Archive for September, 2011

Back Story

The first time I ever heard about ultra racing, I was in a car on my way to climb Mount of the Holy Cross with one of my closest friends, Jason.  I had started running a year before, and was loud and proud about my stance that running was “only to train for climbing, I will never be one of those people who actually likes running”.  Once he finished telling me about the people who would run 50 to 100 miles at a stretch, all I could do was wonder at how anyone could ever do that, followed by a rapid proclamation that I would never be able to run those types of distances.  I thought that people who do those things are a different type of person. As a climber, I was not in bad shape, but my asthma had been a lifelong barrier to me doing anything truly spectacular in the realm of athletics.  I always fought the limits my asthma put in front of me, but it was impossible for me to imagine myself ever being in the type of shape it would take to run a marathon, let alone an ‘ultra’ marathon.

Fast forward to October 2010.  I had met up with a friend, Lisa, to run a 10.5 mile race in Bear Creek Lake Park.  I had originally met Lisa when I was just a teenager in College, and met her through her then boyfriend, now husband.  We lost touch until the wonders of Facebook, and the realization that we had both taken up running.  We had run together some while i was training for the Pikes Peak Ascent and her the full marathon.  In the process of training, I had really come to look up to Lisa as a strong runner and marveled at the distances she was running as training.   Lisa had, weeks before the 10-spot, finished her first 50 mile race at the first Bear Chase and I was excited to hear her talk about the race.  She was the first person I had ever met who had run an ultra-marathon and I was in awe.  It sounded so painful and so far beyond what I could ever do, but by the time the 10.5 mile race was done, her story of finishing that race inspired me to consider running an ultra, but I was still on the fence.  I had only ever run 16 miles before, how could I ever run 50k, let alone 50 miles?

We sat around after the 10-spot, and chatted about the Fruita trail races in April, and after hearing how difficult it could be, initially decided against it.  Despite this, Lisa was a person with a job and life obligations, but she was able to make it happen.  Her hard work inspired me, making me wonder if I could ever do something like that…

I spent the next couple of months seriously considering signing up for the Fruita 50 mile race.  If i did, I would need to begin training in December, right after getting back to Colorado from my three-week climbing trip in the Andes.  But when I got back, I had to delay the start of training due to a longer then expected recovery period after the long trip in South America, and as the end of January approached with me having only ever run 16 miles, I had written it off.  Then Lisa asked me if I would be willing to commit to pacing her for a little bit over 26 miles of the Leadville 100 that coming August.

I knew I could train up to that by August, but was worried about how I could be of help to her if I had no idea where she was at mentally and physically as we walked out of Winfield after she had already run 50 miles.  From what she described as my duties as a pacer, I knew that I would need to be able to truly empathize with her, but at the same time be able to motivate her to keep moving.  Without ever having experienced the difficulties associated with running further then 16 miles, I knew I could not be as effective as if I had at least attempted a 50 mile race.  I decided right there that I needed to attempt an ultra before August.  I had a job to do in August, and this would be part of my training on how to do the job, so I signed up for the Fruita 50 the last week of January, leaving me about 2 months to train.  It was not enough.  But after being forced to drop to the 25 mile race, which I completed, I not only learned a lot of valuable lessons about hydration, nutrition and training but I was bitten by the Ultra bug.

The community of runners were so down to earth, so friendly.  They were a lot like ice climbers.  Everyone did their bet to encourage and look after everyone else while pushing themselves as hard as possible.  Aside from that, in my training for Fruita, I had begun to really fall in love with running.  It was becoming more than something I did for fun as long as it was 3-4 miles.  Now it had become an activity like climbing, where the longer I could be out running, the happier I became.  There was joy in this.  Within days of getting back to Denver after Fruita, I decided to run the Greenland 50k.  I finished that race, but not until after I again learned a lot of lessons about endurance running in the heat.  I learned about the highs and lows of the races, as well as how my body reacts.  I got home, resolved to sign up for the Bear Chase 50 mile race.  But this time I would train right.

I had been participating in periodic drop in runs with Runners Edge of the Rockies, but it was time to actually join.  I signed up for the summer/fall session, and decided to do speed training as well.  Pacing Lisa in Leadville from Winfield to Fish Hatchery went awesome, and as race day approached, there was no good reason at all I shouldn’t finish, except for myself.

The Race

Sleep the night before the race I had trained so hard for did not come easy at all.  Dream after dream I went to the wrong place or missed the race, so i woke right up when my alarm broke the early morning silence.

I made my way over to Bear Creek Lake Park in the dark and arrived a little bit over an hour early since we were allowed to park inside the park this year, but the map sent out by the Race Director made it clear that close in parking would be limited.   The last thing I would want is to have to walk a long ways back to my car post race.  My timing worked, and I arrived early enough that I was right near the start/finish, drop bag spot, and ended up parked right near my friend Lisa.

The drop bags area was conveniently set up right next to the start/finish of each loop, which would make accessing the bags much easier at the end of loops, and there was even a dedicated porta potty reserved for the ultra runners during the race.  It was clear that the RD was going out of his way to make the race as friendly as possible for the runners.

