Monday, June 20, 2011

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Yurt

The San Juan Solstice 50 mile run was this past weekend in Lake City, Colorado. This race had been my primary focus most of this year. I really wanted to go down there and turn out a good time. Yes there are more races on the calendar for this year but this was the one that was to define the year for me.

Before even getting to Lake City things were in flux. Lots of snow still hanging in the high country and on the Continental Divide made a very significant stretch of the course un-runnable therefore forcing the race director to alter the course. So the course that I wanted to PR on we were not running anymore. Needless to say I was frustrated by that but after a night of recomputing splits, etc, I felt like it was still going to a good run and decided to still give it all that I had.

Race day morning I was exceptionally calm. Almost too calm I felt. No jitters, no real fear, just calm and not feeling a whole lot one way or the other. Maybe looking back it was more like a calm ambivalence... In retrospect, this should have been a warning yet I had no comprehension of what it may have foretold.

The race starts and we start off and running fast. We climb the climb up Waterdog Trail on Vicker's Ranch just as fast it seems, maybe too fast, but everything is going really well. I am still not "excited" but everything is in perspective. I topped out on Vicker's Ranch at about 1:30:00 and felt pretty confident that is was exactly the pace I needed and things were going quite well but this would the last optimistic thought pretty much for the next 24 miles unfortunately.

A whole herd of us started down though the meadow running. I saw another COS runner way off in the distance and was surprised that he was even still in sight. Everyone picked up speed going through the meadow and down we went... then I realized that I wasn't seeing any more trail markers, then everyone else realized it too. There were about ten people in front of me and about twice as many behind me. Well we had all zigged right, when we should have zagged left and the end result was that everyone ran about a half of a mile off the course. Everyone executed an about face and we were quickly back to the main meadow and on the right path, but by accident now, another mile was added to the day. Hawaiian Shirt Ray and I bombed down the meadow passing many, many, many runners the next five miles to the first aid station with crew access at mile 11.

The next section consisted of a loop that basically went up a mountain, and I mean up, and then back down in 11 miles. Long story short, the climb was STEEP. Stupid steep. I am still fuming over the inadvertent detour of the morning and the precious time that it cost me. But really, the worse part was that I just didn't care anymore. I didn't want to run, I didn't want to race, I didn't even want to be in Lake City. I wanted to quit so bad. That calm ambivalence from early in the morning had turned into pure apathy if not straight up loathing for anything involving running, racing, trails, mountains, etc... I had quit and my heart which felt completely broken was just no longer in it. Meltdown.

Unfortunately, or fortunately during most ultra events one can not just stop and walk off of the course. As I was standing on top of a 11,700 foot peak and debating other options for my life I still had six miles or so of "down" to get to the next aid station and officially drop so on I went heading towards mile 22 and my first voluntary DNF in a 50 mile race. At that point I really didn't give a crap.

I rolled into the aid station and told Melissa that I was done and she in turn informed me that no I was not and that my times were good and for me to keep going. She walked with me up the road a stretch and I promised her that I would see her at mile 40 and that I wouldn't drop before then. Of course dropping anywhere in between was not an option either... Regardless I was committed to another 18 miles.

I don't like running on dirt roads for the most part, at least not long straight stretches and I really don't like running into a headwind ever but that is what the next seven miles consisted of. More non-fun for me! Yay! Not! At one point I heaved my water bottles out of boredom and frustration, just something to break up the monotony of that damned road. My friend Sharon had driven past as she was going to meet her husband at the next stop and seeing her drive by sorta picked up my spirits some as it made me feel less alone.

Finally I made it to the trail which would lead us back up to the Continental Divide. A cool thing happened here... Scott Jurek and Dakota Jones were hanging out at the aid station and Scott Jurek actually said "good job" to me. Of course I didn't think so but it sure was nice to hear. The aid station volunteer filled my handhelds and I drank probably three styrofoam cups of Mtn Dew beforre heading on up the trail on what was gong to be the biggest climb of the day up to the divide and Yurt aid station. I just had to make it to the Yurt after that I would have no reason, excuse, or whatnot to drop...

The trail after leaving the aid station was amazing. It was all in timber and on a nice cool north facing slope. I thought quietly to myself that "I am now in my element," as I started to really move up the mountain. And move I did... I started running faster and overall I was just feeling better. The funny thing is that as badly as I felt all morning, I was ahead of my projected split time at mile 31. The problem though was that splits were matching the miles but not the landmarks on the course. (Due to the rerouting) As badly as I had been feeling, I had still been holding my own for the first 31 miles. Okay, so maybe things were not a horrible as I thought.

This is where the magic starts... I see movement ahead of me. There is a runner... I haven't seen anyone for a long time and figure I must really be in the back of the pack... but there is a runner ahead of me. I focus... I gain, I pass. One! I am excited now... I passed someone. A few minutes later I see more movement in the timber up ahead... I focus, I gain, I pass... Two! The steepest and nastiest climb in the course, over two thirds the way through a fifty miler on the way to the Yurt and I start passing people! Awesome...

As quickly as it felt the entire race had gone down the drain earlier that morning, I realized on my way to the Yurt that it no longer was. I was back and proof of that was the 19 people that I passed on that climb. I was no longer lumbering, or struggling with one foot in front of the other in survival mode anymore... no. I was alive, and I was racing now. I was moving.

I ran a blistering pace across the Divide to the mile 40 aid station passing even more runners... 12 more to be exact since the previous 19. I had gained serious ground. I bombed into the aid station quickly shedding my bottles on the ground and I could tell that Melissa had realized that I am not stopping for anything. She tosses me two new handhelds and then my baggie with gels and saltstick caps which I catch out of mid-air, one-handed and I am gone... Two runners that I had passed and know were behind me and I did NOT want them gaining ground.

Ten miles to go and it is not an easy ten miles... One steep 1700 foot vertical climb which takes you up and over 11,000 feet in elevation then a long five miles back into town... The distance is right but it always just seems so much longer. I climbed Vicker's Hill in 48 minutes, six minutes faster than last year and nobody passed me... but I passed a few on the way up myself. The run down off of the ranch and back into town brought more runners for me to pass which I did. One kid right before town caught up with me though and try as I might I could not hold him off so he did pass me. Regardless it was such a great feeling to have my downhill running to be so solid so late in a race, and especially in this one.

As always though I was so glad to hit the smooth roads of Lake City for the last mile or so to the finish. I passed two more runners the last mile bringing my total for the last 20 miles to 39 passed, and only passed by one. I crossed the finish line in 12:31 which I was so happy with. It had been a tough day. I gutted through a lot of self doubt, disillusionment, discouragement, and all sorts of other mental anguish and yet I was able to still "be there" when things started clicking again and take full advantage of the situation and run harder than I may have ever run in race like this. Because of that I have nothing but good feelings and am very happy with the way things turned out.

I learned a lot in this race. One thing being that I can feel completely like crap, yet still be doing what I need to be doing. Another is that even though I have a strong fueling and hydration strategy in my races which works great, I might want to start having some more "simple sugar" types of snacks and treats around for when my mood falters. This race also reinforced in me that 50 miles is a long damned distance and a lot can happen over that span of miles. Never take for granted where you and how you feel, good or bad, because things can always change one way or the other and then just as easily change again. Be prepared for that but most importantly... just don't quit!


  1. I wanted to die on the Vickers climb. Memories.

    Good work out there even with all the changes in course and such. That's no fun for some of us who like to plan for these things.