiful in its own way. Quiet. Very, very quiet up there. No wind, everything was still. I love that. I was moving along, dropping in elevation as I went, feeling better and better until I finally hit the timber again and just felt great knowing I had just covered what I anticipated to be the toughest part of the course in less than ideal circumstances and I was still intact, actually I was doing great and I felt it.

I made the Divide Aid Station at mile 31 feeling pretty good. A little rough around the edges but for 31 miles in surprisingly well. I tried to keep that thought out of my mind... the new place that I was in because I had never gone that far before. I did not want to focus on that and lose my mental game or momentum.

A lot of people were at this Aid Station and they were dropping. They had had enough. Not me though... I ate some ramen, a sandwich had a couple cups of Mountain Dew, filled my bottles and took off.

19 miles to go and I had about six hours to do those in I think. Most of it downhill at least until the next aid station nine miles away. Of all the parts of the course the next nine miles proved to be the most underwhelming. The weather started to get a little nicer, after a surprise climb leaving the Aid Station I was left in some serious above timberline (again) open space that just went on forever. It took a lot of time to hit the timber again and really start dropping to the Slumgullion Aid Station at mile 40. This is where things began to wear on me.

Not bad yet, but I'm getting tired. I am tired of being wet, tired of my wet and heavy shoes and socks. It had warmed up and I had my jacket tied around my waist which I don't like. I'm carrying extra weight and running through mud that just cakes onto my shoes adding even more weight. To add insult the injury, when I expected to be close to the 40 mile aid station according to my Garmin, I ended up having at least one more mile to go and from the psychological standpoint, that did a small bit of damage.

Finally I made it to the Slum Aid Station, great! I forgot to mention that cut off times had been a concern of mine for the last 2 hours or so. If I didn't make the 40 mile mark by 6:00 p.m. the race was over for me. Fortunately I was able to leave the Aid Station with 19 minutes to spare from the cutoff time.

Leaving I felt great. Dry socks, dry shoes, dry shorts, no more jacket, I was lighter and feeling great as I was moving fast again. Trying not to get too optimistic because I knew the next ten miles would still pose a challenge I pushed on. I knew that I was close.

Everything was going great until I hit the hill on Vickers Ranch. Now I had studied the course and and the elevation profiles and I knew that this hill would be a challenge but I forgot how bad it would be actually. Silly me, I was thinking maybe only a few hundred feet in elevation gain while in reality it was more like 2000 feet of vertical in two miles. This hill was almost my undoing and where I suffered the most through the day.

On and on it went. Up and up it went, winding through the aspens, twisting and turning with no end in sight. When I thought that I would be close to the end of the climb the trail would turn and go up even more. This hill punished me both physically and mentally and when I got to the top it was such a struggle to get going again. I was wiped but I did regroup knowing that I had only seven or eight miles tops to to the finish.

I stopped at the Vickers Aid Station briefly to fill up my bottles and off I went. They told me that I only had four miles to go... three downhill and one flat. Four miles. Four more miles after traveling 46 miles of some of the toughest terrain in the state. Four more miles after being on my feet for nearly 15 hours straight. Four more miles with the light beginning to fade. Four more miles... Three down and one flat...

By now I am as tired of going down hill as much as I am tired of going up hill. My quads are just beat and the downhill running I was forced to do was to steep and tricky to just open up and go so I was breaking more than running. Loose rocks littered the trail and I feared one of them would grab my weak ankle which had done so well all day and down I would go. Those were a very cautious three miles while trying to go fast at the same time. It is after 8:00 p.m. and I have less than an hour to the cut off time. I can see the town below me now... it is there, the minutes ticking away as I run, the town getting closer way to slow for my liking.

Ahhh.... the flat, smooth surface, I can move on this. I strain seeing how fast I can make my legs move which is not very fast but fast enough. I see two runners in the distance ahead of me, I am gaining on them and I pass them. I am following the signs into and through the town. A couple cheers me on and tells me that after the next left turn I only have two blocks to go. I know these are small town blocks and the distance is not far at all. I am pushing, I can see the end of the block and I know the park is right there. Trying to look good, look strong and fast and I feel as if I am actually pulling it off as I hear the announcer call out my name as I am 100 yards or so from the finish. My eyes water and I choke up as I bound across the finish line. I did it. 15:44:46, just over 15 minutes to spare. I can't believe it.

I wander around in a daze in the park as people congratulate me. I am in awe. I feel great which scares me as I am afraid of when the crash will happen and just how devastating that will be. I eat some chili of all things and have a soda sitting at a picnic table alone in the dark. While my taste buds are in delight over the taste, my stomach just isn't in the mood so I toss the rest and go to the armory to grab my drop bags and head back to my cabin.

In the cabin, my shoes are removed... phone calls made, finally a hot shower and off to bed I went. Sleep did not come instantly as I struggled to find a comfortable way to lay but eventually I did go to sleep and slept great through the night.

It is five days later and as I mentioned, it is all a blur. My next race is in less than three weeks and that is a marathon in Leadville. The bigger brother to the race I did 2 years ago. I'm already scheming on that one and can't wait to run it. Things are going great...

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