As I sat on the upper banks of the Arkansas River on Friday evening, taking my time to eat the pasta I had made the day before out of my giant Tupperware bowl listening to the water roll by, I couldn’t help but feel contented for the first time in quite a while. The sun was beginning to set behind me, throwing dramatic shadows on the mountains that line the river, and I was grateful for the opportunity I had to make it in time to check in and really relax before the race the next morning.
This race was important for me. Following my Rocky Raccoon 100 finish in February, I struggled with IT band issues. The low miles I had to run for much of March and February were really serving to demoralize me, and I was beginning to worry about my chances of not only running this race successfully, but the likelihood I would be able to train the way I need to for Leadville in August. For the last month, I had brought my miles back up, and with the dry winter in theFront Range, was able to really focus on trail running. I had also added core workouts for at least 2 hours per week. This would serve as a test of where I am at in training, my first training race leading up to Leadville.
As though that wasn’t enough, I have been struggling through a divorce, selling the house, had the first Courtproceeding for the divorce on the 24th and just prior to the race had to send my dogs to stay inCanonCity with some good friends, until everything else settled out. In short, things leading up to the race did not have me in a good place, and I felt like I needed to make this race count, not just as one of many pre-cursors to Leadville, but to help center myself in the one place that I have always been grounded in, the Colorado Mountains.
The moments on Friday evening, sitting next to that river were just what I needed. I sat, taking in the peaceful energy, centering myself and remembering the times I had sat next to this river before and after great climbs with great friends before standing up and heading back to the community center for the pre-race meeting. As I made my way into the building I saw my friend Phil and his wife. Ironically, the last time I had been out there was with Phil before heading up to climb Antero more than a year before, so it felt like things in the universe were clicking, good omens were everywhere! We sat through the pre-race meeting, chatting here and there and then took a quick walk while Phil gave me the low down on parts of the course I needed to be aware of then parted ways.
I have a long running habit of sleeping in my car at trailheads before climbs, and have done it before one other race. I purchase vehicles with this in mind, so I am able to lay out my exped mat and down sleeping bag. Its much more comfy then one might think, and I feel more a part of things. Even better, the drive is short in the morning!
I woke up ready to go. It was a chilly 21 degrees F at the start, but I pulled my bright green sleeves on, my gloves and the shell to keep warm until the start and headed out to the start. Unfortunately, Phil had some issues that were going to prevent him from running the race, but he stayed around to cheer all of his friends on that were out at the race, so it was nice seeing a friendly face as I mentally prepared for the run ahead. I looked around for others, but it was hard to pick people out in the crowd. When they called 2 minutes to start, I pulled my shell off and stuffed it in the pack.
The start was quite unceremonious, no real count down, just an air horn and someone telling us loudly to go. Everyone seemed a bit shocked for a second before we were off.
“A stranger here reborn it seems
awaking wonders deep in me.
If nothing’s ventured nothing’s gained
so I must seize the day.
And fighting time so hard I pray
that this moment lasts forever.” - VNV Nation
The course starts along the river for a short distance before it shifts onto a road that is flatish for a couple of miles before the dirt road curves and shifts into the mountains after crossing the Arkansas river. By then, the field had begun to thin out, people seemed to be settling into their pace so when we dropped off the dirt roads and onto trails around 3.25 miles. This was where the fun started, and I crossed paths with Desi. We ran together for a bit, before I dropped back a little bit, feeling like it would be a mistake for me to try to keep up at her faster pace. She is a much more experienced trail runner, so I was just happy to be able to keep up with her at all! We had a chance to chat for a bit about the course, the beautiful day, and the course to come before she headed off. Its amazing how having a friendly face out there with you, even if only for a short while makes the run so much more fun. The trail was wide single track, with plenty of fun to be had on regular ups and downs, for about a mile before dropping onto another road, and back onto single track, and then a 4wheel drive road.
