More Than A Number

Posted: January 1, 2014 in Uncategorized

It seems like an annual tradition this time of year, all of the runners, triathletes, and swimmers post their yearly miles on social media, seeming to a lot of people to be bragging about their accomplishments, and their dedication to their respective sports, but there is so much more to those numbers than I think many people realize.  To the casual onlooker, who is not as into an endurance sport, it can feel like maybe the purpose is to “fit-shame” (a term I really can’t stand and is honestly somewhat ridiculous) or make ourselves feel better about ourselves or glorify what we have done.  However, that could not be farther from the truth.  Each one of those miles represents something different, and for nearly every athlete I know, each mile represents something they learned about themselves and something that made them feel like they were growing as a person.  So those miles in those simple little posts are actually telling a story about that person that is completely unique in every way.

When I conservatively add in treadmill miles, I ran 2005 miles this year, a little over a hundred miles less than the year before, but I can honestly say that every one of those miles made me a better person, and taught or reminded me of an important lesson about myself.  My miles this year were hard, and I had to fight through a lot of mental and physical barriers for many of them, so I have been even more diligent than usual to take those things I learned into my life off the trail in an effort to use those lessons to make me a better person.  So, rather than just give a number this year, I am going to break those numbers into the most important lessons I learned as a result of the miles I had run up that point. 

  • 200 miles to learn that finishing what we set out to do, and not giving in no matter how long it takes fills your soul in a way that nothing else can.  Moreover, the most difficult journeys are often the ones we learn the most from as long as we leave our minds open to the full experience. 
  • 1,052 miles and I remember what it’s like to run free, what it feels like to be able to let go of the things I had historically been running from in my head and in my past, and know that I was running with the sole purpose of connecting with myself, the world around me, and my friends around me.
  • 1,164 miles and I remember where it gets us when we let self-doubt, and excuses build up in our minds as well as the toxic effect it can have on our experiences and abilities. But I also found that when you let the people who care about you know how you feel, they can and almost always will help you shake it off and when that happens, no matter how low you sink, you can rise up higher than ever.
  • 1,300 miles to remember that no matter how hard we work, and no matter how hard we try, sometimes everyone fails and that the failures are less important than the knowledge that we never lost our souls, or our integrity when looking the possibility of not reaching a goal in the face.  After all, its not about the destination, it’s how we get there that really matters.
  • 1,550 miles and I realize that everything we do truly connects us with our world.  The walls of every canyon and the spires of every mountain, the fish in every stream, and the animals in every forest and desert are our brothers and our sisters and if we listen hard enough, we can reconnect with them.  We are not separate from the Earth, or its other inhabitants, nor are we better than them, we are just different and the world is just waiting for us to open our eyes and see that truth again.
  • 2,005 miles, and I feel like I have come full circle.  As I ran the last miles of 2013 through the City of Aurora, Colorado I find myself on the other side of the pain I felt when I tried to run for times, and for external rewards.  As this year wraps up, the miles I have run taught me that if we listen to our hearts, and our bodies, we can set aside all of the negativity we encounter in the world and do unbelievable things. 

So, here’s to 2014, and another amazing year of miles and lessons learned!  Cheers, and Happy New Years! 

“When I walk beside her
I am the better man
When I look to leave her
I always stagger back again

Once I built an ivory tower
So I could worship from above
When I climb down to be set free
She took me in again

There’s a big

A big hard sun
Beating on the big people
In a big hard world” – Eddie Vedder ‘Hard Sun’

I have not made any secret over the last year that running is, for me, something much more than just running.  It’s a spiritual experience, but in my obsessive quest to get a buckle at Leadville, I think I started to lose sight of that when I would step to the line at races.

All of the money that would spend to get there, all of the people on the course competing, the reliance on manufactured aid, and strict courses and cut offs would get into my head. I would get caught up in the need to compete with the runners around me, and lose my ability to stay connected to what I was seeking when I started running ultras.  Then I walked up to the starting line at the mouth of Canyon de Chelly and everything changed.

I ran through the Canyon with its towering walls surrounding me, teeming with life, and joy, listening to the shouts of other runners echoing throughout, pushing myself to go further not because I wanted to get a time, or a buckle, or a shiny new medal, but because I was on the trail to experience the journey.  I remembered that this feeling is what I am running towards when I go out for a run.  I remembered that my destination is not supposed to be a finish line, but the realization that I am part of something bigger, and that I am the only person who places limits on where the journey takes me and how far. It reminded me of the mantra from Jeremy Wolf put out into the universe in a yoga class I have quoted so often, “My mind is empty, and my body is as vast and as expansive as the sky”.  I know this mantra is true, but how do I really make it real?

Since the race I have thought a lot about what all of this means.  I do love races, the environment, the cheering volunteers at Aid Stations, having logistics taken care of, and the comradery of running on a course with my fellow Runners Roost Teammates, having my friends and beautiful girlfriend out cheering… all of that is something I will never get tired of.  That being said, I have struggled to figure out how I keep this feeling of freedom I experienced in Canyon de Chelly alive.

Yesterday, while I was driving to work, listening to the “Into the Wild” Soundtrack by Eddie Vedder, the answer struck me and it was simple.  I do this by doing something that pushes me into that place where you only have yourself to rely on while facing a monumental task.  I could do this by running 100 miles, unsupported in the Colorado Rockies.  To do this, I would need to leave behind my attachment to the frills of a race, the comfort of aid stations, the surety that course markings and pacers provide.

I had the thought that maybe, just maybe, some of those external rewards and trappings of races have diverted our attention away from what many ultra-runners are trying to find in their experiences.  The buckle at the end, the shirts, the bibs, the status of finishing a given race takes our attention off of the journey.  And even if we try our best to maintain our focus on the journey, inevitably our attachment to the external rewards will take over at some point and contaminate the experience.  If that’s true, or even possible, then to really understand I would have to do away with all of those things, and head out onto the trail without them, or the hope of those frills as a way to keep me going.

So, I now have the goal of finishing a 100 mile unsupported run through the Colorado Rockies.  After putting up a post stating this goal on Facebook, one of my friends and Runner’s Roost Teammates Ben Reeves chimed in saying he has wanted to do this for some time and even has a route.  It would run trail from Denver to Breckenridge.  It would be epic.  And it will be a goal of mine to make this happen before the end of 2014.  There may some others who join me for this journey, but the purpose will remain the same; to maintain purity in running through the wilds of Colorado.  I am not walking away from races, but this is definitly a primary goal for me now.  More to come!

I hadn’t been planning on signing up for it for a long time before I found myself on Ultrasignup.com entering my information to get onto the waitlist.  A good friend of mine, Samantha, whom I have run lots

the runners gathered around the fire before the race as a traditional Navajo blessing was given for our run ahead

the runners gathered around the fire before the race as a traditional Navajo blessing was given for our run ahead

of great miles with, had mentioned it a couple of weeks before while on a recovery run after Rocky Raccoon.  It sounded cool then, but I had no idea how cool it could be.  I happened to see she when she had signed up through an early morning Facebook post after registration for the race opened.  Genuinely curious, I looked at the website, and immediately knew this was a race I had to run.

The site talked about this run as being one the would focus on the spiritual aspects of running, specifically

through the eyes of the Navajo people, and it would take place in a Canyon that is rarely seen from the Canyon floor by individuals who are not Navajo.  I looked at the number of people signed up and it was at about 50, halfway full… I figured I would have time to get to work and sign up right?  Nope.  In the 20 minutes it took me to get to work, the race filled, but I managed to get in on the waitlist, number 2.  That was March 22nd.  As the months passed, I held my breath, waiting.  It wasn’t until August 12th that I got

headed into the Canyon

headed into the Canyon

the email letting me know I was in.  I could not have been more excited.  Of all the races I had planned on, or had run, this had been sitting as my #1 to run since I first looked at the site.