We lined up at the start as they called the runners to the start.  The sun was providing just enough light that we wouldn’t need our headlamps, but it was still just dim enough that you could not see a long distance down the trail, which I knew quite well from training runs.  Standing so near the start, this felt different than any training run, I felt antsy, I wanted the race to start, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do this.  Before we knew it, the race began!  As we ran through the start, a friend and co-worker that would be running the half marathon was there cheering me on, giving me that morale boost that had me starting the race smiling.

Lisa (in red) Paul (in black) and myself (in white) about 2 miles into the race

Running down the trail for the first mile felt great.  I was running a reasonable pace that felt solid, but not too fast.  I was with Lisa at this point as well as a runner I had been on some training runs with Paul and a woman named Deirdre (whose traveling cheering section would be one of the high points later in the day).  We could hear the 50k start as we came into the first aid station where one of my pace group leaders, Sheila, was manning the station.  It was nice to know that there was someone out at that aid station that would be a smiling face along the way, and someone I would know would notice if I didn’t make it back through each loop.

The rest of loop one was uneventful, but exciting.  I used this loop to gauge where aid stations were and how I could use them for the rest of the race, as well as how I might be able to use the terrain to help me along the way.  It’s a trick I learned in mountaineering a long time ago, and must be useful here.  I planned how I could use shade, and creeks to cool myself off as necessary if it got too hot later on.

into the creek!

Another thing that excited me was seeing so many people I knew from Runners Edge working the aid stations.  It was nice to see smiling face after smiling face. Paul, Lisa and I finished the first lap strongly.  I grabbed a gel and Energy Bean packet and was off.  I was eating solid food at all of the aid stations but really wanted to work to keep electrolytes up.  As Paul and I rounded the creek, I realized I had forgotten to put bandaides on my nipples, and I was starting to feel them.  The first loop was in cool temps, but it was heating up fast and I would need to start watching for chafing, and bloody nipples were not something I wanted to flirt with at this point in the race. I decided to take my shirt off, and as much as I hate running shirtless (I am not exactly ripped) because keeping myself comfortable made much more sence then letting my pride force me into unnecessary discomfort.

I was happy to find petroleum jelly at the next aid station that I was able to use, pulled my shirt back on and anxiously looked back for Lisa.  She had fallen way behind and even though I knew I had to run my own race needed to know that my friend was ok.  She was almost to the aid station right as we were about to head out, so I stopped and waited for her to come in. I checked in with her and she was struggling, so I kept my pace to hers long enough to check in with her and make sure she was keeping moving.  This worked better for me anyways since the pace I had been going wasn’t really sustainable so I was able to find my own pace pretty quickly and found myself out on my own.  By the time I came back up on the biggest hill in the race, called Mt Carbon, the heat was really pounding down.  I pulled off my bandana since it wasn’t breathing enough and held it in my free hand as I ran down the hill.

starting down Mt Carbon on the second loop

After the creek crossings I started to struggle.  I used my bandana to splash water on my head, but not as much as I would have liked.  As I crossed the exposed section of the loop, the heat started taking its toll.  After leaving the third aid station I saw Phil, a great guy from speed training, sitting at one of the critical trail turns helping people go the right way.  He asked how I was and I remember clearly telling him that it was really hot, but i could start the third loop and if I could start the third loop I could finish it.  If I could finish the third loop I could start the fourth, and if I could start the fourth I would finish.  I had to stay positive!

Shortly after seeing Phil, Lisa caught up to me and was looking strong again.  I ran with her into the end of the second loop feeling really rough. I knew I might feel this way at some point I the race, and just kept telling myself that no matter how I felt, I couldn’t always get worse.  If I hung in there, it would eventually get better.  I used the opportunity to get my running hat out, dropped my bandana next to my bag and left the aid station.  I crammed honey stinger chews down my throat as I walked and put my headphones in.

Lisa and I finishing Loop 2

Lisa caught up quickly after taking care of some things at the start/finish area.  I did my best to run with her but just couldn’t and knew that this was the point I would lose her, maybe to leapfrog again.  I struggled to get back to the Pelican Point aid station. Sheila asked how I was doing and I told her I was hurting.  They convinced me to take food, but it made me feel sick to my stomach so I took more chews with me.  They also put some ice in my hat for me, which I ended up sucking on instead of leaving in my hat.

About a half mile out of the aid station I decided to take my shirt back off.  At this point it was all about staying cool.  I could care less about appearances, I just wanted to get cool.  I also realized that I had really not been drinking enough.  I knew I had several miles to the next aid station, but I had to empty my water bottle by the time I got there.  I hadn’t even had the urge to pee in 25 miles, and I did not take this as a good sign.  The creek crossings were fantastic on this loop.  I used them to completely submerge my shirt in the water and squeeze it over my head as I trudged across, getting several shirt dunks in per crossing.  That really helped with the cooling off and when I got into the second aid station was ready to start drinking everything I could.