I had pulled out my phone, and was running with it in my hand to try and get some impromptu photos of the course since they were so hard to find online. Besides, I have found that on long trail runs with lots of up, distracting myself when the terrain is safe by popping off shots of the route help take my focus away from any mental barriers associated with the run. With my focus off the hills, and thinking so much about the effects of the increased altitude on my performance, I was able to catch up with Desi. She was running with someone else now, so I decided to try and pass them to get a photo of them running together as they approached Aid Station # 1. Desi introduced me to the other runner, Kristin. I was happy to have another friendly face out there to cheer on, and we came into the aid station at the same time. The staff was friendly, as always, though I avoided the Heed they were serving like the black plague. I have still not figured out why they serve that awful stuff to anyone at races, or how Hammer Nutrition keeps it on their product list. I have yet to meet anyone who see’s it as even remotely tolerable. I had to slow down to make adjustments to my pack, losing a couple of minutes, but I knew waiting would only slow me more in the end.
From here the course rolled through beautiful hills, continuing to move steadily upwards. Desi and Kristin had moved out in front of me when I slowed to fix my pack, but were still barely in sight, so I started chatting with a guy from Americore as we moved up the road through some of the most beautiful race course I have been on. Then the course started to go up. An amazing number of runners pushed upwards, running steep hills that I knew I should be alternating between power hiking and running. I tried to focus hard on my heart rate, and keeping that at an even rate, rather than letting it spike too high on the long ups.
The nearly continuous hill was broken by periodic, but very short downs, but they made it seem more manageable. The grade on the road wasn’t bad during this sustained hill, but over time it really started taking its toll. Just when it was starting to get in my head, the course turned down hill. Everyone clearly enjoyed this change and everyone seemed to be settling into a pretty quick pace as we came up on 10.5 miles, before we saw the first real wall hill. Some of the previous hills were steep, but not like this. When you run the course, you will know what I’m talking about when you see it!
This one stood out like a sentinel and was not messing around. It was maybe 50-100 feet tall over a very short distance. The people who tried to run it, moved slower then the ones power hiking it. Once we got to the top, we were treated to amazing panoramas of the entire southernSawatch Range from Harvard all the way to Tabeguache and Shavano on the southern end of the range. The trail dropped rapidly again, turning just enough to show us that this wall hill thing was going to repeat. Each hill brought the runners to a hike speed, but each time the top offered the amazing views, and yet another downhill. To give a sense, it was like running hill repeats at Ruby Hill inDenverbut at 9,000ft during a race and with better views! Just when I felt like I was in a groove, we came to the top of the last hill in the rollercoaster and saw the second aid station.
Everyone was excited to see the friendly faces from the local Optimist Club (these guys are great and do fantastic stuff for their communities) manning the aid station. This time I grabbed some pretzels, some water, and headed out. The course between Aid Station 2-3 is nearly all downhill. The first stretch was exposed to the strong wind and I found myself pulling out my shell and gloves as I ran to ward off the chills that were setting in. The course it seemed wanted to keep us on our toes no matter where we were, going up, or down! Still, I took advantage of the shift in muscle use and picked up the pace. I caught up to Kristin again, but Desi seemed to be long gone. I chatted for a bit with another runner named Doug, and in no time we were at the mile 14.5 aid station. From what Phil and David had told me, things were all uphill for while after this aid station, which was confirmed by the volunteers. As we came in one of the volunteer’s let all the runners coming in know that they were unsure of the status of the next aid station, so to make sure we had everything we needed. This was a good excuse to fill up the hydration pack, and grab some cookies as I headed out, feeling good. About a half mile out of AS #3, the course started uphill. Again, the grade wasn’t awful, but it was continuous. From mile 15 to mile 18, it was up. I did my best to continue to mix power hiking and running along with every other person on the course. After a mile, the field finished settling out, and even though you might briefly pass another runner, as you tried to get some running in, they passed you as they did the same.
I gave in and pulled out my headphones halfway up. As I rounded the last corner and saw a group of vehicles, and the orange coolers that all the other aid stations were using, I got excited. Again, both Phil and Coach David had told me that it was mostly downhill from AS #4, and even better, the AS was there! I got out quickly, opting not to linger, but within a quarter mile realized the dirt in my shoes was going to be a problem, and my toes were hitting the front of my shoe consistently. This was shifting my gate, which wasn’t something I wanted to continue. I thought back on everything I know about what I have done wrong in the past, the first of which is figuring I will grin an bear issues to the point it drags me down so instead I stopped, and made the adjustments. Before I knew it I was moving again and I was passing people! I was making up time, and people I thought I would be with for the rest of the race were falling far behind. As I crossed mile 20, the 50 mile front runner came tearing up the hill looking really strong. I felt good, looked at my watch, and in the low 4 hour range, I realized I might be able to come in under 5 hours. As though that wasn’t enough, I was feeling at home, like all my other worries were irrelevant here. I felt like this is where I belong, this is where no matter how hard it may feel at times, amazing things happen inside each of us. Running through the trees above theArkansasValleybelow was just what my soul needed.