Once I was in, I prepared myself like I do for any race, and honestly felt like I would be perfectly prepared.  From what I could tell from the GPS track, and Movescount data posted, it would be uphill on the way out, with maybe 300 ft of gain, until one big 1200ish ft climb between mile 16 and 17, then turn around and head back.  There was mention of sand for the first several miles, but how bad could that really be?  After a summer full of races like Leadville Marathon, Silver Rush, Jemez 50k and the miles I completed at Leadville 100, how bad could this be with a total of around 1600ft of gain?  I kept running and training, but definitely didn’t push much specific types of training. As much as anything, I was just excited to get to see this amazing place, and be a part of all the history in the Canyon.

The drive was beautiful with lots of new sites for me, and warm ups for what I might see on the run (or thats what I thought). I had never driven through Utah, so going through Moab was incredible, and by the

The sun hit the ruins in the cliff right as me, and a group of runners rounded a corner and this came into view.

The sun hit the ruins in the cliff right as me, and a group of runners rounded a corner and this came into view.

time we got to the town of Chinle, Arizona, I was ready to go!  We hit packet pickup and grabbed a campsite before heading back for the best pre-race meeting I have ever been in.  There were no slogans, no dramatic large scale productions, but the information was brilliant and kept my attention completely, which says a lot given my very unmedicated ADHD!  The Race Director, Shaun Martin, gave a heartfelt and moving explanation of why he wanted this race to happen in the first place, followed by some heads up in regards to the significant technical nature of the trail in Bat Canyon (an arm of the main Canyon) and some mention of our feet getting wet…  Again, I wasn’t too worried…

This was followed by a full cultural explanation from a park ranger who talked about the history of the canyon and its importance to history and the Navajo People,.  He talked about the 5000 year history of the Canyon, and its inhabitants spanning from the Anasazi (the ancient Pueblo) to the Pueblo as well as what it means to the Navajo Nation today.  This was followed by a more detailed discussion of the meaning and importance of running in Navajo Culture by a very wise and funny gentleman named William Yazzie. By the end of the meeting, every person in the audience seemed to by buzzing with into the lightanticipation for the experience they would be running into in the morning.  We would be running in the way of the Navajo, we would be running into this ancient Canyon that had experienced 5000 years of life and human history as the Navajo had for so many years.  On top of that, we would have the rare experience of being able to be on the Canyon floor, unguided and alone surrounded by this history.

Waking up to the cold morning air was easy when I could feel what was coming.  We had shared a campsite with Jennifer Johnson and her friend Rhiannon so we headed over to the start together where there was a bonfire, coffee, tea, and traditional blue corn mush.  In the glow of the bonfire, William Yazzie sang a traditional Navajo song, which was followed by an opening prayer as first light spread across the horizon to the East.

We all lined up on the start line, and were reminded that as we run through the canyon, to yell out our joywater and walls sepia as we go through which would cleanse our spirit for the day ahead, but our race would start with a shout to announce ourselves to the Canyon.  So, with yells, we headed out through the wash towards the mouth of the Canyon where the walls started lifting upwards.  The recent water had caused the sand to turn to mud, which stuck to the bottom of our shoes adding weight, but the beauty of the canyon over whelmed the weight on our feet.  Within a mile we were in the walls of the canyon, and echos of runners yelping bounced throughout.  We made our way through the now thick, beach like sand up the track.  As the sun presented itself by spreading light across the red rocks of the rim, runners yelped even louder.

The runners I found myself with were completely enthralled with the beauty we were surrounded by.  It seemed that my pace and placement in the race was putting me exactly where I needed to be.  As we turned corners the sun would reveal a new sight.  We crossed the river over and over again, but I barely even noticed, splashing through joyously early in the race.  A large group of runners stayed together

this was my first view of Spider Rock, which you can see pointing upwards between the Canyon Walls

this was my first view of Spider Rock, which you can see pointing upwards between the Canyon Walls

through the White House Aid Station, where the Race Director had set up a bin for us to drop our warm weather clothes.  I realized I was still in my long sleeve shirt, and it was going to be time for that to go soon, so I ditched that and my sleeves thanked him for what he had already given us, and I was out.

I was making great time, but had already decided a PR was not my priority here.  The course was too beautiful, the opportunity too rare, and honestly, the Canyon had a feel to it, I cant explain it, but it was too much not to enjoy.  The 2nd Aid Station ended up being only a little more than 2 miles from the first because of the mud at one of the many creek crossings.  The vehicle was very stuck, but the volunteers still had huge smiles on their faces, greeting us, letting us know it would be around 9 miles before we hit the turn around, so despite having just gone through an aid station, I refilled and headed out with another runner.

His name was Flint, and we chatted about the depth and beauty of this place we were, the depth and the spider rock and the sunbeauty of running, and wound our way through the experience.  He was definitely one of those people who felt like a kindred spirit in running and I was a little sad when I dropped back to tend to business briefly, and after that was completely alone in the Canyon.  No one that I could see ahead or behind me.

I kept a good pace, the trail, with the exception of the frequent creek crossings was very runnable.  We were out of the sand, so now it was just me and the Canyon.  This was when things got cool.  It seemed like the Canyon was in sync with itself in a way that American culture refuses to allow.  When I caught sight of Spider Rock for the first time, reaching up, visible only briefly, but perfectly between the winding walls, I stopped dead in my tracks. I heard a horse whinny loudly.  It was close by, in the trees to my left, and I felt a surge of energy run through me.  I know it may not seem like such a big deal, but you would have had to be there.  It felt like the horse was trying to tell me something.  There are things in this world I do not try to explain.  This was one of those moments, and I just let it be.  I smiled and started running again (after getting a couple of quick photos).

another runner took this shot of me at the turn around with the Canyon below and behind

another runner took this shot of me at the turn around with the Canyon below and behind

I kept up the pace, but was feeling my feet.  I had worn an older pair of orthotics coming into the race, and they were clearly feeling the impact of all the water crossings.  I kept focused, but came to a screeching halt when I got to the bottom of the Bat Canyon climb to the turn around.  I have run some technical stuff, but this was not getting run.  The trail was about as technical as you can imagine.  I have never been on anything rockier, and that includes at races like Jemez and Dirty 30.  This was a 1200ft climb from the Canyon floor to the rim, and a seldom seen overlook.  For the last couple hundred feet it was all out scrambling to the top.  Still having fun I worked my way up and managed to catch up to Samantha for the first time in the race.    We chatted for a moment.  I dug through my drop bag, hoping for some Tylenol, as my feet were now fairly upset at me, and I knew they would take a beating on the descent.  I couldn’t find any, so I chilled for a minute, asking others if they had any with no luck so I went to refill my Camelback before heading out.  After filling it I could hear a leak.  Yup, it was leaking.  Not much I could do, and happily the leak was on one of the top seems so I took a deep breath and headed out.

stone wallsI caught Samantha again as I headed down, and we got to chat for a while.  I was actually feeling great, and we cruised for a couple of solid miles, but as we started crossing the rivers again, my feet started screaming.  It got to a point where I told Samantha not to hang back.  I was a little sad I wouldn’t be running with my friend any longer but I needed to focus on keeping moving, and didn’t want to feel like I was holding a friend back.  A couple of folks passed me in the next 6 miles between there and Bubble Man Aid Station, but I otherwise had the Canyon to myself.  No other people in sight, nothing but myself, and the world around me.

Even with my feet hurting about as badly as I have ever experienced in a race, and my worries about running out of water, I was able to stay pretty Zen about the situation.  The place I was in was amazing.  I could hear birds around me, saw more wild horses (one I could have sworn was the same white one I had seen earlier), and just did my best to enjoy where I was.  Unfortunately I was hiking a lot more than I wanted and was eking out 14 minute miles which frustrated me because my legs felt fine, it was my feet that just couldn’t take it in those moments.

Jenn was at the White House Aid Station, which is the only publicly accessible area in the Canyon.  I was happy to see her, let her know what was up with my feet and that the last 5-ish miles might take me a while, but that I would see her soon.

I got going, and managed to eventually catch sight of the two runners who had passed me earlier.  I felt

Jenn took this of me finishing

Jenn took this of me finishing

like it would be a nice goal to see if I could catch them by the end, but was still struggling to run with my feet hurting as badly as they did, and now I was back in the sand.  I didn’t notice I was limping some to compensate for my left foot hurting so much more than the right, and starting feeling the pain elsewhere as well.  My brain went to the ‘I guess you may have to walk it in’ place ever so briefly before I thought to myself that self-pity is not why I was here. I was here to experience where I was at.  Sure, my shoes and feet were water logged and hurt, but a pity party wouldn’t help.  I thought of where the referral pain from liming was happening, and thought of a yoga pose that would open that area again.  I stopped dead in my tracks and proceeded to get into reverse dancer pose in the middle of the canyon.  As I held it I could feel my muscles releasing and energy surge back into my spirit.

I decided right then and there to listen to what I had been told by a brilliant woman before Leadville when I was worried about my ankle, ‘No Limping!’.  I also realized that I had been happiest on this run when I was running.  My legs were fine, it was just my feet so I could run, though it may hurt.  I resolved myself to run as much of the remaining 2.5-ish miles as possible, and did.  I only stopped once more as I exited the canyon.  I became overwhelmed by the need to thank the Canyon for letting me run there.  Despite my feet, I had an amazing day, full of beautiful experiences as I ran through, many of which I will keep in my heart rather than in a blog post, so I turned, and with my hands to heart center gave the Canyon the most heart felt Namaste and thanks I could.  As I stood straight I felt another surge of energy, and I headed toward the finish a half mile or so down the wash.

I had to stop a few times to walk over the clumped mud as those sections were like hammers on my now very tender feet but otherwise ran it the rest of the way in.

Jenn and I after finishing

Jenn and I after finishing

The turquoise necklace we were given as we crossed means as much to me as any of the buckles I have. We learned that in Navajo culture, Turquoise is a representation of the union between Father Sky and Changing Woman (Mother Earth).  We also learned that this is also how the culture views running as well.  Father Sky fills you with energy and life as Changing Woman carries you across her.  This was how I felt during this race.  Even when it was hard I felt like the Canyon and the sky above me gave me everything I needed.  When something material like my shoes, or my pack put up barriers, the Canyon reminded me of why I was actually there.  This race was an experience I never anticipate being able to repeat.  It wasn’t fast, but I never planned on it being really fast.  It wasn’t the easiest course, and I didn’t feel the best the whole time.  But all of that being said; the experience and the Canyon touched my soul, and that is honestly why I run these races.

I feel like I walked away more awake than when I started.  I also have an even deeper respect for the culture of the Navajo than I did before (understanding I had a huge amount of respect to begin with).  It reminded me that running is a blessing we are given everyday.  It is a blessing that gives us health, it gives us clarity of spirit, empathy, and strength of will and character that nothing can ever take away once it lives in our hearts.  Running in the Canyon… no that’s not how I want to say it.  Running with the Canyon and all of the inhabitants is something that will live with me, and in my soul forever.

Thank you to Shaun Martin, the Race Director, his family, and all the people and volunteers who made this possible.  You gave us all a gift that will live with us and in our hearts and souls forever.

“But if you close your eyes,does it almost feel like nothing changed at all, and if you close your eyes, does it almost feel like you’ve been here before how am I gonna be an optimist about this?”  - Pompeii by Bastille

As I sat at the Sheep’s Gulch Trailhead at 650pm, in the quiet gravel parking lot next to my friends car, sitting for the first time in 49 miles, I couldn’t help but think back on how I got there.  It had not seemed like such a long day, and I felt good, but my race was over too soon again.  Why?

I had arrived in Leadville on Wednesday night, slept in my car on Fremont Pass, and spent Thursday wandering Leadville.  I even had an opportunity to go up to Independence Pass and hike/jog 3 miles at 12,000ft and felt really good.

On Friday, I went to the pre-race meeting, which had been moved to the Middle School from the 6th Street Gym.  Given the increase in field

A pano from my hie/run on independence pass the Thursday before the race

A pano from my hie/run on independence pass the Thursday before the race

this was probably a smart decision.  It was also eye opening in regards to how many people would be out on the course.  1200 people were registered, a record number, and it was a hot topic around town.  Jason, Lindsey and Jenn had arrived during the meeting and couldn’t get through to the floor space I had saved for them so I met up with them right after, and we went over crew stuff, then we went for a field trip to the aid stations and crew areas they had not been to before, and I was in bed by 7pm.  I felt like I had set myself up pretty well despite the rocky 3 weeks leading to the race with my asthma acting up to the point I had to go on a prednisone treatment and a minor sprain a week before.

I fell asleep quickly, but the alarm at 2am seemed to come so quickly.  I woke up; crawled out of the tent I had put up in the back yard of the Runner’s Roost/New Balance House, and wandered inside to get ready.  I was wide awake but it was nice when Corky, who was also camped out back, came in so I had someone else to chat with.  The house slowly woke up things seemed to be filled with positive energy.  Ed said he would give us a ride to the start line, so we piled into the Roost Mobile and cruised into downtown.  The energy was fantastic, there were lots of people I knew, and as almost 1000 runners packed into the starting shoot it felt more and more real.  But it also felt different than all the other hundreds I have run, so many people, so much light, so much music, so much production, it didn’t feel like the home grown ultras I was used to, but all this stuff comes with always having other people to talk to on the trails I guess.  I was excited to get going, and was chilly standing around in my singlet so when I saw the silhouette of Ken Choubler on the other side of the start line with his shotgun pointed up I was excited to get going.  The boom of the gun sent us running and I warmed right up!

Me and Kirt before the race - photo by David Manthey

Me and Kirt before the race – photo by David Manthey

This race starts so much faster than most hundreds, or mountain ultras in general.  It starts dominantly downhill, with a few ups in the first 4 miles before climbing a steep rocky hill to Turquoise Lake. I kept a good pace on this section and felt good as I kept up on calories by eating EFS Liquid Shot.  We made it onto the Turquoise Lake Trail, and my fears of the conga line quickly disappeared.  It seemed by going out a little bit faster I was able to avoid the slower part of it.  That didn’t stop me from buying some real estate 3 miles around the lake.  Thankfully the runners behind me were not trailing me too close and I was far enough from the runner in front that no one else got taken out, and someone even helped me up.  The only good part of taking a fall on a technical trail early in a race like this is the jolt it gives you, reminding you of where you are!

I came into Mayqueen dead on what I was hoping for as a best-case scenario, 2:30 into the race.   My crew gave me my gear for the next section, and I didn’t waste time getting back on the trail.  Heading out of Mayqueen was where I could see the crowds of runners.  We were everywhere, and as we funneled onto the Colorado Trail, I could see where the conga line would be.  I was able to do some passing, but it was limited, and I was able to catch up to my friend Samantha and then Erik, whom I have run with at Rocky Raccoon for two years now as we popped out onto Hagerman Road.