To my surprise, after mile 20, the course flattened out a good deal. While the grade was overall down, it wasn’t the steep down I had gotten used to, and now that I was on flatter terrain, I was starting to feel the beating the bottom of my feet was taking on the rocks and very hard dirt from the super dry winter. On my first 20 mile run on the Rocky Raccoon Course back in November 2011 I had the same thing happen. I kept running, and did my best to keep my pace up, but the pain in the balls of my feet started to really get into my head. There was an unexpected Aid Station at mile 22. I slowed down to crab 2 more cookies, and as I walked out with an older gentleman, trying to get my cookies down, and get out of my head with the pain in my feet, noticed he was limping and seemed to be really struggling. He didn’t have any electrolyte or salt replacement and said he was cramping badly. I took off my pack, and not thinking gave him my last 2 Saltstik caplets, figuring he needed them much more, and my only Tylenol, figuring I only had 3 miles left. Besides, I remember well the aid station volunteer at RR100 giving my pacer a bunch of Endurolytes to get me through my race there, so I felt like maybe I was giving back a bit.
I ran on, but found myself struggling more and more. A mile later I realized I really should have kept and taken one of the 2 capsules I gave the gentleman, as I was cramping a bit since I had not taken one in 2 hours now. I was also thinking about that Tylenol as my feet kept burning at the balls of my feet. I did my best to push it out of my head, and to just go. I think part of that was in my head, now that I didn’t have the Tylenol I was thinking about how I could use it. The last mile and a half went quickly, and the 50 milers were coming up the hill in earnest. When I came to the trail that I had sat looking at the night before as I ate my pasta, I knew I just had to keep moving just a bit longer, and finish strong, and I would still have a sub 5 hour time. I kept running the last half mile, pulling out my headphones to keep myself focused where it needed to be, on staying strong through the end while pushing the foot pain out of my head as best I could. It was at this point I saw another runner passing me on my right as I rounded the corner and saw the finish line. I felt a surge of competitive spirit surge in me, there was no way I was getting passed in the last two tenths of a mile! Neither one of us was winning squat out of this, but this was about me running against me, and this guy now. I thought back on the Loretto Heights Speed workout, and what Coach David told us to do with that workout, run hard, make the last part of the repeat count and run hard through the end of the repeat so I dropped it into gear. So did the other guy. My feet were killing me, but there was no way he was finishing ahead so I pushed on as hard as I could and I entered the shoot ahead, effectively trapping him behind me, but just like the Loretto Heights repeat, I didn’t stop until I crossed that line. I finished in 4:54:36 per my GPS watch. I could not have been happier! Even though my feet were hurting, my ITB was fine, I felt great as far as my cardio went, and I took 1:54 minutes off of my last 25 mile mountain trail race a year ago.
The end of the race atmosphere was pretty chill, I sat in the sun while eating a hummus wrap (happiness was a couple vegetarian options for the runners) and enjoyed the collective relief that we were done and didn’t have another 25 miles to go!
The run was everything I needed it to be! It was a huge morale boost and I am feeling like I am where I need to be in my Leadville Training. There is something about these mountains, and about these races. They seem to bring out the best in us as humans. These runs through the hills seem to make us find a place in our souls where no one and nothing can touch us, where negativity is thrust aside and optimism is the weapon of choice. To say that is healing, is a dramatic understatement, it’s transforming and every race drives that home a little bit more.
“It was a day so long awaited and a chance to be as me.
I let the wind run through my hands
before I turned to walk away.
In distant days I long to sense it all so clear.
And fighting time so hard I pray
that this moment lasts forever.” - VNV Nation