We talked as we made our way up the road with sunrise behind us.  I put myself on a one minute on, one minute off cycle to moderate pace.  It worked well, and I pulled out my poles as I started up the Jeep Road to the top of the Powerline Right of Way.  They were not worth it in this section.  I topped out feeling good for having just made that climb, and started down.  The poles were very much in my way so I ended up having to stop for a minute to put them away, but the run down went well.  Samantha and I ran together for a bit again, reminiscing on the time we ran this section on a training run in the rain a year before and had a rainbow come out as we worked our way over the top of the last hump before dropping down to the road.  It was a fun part of the race running with my friend and getting to chat as we ran.

My stomach was acting up as I came down the last bit, but was better when I came up the trail onto the paved road that leads to Outward Bound.  I was surprised to see my crew there, but happy.  My legs were tired so having that extra bit with smiling faces couldn’t hurt.  I told them I would need them at Outward Bound too, because they had the wet wipes and body glide so I could hit the porta potty there and I didn’t want to risk lingering when that occurred.  They agreed, cheered me on and I headed out.  I had promised myself that the paved section of the course would not eat me alive again.  I also knew that keeping myself centered in the moment was the best way to keep myself moving, so I put myself back on a firm one minute on/off cycle for anything uphill and running all of the downs, so I made great time to Outward Bound.  I have found that when I put everything in manageable pieces I do far better mentally, and that would also ensure that I would run over half of the road, since I was also running the entirety of all of the downs.

When I came into Outward Bound Aid Station there were so many people everywhere it was hard to tell which way was which.  My stomach

a photo David Manthey took of me coming through Mayqueen

a photo David Manthey took of me coming through Mayqueen

had gotten better, so I opted to keep going knowing it wouldn’t wait past Treeline.  Erik and I had been playing hopscotch this whole time, and this was  no exception.  The road between Powerline and Treeline had eaten me alive the year before, and I ended up walking way too much of it, so I kept myself on a strong 1 min on/off cycle here as well, and set my Garmin Fenix to buzz and beep every minute, which again put everything into manageable bits, and it was keeping me cruising.  I started calling the minute run my ‘one minute grind’ in a joking way.  I also focused on centering myself.  Part of the minute off/on routine was intended to keep me in the moment, centered in the present and focused on always pushing hard forward.

I made up time in this section without being stupid, was staying positive, and before I knew it was at Treeline, but now my GI track was talking to me loudly.  When I came in I thought I saw Jenns red hair at the far end of the crew area so I called her name and waved at her then headed to the porta potties.  My stomach was angry and I lost about 6 minutes here.  I had hoped my crew had seen me but when they didn’t come down, I had to get my pack from outside the porta potty grab my emergency body glide to make sure things stayed lubed up and when I was done I was ready to roll again.  I headed to the end of the area and the crew wasn’t there!  I felt panic surge through me.  I had only packed enough food for the section between Outward Bound and Treeline, and that was long gone.  Half Pipe Aid Station was 2 miles away, and this would put me behind calories but I knew if I pushed on, it might be my best bet.  I had a drop bag there, and I knew I had another EFS Liquid Shot there that would hopefully get me through to Twin Lakes.  I pulled out my phone as I kept moving, I couldn’t stay any longer, I had already lingered 10 mins total and they said they were on their way but were stuck in traffic and I was still ahead of my split.  I wasn’t going backwards on the course, so we talked briefly on the phone, and I pushed onwards.  I kept my cycle going all the way to Half Pipe, and was happy to see it when I came in.

A volunteer outside of the Aid Station asked if I needed my drop bag, I said yes, she took my number, and I went to take care of what I could while they grabbed my bag, something that has always happened when volunteers ask those questions.  I made use of the medical section to get Vaseline.  I looked over to where the drop bags that had been requested were being set, and mine wasn’t there, so I went to ask, and no one had gotten it.  As the volunteers went to get it, I made my way to the aid station tent, which had less than I was used to for food, so I got some soda, a handful of chips, and went back to the drop bag area.  My bag was still not there, but there was a flurry of activity by the building the volunteer had run to, and a minute or two later someone appeared with my bag in their hand.

Excited to finally get it, but getting panicked with the time I was losing, I reached in, grabbed the handheld, the EFS, mixed up the EFS with water as quickly as possible and took off.   So far I had lost 20 minutes to aid stations in the last 4 miles, which was too much.  I put myself back on track with my run walk cycle, and made time.  I was passing people, running moderate ups I remembered walking the year before, and was optimistic until I ran out of the EFS.

With 5 miles to go to Twin Lakes, I was out of salt, electrolytes and food.  So I stayed positive instead.  I pushed myself onwards but since I had a deficit coming into Half Pipe, the calories provided by the Liquid Shot did not go far.  I felt myself bonking as I headed up the Colorado Trail, climbing steadily, still passing people, but not at the rate I had been.   When I topped out I was getting nauseous, I almost threw up drinking water a couple of times, but pushed myself onwards.  By the Mt. Elbert Water Drop I was starving, my stomach was growling (at least I was hungry!), and the volunteers had a giant bag of tortilla chips on the table.  I asked, and got a curt reply that they were for volunteers only and that it was only 3 miles to Twin Lakes.

I have to be honest, this was like a kick in the gut.  I had volunteered at Aid Stations before, including course marshaled and one thing I had learned a long time before was never put anything in eyeshot of runners at an Ultra that you are not willing to share.  I know that is a water only stop, and they are doing their best as volunteers, and this is not intended as a knock to them.  Right at that moment though, seeing that food made my body scream for calories even louder, which was not their fault or issue, it just was what it was.  My muscles were now stiffening, and hurting quite a bit.  My legs were tired enough from pushing through despite the lack of calories that running downhill on the steep trail became difficult at best.  I walked much more of that trail than I wanted to, and lost tons of time.  When I came into Twin Lakes at 125pm, a mere 35 minutes before the cut off, I was in a bad head space.

Jenn was waiting at the bottom of the hill and I immediately broke down as we walked to the crew area.  As we passed the Runners Roost tent it was a boost to have them ask if I needed anything as well.  I sat down, changed shoes, lubed up with Tri-Slide and ate as much as I could.  I have to say that my crew had made a little bit of everything I could possibly want to make sure I ate, which was awesome. They really were fantastic!

I headed out, but with my legs still feeling blown, and the calories not hitting my blood stream yet, I walked more of the flats than I should have.  When I hit the bottom of the pass, I still felt horrible.  I looked at my watch, and began to question my ability to make the time I needed to in order to get up to Hopeless before the cut.  I paused a couple of times on the trail, and even took a couple of steps backwards at one point.  I really felt like I was in an impossible situation.  What do I do?  Keep going just to be cut?  I knew I would have to come down on foot regardless.  The whole time I was moving forward, but it seemed grudgingly.

While still low on the pass I decided I was going to push on as hard as I could, like the year before, no matter what, things got better.  I started making time, and after the last switchbacks that put the trail above the headwall, I started cruising.  I realized that I was doing ok, I could easily make the cut with 15 minutes or so to spare at my pace, and I would make up time on the South side descent and bounce back from this.

The positive thoughts, and calories that were now catching up in my system were doing wonders and I felt great.  I saw the last little switchback before the long straight away to the aid station about ¾ of a mile away and got excited, this was going to happen!  I was making this happen!  I saw a runner standing on the switchback as I approached, and wondered what was going on, and then I saw her.

There was a runner, looking bad sitting on the side of the trail.  I asked the other runner if they needed help, hoping the answer would be no, but I was wrong.  He explained she had been there a long time, 30-40 minutes, couldn’t walk on her own, and wouldn’t go anywhere.  There was only one choice I could see in front of me.  No buckle would be worth leaving this runner here, with another person who couldn’t get her moving on his own.  My brain screamed for me to just go, to get the cutoff, I could just let the aid station know, but who knew what was wrong, and if I left, and something happened to her, I couldn’t live with it, so I sat next to her, and asked what was wrong.  She explained (and I am not going into details about her issues because that is for her to share with people if she wants, not me), and we eventually convinced her to let us help her stand.

Once she was up, the other runner (who I would later find out was a pacer for another runner that had volunteered to take supplies to

A photo I took of runners coming up Hope Pass as I headed down

A photo I took of runners coming up Hope Pass as I headed down

Hopeless since his runner had dropped) took her pack, and I had her put her arm over my shoulder and proceeded to give her walking assist most of the way to Hopeless.  As we slowly worked our way up the trail, the runner made a comment to me that she knew I was sacrificing making the cuts right at that moment.  I smiled, and told both her and the other person helping that I didn’t care, but I felt my stomach tighten a bit.  Somewhere in me I needed this finish, badly.  But the reality was, it was gone, and I reminded myself that making sure she was safe was way more important than any buckle.  I was doing my best to detach from the need to finish, and did a pretty good job.  I needed this to feel like it was ok, like it would be ok, and I did a good job of it.  As we neared the aid station another volunteer came running down he trail, and took over for me.  Shortly thereafter I asked if I could head up ahead of them.  Part of me wanted to come into the aid station strong, even though I knew I was at the cut.

I came into Hopeless about 3 minutes after the cut.  The volunteer took my medical wristband, and my race was done.  I shrugged, and walked up to the aid station.  Two of my friends, Karen and Sean (both amazing runners) came flying into the aid station on the return as I wandered into the aid station.  It was strange, because I felt somewhat detached as I explained, a little numb.  They headed out, and I found another of my friends at the aid station chilling out.  I old her very matter-of-factly what happened, looked off towards the runners coming down hope and suddenly felt the emotions well up.  Right then I told myself I would not have a repeat of the year before.  This was all under my control at this point, I needed to get down, and I needed to be strong.  I knew my teammates would be coming through and there was no way I was going to mess up their races by being anything other than positive.  My emotions were something I could control at this point so I did.

It was strange, I pretty much completely detached from the race, it suddenly felt like I wasn’t even a runner, like the previous 45.5 miles were nothing but dust in the wind.  A volunteer came trotting down the trail from the summit of the pass, and when he saw my green hair told me some of my friends were up on the pass, and that they had been cheering for runners up there.  I headed up after checking with the Aid Station Staff first and getting the ok to go over the pass to Windfield.  The captain told me they had no way to communicate with Winfield anyway, so my crew would probably be over there waiting, and my friends, I knew would have a car down below as well.

I met my friends who had been cheering all day long on the pass, enjoyed a moment looking out across the Sawatch Range from the top of Hope Pass.  I turned and looked across the horizon to the North, and pointed out to Jason, Jesse, Lindsey and Jessica where I started at 4am, far across the valley, the town of Leadville tiny in comparison to the vast mountain landscape below.  It struck me for a minute, I may be done with this race, and I wished I could finish, but I had come a really long way.  It felt good, but there was still a bit of an empty feeling in my stomach.

I was able to be really positive for the first half of the descent cheering on runners because I was able to focus on helping another runner.  As it sank in a bit more, ran ahead of my friends and finished the descent running except to step off the trail periodically.

I had planned to get a ride to Winfield with my friends anyway, but when I came up to the turn on the trail to Winfield I found out that the race was starting to push runners down to Sheep’s Gulch so I continued down.  I got there well ahead of anyone else, and when I got to the bottom took an opportunity to have moment of real silence alone until my friends caught up.

It had been a full day, with lots to think through, and honestly, even after my friends met me and I got back to the campsite I hadn’t totally worked through everything.

Now, a full week later, I think I am settled in my shoes regarding this race.  It never feels good to DNF, but at the end of the day I know a couple of very important things.  First, everything that happened was within my control on some level.  Last year, I felt like the race had been stolen from me, this year I don’t.  Second, I was able to have some good come out of a bad situation because even though it was the final blow to my race, my race ended with a good deed.  I want to be clear about a couple of things though.

First, I was well behind my splits when I came up on the hurt runner.  I put myself in a position when I could be cut in the first place.  I know that, and at the end of the day, my DNF was principally because of that.  Secondly, I see helping the runner as something that simply had to happen and she was not the reason I DNF’d.  Had I been far enough ahead of the cuts, I could have helped and still made the cuts.  I do not want anyone thinking I failed to finish because I helped the runner, I failed to finish because I failed to stay on the splits I should have kept.   If she was there 30-40 minutes, I could have helped her 40 minutes earlier and still made the cuts.

Finally, and most importantly, I have come to realize that these races, ultra’s are amazing ways to test ourselves in supported conditions.  However, at the end of the day, its another day on the trails.  Sometimes we have good days, and sometimes we have bad.  The weeks leading up to this race were not good weeks for me, and my body was not where it needed to be for this outing.  I spent 3 weeks prior to this race hoping that my lungs would recover from some serious issues, and protecting my ankle from a sprain I stupidly acquired the week before.   I did not come into this race with my body healed completely from those things, that was an issue.  My body was still coughing when I started, and I am sure that did not help.

All of that being said I went out ran hard and pushed myself.  I learned more about myself, and how to stay centered.  I grew mentally, physically and spiritually, and in that I know I walked away a better person than when I started.   Everyone who knows me, knows this is why I run these races, not for the buckle, not for bragging rights, but for the journey the growth I experience along the way.  In that sense, I was more successful than I could have ever hoped.  I kept my principles, and my ideals regarding how I would like to always treat myself and others when put in a position where I could have easily left her and kept running, chasing a goal.  I acted in the way I always hoped I would, and that’s important to me.  So, I am ending this race report with a quote in response to end of the quote I started with; “How am I gonna be an optimist about this”.

“And with dust in throat I crave only knowledge will I save to the game you stay a slave; roamer, wanderer, nomad, vagabond call me what you will.

But I’ll take my time anywhere, free to speak my mind anywhere and I’ll redefine anywhere, anywhere I roam, where I lay my head is home”

- Where Ever I May Roam by Metallica

It’s always amazing to me how quickly time goes by.  As I excitedly get my gear ready for the race this year, it doesn’t seem like it was a year ago that I was preparing to go up to Leadville for my first go at the Leadville 100.  Its strange, because the race last year impacted me so much, and in the end so positively, but of course it always takes time for the positive impact to be felt.

As people reading this might have noticed has been spent chasing the Leadville 100 this year.  Last year, going in, I was so confident I would finish that when I didn’t get that buckle a type of self-doubt I had never had before in regards to running crept into my mind.  That doubt caused me to be much more critical of my training, my pace, everything.  This self-defeating thought pattern was reinforced by 1-1:30 min/mile slower paces at races, and training runs.  It was also reinforced by the romanticizing of my training runs in 2012.  As I walked to the start line at Silver Rush 50 this year, that same thought pattern sat firmly entrenched in my mind, and it really destroyed the first half of my race.

After the race, I was determined to figure out what was going on.  So I started pondering this idea, and it started to click on a rainy Sunday

training run on Hope Pass.  I had gone out for what was supposed to be a double crossing of the Pass, but after climbing in cold rain all the way

a Flower and the Rainbow that emerged from the downpour I was expecting as I started my run at Deer Creek Canyon

a Flower and the Rainbow that emerged from the downpour I was expecting as I started my run at Deer Creek Canyon

up to 12,100, we decided it would be smartest to turn back.  Jim is an incredibly talented runner, and he is fast.  After we turned around and were running the new Winfield Trail, I decided that I did not want to hold Jim back, so I started diligently looking for ways to make it so I could go faster.  I started to focus on the moment I was running in, and it felt good, I was almost keeping up, then we found the new trail cutoff the race is using this year.  It is a well graded, super soft, pine bed trail, perfect for running with little restraint.  Jim opened it up, and went cruising down.  I wanted to keep up, so I intentionally shut my brain off and let loose, and kept up.

The next day, as I was getting ready for what I thought was going to be another rainy run at Deer Creek Canyon on my own, I started to think back on my run with Jim the day before.  What had happened?  I decided I would go out today, and set my intention on figuring this out.  As I got out of the car, there was a huge rainbow, and the sun came out, I was energized, and I just ran.  As I worked my way up the switchbacks, I started to think to myself “don’t let your heart rate go too high, conserve for later”, and then stopped myself.  What the hell was I doing?  My mind was looking for an excuse to go slower.  That moment was the key that unlocked a huge realization for me.

The best runners are not out there looking for reasons to slow down; they are looking for ways to go faster.  Even when they power hike, it’s a question of how fast to power hike, not a question of slowing down.  So why was I doing this?  I contemplated this as I ran and realized that last year I had nothing to judge myself against while training for a mountain 100.  I just went out and ran.  I ran with all my heart.  When it was tough, I pushed on, and didn’t think about how hard it could be, or should be, I just ran. This whole past year, because of the doubt that last years DNF put in my mind, I was convinced that if my runs were not at least as good as last years in regards to time, and how I felt, I was going to fail at Leadville.  What I didn’t realize is that was setting me up to fail.  There is no such thing as an ‘easy’ mountain run, they are all tough, they all feel hard, but because last year I had nothing to judge it against, it all ‘felt good’ so I expected the same this year.  When I would go out and it felt hard my desire to chase my perception of the prior years runs would feed the self-doubt and I would start thinking about how much farther I had to go, then I would start finding reasons to slow down.  It was a mental trap that was literally the equivalent of pouring led into my legs.

At that run in Deer Creek Canyon, as I spiraled up and around Plymouth Mountain, I found myself running in the moment again.  For the first time in a year I was able to truly let go of the doubt that had plagued me because I understood where it came from, and how to beat it.  I was able to stop chasing the ghost of the runner I had been, and focus on being the runner I am.  I focused on reasons to go as fast as possible, and as I focused on being the best runner I could be in that moment, I found myself flying up and down the trails with a feeling of utter freedom.  I was seeing the beauty of the trails again in a way that exceeded anything I had ever experienced before.  As I looked down at my watch when I got back to the trailhead, feeling energized, fantastic, and like I could run another 100 miles, I also saw that I had run that route faster than I had ever run it before.

There is a quote from the Buddha that I really love, and feel applies to this situation perfectly:

“Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future is yet to come. Look deeply at life as it is in the very here and now, dwelling in stability and freedom.”

As I walk up to the starting line this Saturday at 4am, I will take this with me.  This year I know that the ghost of the race last year is just that, a specter that lives in the past, behind me.  I have already passed him long ago, and I do not have to worry about surpassing him, I already did that.  I will also walk up to that line knowing that no matter what happens, I will be the best runner I can be, I will be the best runner I have ever been.  When I am running through the beautiful Colorado Mountains, as long as I stay focused on every beautiful second, I will have the most amazing race I could ever hope for.

“I met an old man dying on a train
No more destination, no more pain
Well, he said ‘one thing before I graduate,
Never let your fear decide your fate
I say you kill your hero’s and fly’
-Awol Nation

me in 2003 on my first 14er adventure on the side of Longs Peak, totally unprepared!

On March 3rd, 2007, one of my best friends, Jason, and I decided to try and climb as far up Long’s Peak as possible.  A year before I had started hiking the mountains around Boulder, and we decided it was time to start playing above treeline.  We were so ridiculously unprepared for March conditions in the alpine it wasn’t even funny.  We made it just shy of Chasm Junction before we turned back, but I was hooked.

At the time, I was an angry kid (and I am perfectly fine with referring to myself as a kid at that time).  I had a huge chip on my shoulder, and spent the majority of my time in an industrial band, screaming into microphones and creating the angriest, most discordant music I could in hopes that I would someday be a rock star ala Skinny Puppy or Ministry.  I was doing this as a way of dealing with all the wrongs I felt life had tossed my way.  I was also ready to stop being so angry, and so miserable.  I wanted to wipe that chip off my shoulder.  I wanted to find a way to be happy.

I had never been super active until a couple of years before because of the asthma and other medical issues I had grown up with.  I had also struggled for years with depression and eating issues, and blamed most of my own issues on other people or my circumstances as a kid.  The music industry was full of people, many of whom were, and continue to be, good friends, who struggled with similar issues, but that world was also one that led to dealing with them in less than healthy ways; many of which I had happily joined in on.  I had also reached a point where I wanted nothing more than to let go of all of that.  As I stood on the side of that mountain with Jason, looking out at the snow capped mountains, I knew how I was going to do that.  This place, these mountains were going to be my salvation.  I was going to let go of the fear that I had let rule my life, I was going to move forward.  These mountains were going to be the path, the way to that goal.

me back in 2003 on my first foray on a 14er on the side of longs peak

me back in 2003 on my first foray on a 14er on the side of longs peak

I spent the next 10 years doing just that.  As time went by, I became more and more fit, discovered climbing, yoga, found myself in amazing places all over the Americas, found my greatest passion, Mountain Running, and most importantly found a sense of inner peace.  I also met so many incredible people, many who became great friends, some were friends for a time, and then went their own way, most I still see, all of whom I consider some of the most incredible people I have shared time with in my life.

Needless to say, I have been somewhat hesitant to complete my 14er list.  I had finished the last of the ‘ranked’ 14ers in the summer of 2011, and had let myself float on that for a while, knowing I had just one more to finish my list, and I was honestly somewhat comfortable with that.  It had, for so long, felt like I would be finishing the last page of an amazing book that had defined the person I had become.  But when Jesse and I spontaneously planned this trip up North Maroon, the last on my list, it didn’t feel that way.  I was excited.  In the 2 years since I had climbed a difficult 14er I had discovered ultra and mountain running, so I knew that this would actually just be the last part of a beautiful transition into a broader world.  I invited a couple of close friends I thought might be able to get a Wednesday off to drive to Aspen with only a days notice, and prepared my gear for the trip up to the high country.

The Climb

Jesse and I drove up to Aspen after work on Tuesday and met Phil, after some confusion, at the overnight parking lot.  I managed to get to sleep around 1045pm, and was ready, and was excited for the morning.

We woke up at 5am, and took a little longer getting rolling then we expected, and were on the trail by 6am.  To be honest, I was all right with this since we had a fantastic forecast and it meant that the Bells were lit up in Alpen Glow as we started off.

Looking over at the peaks on the approach

Looking over at the peaks on the approach

The hike in was beautiful.  It was warm, and there was light cloud cover from the humidity, which was causing me to sweat an enormous amount on the early part of the hike, which also meant I was blowing through my 3 liters of water more rapidly than I would have preferred, but the views were amazing.  Once we crossed Minnehaha Creek and were happy to find a new, and much nicer trail up to the Rock Glacier than was previously there a couple of years prior.  Gone was the hard to follow trail, and now it was a well-defined trail of rocks to the upper basin.

We followed the cairns across the rocks, and before we knew it were traversing around the mountain, making our way to the first gully.  We took a quick break to put on our helmets and headed up.

The first gully flew by, and I was starting to wander what all the hype was about.  When we made our way to the second, I knew immediately what it was about.  We paused to get some water and take some photos before starting up this long steep, and very obviously loose gully.

Jesse as we worked out way up to the ridge in the upper part of the second gully

Jesse as we worked out way up to the ridge in the upper part of the second gully

We worked out way to the base of the gully and followed the cairns as they we worked our way up the slope, careful not to send any of the millions of loose rocks down the slope below.  Up to this point we had not seen any other climbers, which we saw as a blessing.  There was plenty of scrambling to be had as we moved higher and higher up.  As we neared the top, we caught sight of a couple of climbers descending off the ridge. Some clouds were moving in, so we checked in with the climber and his guide, who let us know the clouds were not looking too bad up top, and as we climbed our way up to the ridge, we saw how right they were.  There were lots of clouds, but nothing threatening.  The forecast was definitely holding true!

The chimney was definitely spicy.  Up to that point I had done a great job centering myself and shaking off the nerves that had been building as we moved higher and higher on the steep climb up the second gully.  The reality was, I had not climbed in the high country in almost 2 years, and it was showing in my nerves and confidence in my skills that I knew I just had to dig deep and pull out.

Phil led the climb, and I went up second.  As I reached into the narrow chimney and found the holds I planned to use, I felt my heart rate shoot up, I found footing and pulled myself up, but when it came time to move my hand hold to the next hold I froze.  I lowered myself back down with some amount of vulgarity.  I took some deep breaths, told myself that this was nothing in comparison to what I could do.  I reminded myself that this was nothing to the difficulty of other mental challenges I had faced in races and other climbs.  I reached up, took a breath and climbed into the chimney.

Jesse and Phil looking at the route ahead

Jesse and Phil looking at the route ahead

That first move was by far the worst.  Once up on the first small ledge in the chimney, I felt my confidence re-emerge and the last two moves, the last of which was far more exposed than the first, were surprisingly easy and much more fun because I had let go of the mental baggage and fear.

Once we were all up, we looked above and could see climbers on the summit not far off.  Some rain and grapple fell on us as we worked our way along the ridge to the summit, but had stopped by the time we topped out.

I could not have been happier to be there, on top of that mountain, with two of my close friends, and we hung out for quite chatting, watching some climbers work their way across the traverse and being happy to be where we were before heading out.

The descent seemed to go by slowly as we carefully worked our way down the chimney, as well as the second gully.  I kept the fact that we were not really done climbing until we were done descending in the forefront of my mind, but also descending with a confidence I hadn’t had on the way up.

Phil climbing the chimney and me at the bottom - photo by Jesse Benn

Phil climbing the chimney and me at the bottom – photo by Jesse Benn

When we arrived at the far side of the Rock Glacier, we chilled out for a while, filtering some of the ice cold water and enjoying the beautiful day.  When we got to the far side of the creek, and back to runnable trail, I found myself picking up the pace, excited to be so close to the trailhead and to know I had completed the tangible goal I had set for myself 10 years before on the side of Longs Peak.

Moreover, I feel like my other goals I have come a long way on as well, due to these amazing mountains we all love so much.  Climbing, and running in the mountains has taught me that the world we live in is larger than any one of us.  When we are in the mountains, we are in a world that will continue on without regard to our existence, but that fact can, and will give us a strength that is hard to find anywhere else.  As we run, hike, or climb through the mountains, I have found that we are in charge of our own destiny; that knowledge can make us better, and happier people when we are in the larger world.  In addition, while we all have to be responsible for ourselves, and have to be accountable for our own actions and choices; we are all reliant on the people around us as well.  When we are in a world that will not stop for us, we must be willing to rely on the kindness of not just our friends, but also total strangers at times.  That reliance on each other as we pursue our individual goals, makes us all stronger, happier, and more complete people.

I want to thank everyone who has been a part of my journey.  You all know who you are!  Now I am inserting some more photos of the trip!  Enjoy!

Left to right: Phil, me and Jesse on the Summit

Left to right: Phil, me and Jesse on the Summit

me as we started up the ridge propper
me as we started up the ridge propper

Jesse topping out on the Chimney

Jesse topping out on the Chimney

Phil climbing the upper ridge

Phil climbing the upper ridge

Me maneuvering around a corner on he ridge - Photo by Jesse Benn

Me maneuvering around a corner on he ridge – Photo by Jesse Benn

Phil and Jesse traversing away from the bottom out the second gully on the descent

Phil and Jesse traversing away from the bottom out the second gully on the descent

*I know I am posting this late, but better late than never!*

As Jenn and I drove out of the Rio Grande Gorge in New Mexico, I looked at my dash to see where the next turn was and caught a glimpse of the temperature outside the car, 89 degrees.  I looked at it dumbfounded for a moment, and then watched it steadily climb to 92 degrees as we travelled down the road.

Jemez 50k Race Gear

I had been looking forward to this race for quite a while now.  It would be my first ultra since RR100 in February, and after running Fea

r the Deer Half Marathon in Denver two weeks earlier, I was feeling really good about this one.  The Jemez Mountain Trail Races have a special reputation of being the training ground for aspiring Hard Rock 100 runners.

With roughly 7000ft of total elevation gain and loss, as well as steep, unrelenting and very technical trails, this 50k was not one to be at all underestimated, and the heat would only add to the challenge.  My girlfriend, Jenn, would also be running the half marathon, along with our good friend Heather, and realizing how hot it was going to probably be prompted us to begin planning for the worst case heat scenario.  Since Jenn is reasonably new to trail running, I felt some responsibility for her being out in what looked like it might end up a repeat of the conditions we had for JJ100, only with super technical trails.

For a good part of the remainder of the night we talked strategy, and packed I made sure she had enough Saltstik Caps, which we had luckily stocked up on at Runner’s Roost in Colorado the day before we headed out.

The prerace pasta dinner (which was happily included in our race fees), was nice, and was an opportunity to get one last update on the course, as well as meet up with Heather, her husband Darrin and their kids.  After the long drive, my brain was not really functional, and I did my best to get myself focused for the race ahead so after a quick shopping trip we hit the hotel room, and I went into my normal pre-race routine.

Since Jenn was worried about her race, I gave her the smaller mala bead bracelet I wear, and pulled out the larger set of beads I keep in my messenger bag.  I decided I really, more than anything, needed to have something I could look at throughout the race to remind me of the mantra that I swore I would use in hard races to keep myself going (and went into at length in a previous entry), “My mind is empty and my body is as vast and as expansive as the sky”.  Then as I prepped, my mind also went to another mantra that a man Jenn and I had met at Mt. Everest Imports in Downtown Denver gave me to use when races got hard. I had used this in my meditation practice, and yoga, so I knew it would be an easy mantra to bring my mind back to focus mid race and remind me of why I was out there in the first place so I pulled out a bright red Sharpe and proceeded to draw the Sanskrit syllable Om on the inside of my right arm, as this would remind me of the two mantra’s, as well as bring my back to the purpose of these races for me.

Roost runners at Jemez before the race

Roost runners at Jemez before the race

I went to sleep ready to run, ready to give this race my all, and to have fun along the way.

When I woke in the morning, I quietly got my things together since Jenn had wisely decided to take advantage of a couple extra hours of precious sleep before her race.  I pulled my stuff together and headed out.

I got a great parking spot near the Posse Shack at the race start/finish.  Everything was very well organized, checking in and dropping off drop bags was super straightforward, and the race even set up porta-potties that were gender specific which made the lines go really fast.

I found my fellow Roost teammates, we took a photo and before we knew it we were off.

The Race

I honestly had few expectations in regards to the course other than it would be hard.  Running through stables certainly made the first quarter mile, well, fragrant… but before we knew it the course made a hard left, and was headed down into the canyon on really nice trails that had some technical moments that would foreshadow what was to come.

I was excited, and feeling good until a mile in when I felt my left quad start to throb.  In my head I told myself this was probably nothing, and that it was not worth letting this get in my head.  Dan Archuletta and I ran together briefly, but we were both running our own races and we parted ways about 3 miles in.  Despite the first section between the start and Mitchell Aid Station at mile 4-ish having 900 ft of elevation gain, I kept a solid pace and felt pretty good.  I was also doing a good job with keeping my mind off my quad, which was not getting any better, but I kept plugging away.

the start of the race with Dan A. right in front of me

the start of the race with Dan A. right in front of me

Right after the first aid station I found some other runners to chat with as we descended into and climbed back out of canyon’s as we worked our way around the base of the mountain.  As we climbed out of the last steep gorge, I decided it was time to think carefully about hills before I tried running up them and since I had rolled my right ankle heading down into it, I really wanted to my head on what I was doing.  I paid less attention to whether other runners were pulling ahead or not and stayed focused on my race.

I found another runner, who I would start referring to as “Golden” (since she said she was from Golden, Colorado) right before the second aid station.  When we came into Camp May Aid Station I could not have been happier.  I knew that the second worst section of climbing was done.  Between the Mitchell Aid Station and Camp May was 1500ft of climbing, which meant we were ready for the big climb up Pajarito Mountain ski area.  This meant only one BIG climb was left, and I was actually feeling jazzed, as I was not feeling too bad.  I had managed to pull my focus away from the soreness in my left quad, and my right ankle

The Camp May aid station was fantastic, well stocked, and they even had a portable shower that they had set up to let runners dump water on their heads before heading out.

This was a huge bonus that I made certain to use before heading out as the heat was settling in.

It was time to settle into the long climb.  Myself and Golden hung together for a large portion of the climb, which started out as a subtle uphill.  Initially, I wandered what the hype of this section was as we worked our way up towards the base of the ski lift.  Then the real climbing began.  After a few switchbacks we connected to a mountain bike trail that, with pretty minimal switchbacks went straight up the hill.

I quickly regretted not carrying my trekking poles, and knew they would have made a huge difference here.  A runner ahead of me (soon to be called Florida), had picked up a stick, which I quickly mimicked, and made a huge difference in balancing the exertion on my hamstrings and quads, which I wanted to save for the long descent in my hopefully not too distant future.  I was also running low on water and hoping the aid station wasn’t too far away as I started rationing.  As I climbed higher and higher, I reminded myself of the mantra.  Now that I had a stick in my hand, and my eyes were down, they fell squarely on my forearm where I had drawn the symbol ‘Om’, I started chanting mantra quietly to myself.  As we topped out near the ski patrol hut, I saw Prayer Flags and I suddenly had a centered hippy moment!  The initial gentle downhill was a great section to run, then it turned down the black diamond ski run.  Straight down…

Looking Over Los Alamos, where we started, and the climbing isnt half over yet!

Looking Over Los Alamos, where we started, and the climbing isnt half over yet!

I really underestimated this section and ran straight down it.  Near the bottom that left quad that had been talking to me the whole race, it started screaming.  I was also out of water and with the heat, was getting very thirsty.  The single track trail we turned onto would have normally been a blast for me, but with my quad, I just couldn’t get my left leg up high enough without real pain to feel confident in my ability to dodge the many rocks and obstacles on the trail.    I reminded myself that aid would be coming up soon, I would get water, and things would get better.

As we came out of the trees, and saw the Ski Lodge ahead, my heart soared.  I needed water pretty badly, and the biggest bonus, Rachael and Heather were still there.  They helped me get some coke, my stuff from my drop bag, gave me huge smiles and I was off!  Having them there was fantastic,  and the boost was immeasurable.  They kept me from spending way too much time there, and having smiling faces you know at any aid station is always a boost.

I headed out on another uphill, which would normally be runnable, but my quad was now really not cooperating.  The section between Ski Lodge and Pipeline was mostly up, and the down was the first notice that this quad issue was not going away.  Despite this, I was determined to stay positive.  At the last major uphill for a long time  (described as a couple bumps by Aid Station Staff, which was a beautiful was to minimize to keep runners positive), I pulled out my ipod, and focused.  Once I got to the top, I thought to myself how much downhill I had to go.  I was, for the first time in my trail running career, dreading the long technical down I knew I had ahead, but centered myself and went.

The trail was rocky, and I had not tightened my shoes, which led to me pounding my toes into the front of my toebox for the first quarter mile, then, in my sloppiness, my left foot missed a rock, my left big toe jammed into the front of my shoe and I could feel my toenail lift.  I pulled the pain back inside, stopped and tightened my shoes.  I wanted to take it off to assess the damage, but knew better, and kept going.  At one point, Florida passed me along with one of her friends, and was nice enough to give me a Tylenol, which I had forgotten at home.  Thanks Florida!

I called this 'the wastelands' after a while, the heat was brutal as we continued across to the canyon before 'Last Chance Aid Station

I called this ‘the wastelands’ after a while, the heat was brutal as we continued across to the canyon before ‘Last Chance Aid Station

The remaining run between that point and the Last Chance Aid Station was dusty, very hot, and technical.  I was now also feeling very timid about doing anymore damage, so I was running this technical trail very slowly.  I was averaging 12-13 minuet miles on this downhill, which for me on this type of terrain is very slow.  This is normally where I feel at home, but I was focused on keeping moving.

As we dropped into the canyon leading to the last chance aid station, the heat settled in a whole new way since it was blocking all of the breeze, but the signs the aid station staff put out were not only funny, but encouraging.

When I got there, I found that the rumors of beer were not only true, but they had homebrew one of the volunteers made.  Not only was it good home brew, it was amazing home brew, and I made sure to drink enough to mellow the soreness.  I was now determined to pass anyone I saw.  I knew we had some uphills left, but this type of friendly competition always keeps me going in hard races.  I started bringing runners into sight, and reeled them in, running as many ups as possible to do so.

Eventually I caught up to Florida and her friend, and we had a fun back and forth for the remaining mile and a half.  We were now on the trail we had gone out on, so the fun rocky gully up to the end was not really a surprise, and made me chuckle as I thought to myself this must be the Race Directors opportunity to remind us of what we had done already at the very end.  My friend Darrin was at the top taking some photos, and cheering me on.  Happily, we did not have to go back through the stables, and before I knew it, I was done.

the last climb out of the canyon right before the finish - Photo by Darrin Coffman

the last climb out of the canyon right before the finish – Photo by Darrin Coffman

I have to admit, this was a really tough race, for a lot of reasons.  That being said, it was an incredibly well run race, with fantastic volunteers and great aid stations.  This is a race I would do again, and think I would do better knowing what to expect.  The best part, I achieved my goal of running this very tough race without ever letting myself go down the road of negativity.  That was an important goal at this race for me. Ironically, this race, though tough, at least as tough as Dirty 30 in Colorado, really was the most confidence building race I have had this year.  After some of my struggles early in the year at Houston Marathon and Rocky Raccoon, I needed to remember why I love running ultra’s so much and this race did that!  I should also say that Jenn and Heather did amazing in their half marathons.  This was their first real mountain trail race and they kicked butt!

The drive back was a beautiful tour through Southern Colorado and New Mexico, and I have to say if I run this race again, I will drive again.  Jenn and I hit the Great Sand Dunes National Park ad the Stupa in Crestone, Colorado then got to drive through the Colorado Mountains all the way back home.  Life is good.

I want to put out one last thank you to my friends who were out there cheering me, and the other runners on, especially Darrin at the end and Rachael and Heather at Ski Lodge.  It was totally unexpected, and was the biggest boost in the world.  Thank you so much!!!

Jenn and Heather after kicking butt in the Half Marathon

Jenn and Heather after kicking butt in the Half Marathon