The volunteers there were wonderful!   They filled my water bottle with ice, water and poweraide which I promptly drank, refilled and then hit the soda.  Solid food wasn’t happening so I was all about the liquid calories!  More ice went in my hat, which went on my head loosely to let the cold water seep onto me as I started out for my their trek through the exposed area.  The ice water in my bottle felt really great on my hand, and seemed to energize me as well.  I found myself able to run more than I thought I would.  Shut my brain off to anything other than the music and putting one foot, in front of the other as quickly as I could.  I resolved myself to emptying my bottle by the time I got to the next aid station which I did.

When I arrived, Phil was there and helped with my water (I think, I know he was there, but the rest of that particular aid station was a blur) and cheered me on.  Another runner said something about missing the cutoff if we didn’t move quickly, and said something about then only having 3 hours left to finish the last loop.  I don’t think I responded to that, but just told myself I would worry about that when the time came.  Once I reached the top of the last hill I ran almost all of the rest of the way in, seeming to see Phil or the folks in Orange cheering every time i felt like walking. As I turned onto the road for the quarter-mile road run to the end of the loop, a volunteer from Runner’s Roost asked how I felt, and I remember forcing a smile and saying that I felt like I had run 37 miles.  He told me he would see me as I came in to finish and cheered me on as well.  I crossed the chip timing mat that marked the end of the third loop with 10 minutes to spare before the 3pm cutoff to start the last loop.

David, the running coach from Runner Edge saw me come in and came over to tell me that I had this race, just one more lap left.  All I could think of was what the other runner said about time, how would I do this in 3 hours as tired as I felt? Then he told me I had 3:40 to finish it.  It took me a minute to absorb that but when I realized I had that much time, I knew I could do it, if I forced myself to.  Then an aide station volunteer came over and gave me another pep talk, helping me refill my bottle a couple of times and with my bandana.  Between Davids pep talk and all of her help, I was ready to head out… But where did my belt go?  Shit!  I threw it in the trash! I grabbed it frantically and headed out, energized, and with the goal of making this loop count!  The pep talks I received helped more than I can express!  They put me back in the right mental state, which I have come to believe is half the battle.

As I moved out, I told myself I could finish this.  I started singing along with songs out loud since I was pretty much alone at this point!  Sheila saw me come in, and another Runners Edge member I knew was at the Pelican Point aid station.  Sheila asked me how I was doing, and this time I said ‘I’m going to finish this!’.  They helped me get water and gave me chews, telling me just to at least suck on then if I couldn’t force myself to chew them, and I headed out again.  At each marker I would tell myself how close I was and how I would finish, finding myself running stronger and each time I passed another landmark.  I even started overtaking other runners along the way.  The bright orange shirts of the support crew for a runner named Deirdre were a huge boost too.  They cheered everyone that came through, and at random points you would hear them burst out in bells and cheers urging each runner along!  To say they were awesome is a gross understatement!  It brought a smile to my face each time, and hearing them say how awesome it was that I had come this far each time boosted my confidence that I would finish this.

By the time I was back at the second aid station of the loop, I found myself looking at the exposed stretch along Morrison Road with contempt, this time it wouldn’t let me think I was beat!  I thanked the awesome volunteers at that station as I left and hit the trail.  I made my way along the trail and before I knew it was at the last aid station.  I was happier to be there then I could say.  When in I came into the aid station I was very quiet and did not say much.  I was so happy with the realization that I really would finish and was so happy to see the smiling happy and encouraging people at the aid station that I was getting a bit emotional and worried that I might become overwhelmed with it if I said anything.

I left the aid station and the song “Solosbury Hill” by Peter Gabriel came on and I felt like it was particularly appropriate for the moment as I made my way up the last hill of the course.  I was singing to myself as I worked my way up and over.  I resolved to run the last two miles in and only stopped once to walk on a short gentle uphill, so I could put my headphones away.  I wanted to hear my finish and really feel it without the filter of sound.  As I came up on the last major trail split, once of the people from Runners Edge who had been so supportive at the last aid station for so long was there cheering me on, telling me that it was close and to stay strong.

When i got to the road for the last quarter-mile in, the Runner’s Roost volunteer who had been there when I passed in a bad state my third loop smiled at me and encouraged me to keep it up and that it was all down hill on the way in.  I kept myself moving as fast as I could, hearing the sounds of the finish line, and when I turned the last corner and saw the finish and the clock and the crowds, I felt overwhelmed by emotion.  As I came in everyone around started cheering and I could hear my friends from Runner’s Edge and the Coach cheering me as I crossed the finish.

I swore to myself coming in that I would not get overly emotional when I got done, and to be honest don’t know that I would have had the energy to express strong feelings of happiness.  Lisa and her husband Jim were both there to congratulate me as was David.  Sheila came around the corner and congratulated both Lisa and I on our finish, and we thanked her for all of her help.

I completely forgot about the finish festival because I was so mentally spent, and just kept thinking to myself, I know I could do more if I had to!  Rocky Raccoon 100, here I come!

I do want to thank the race director for his obviously meticulous planning and race support, every single volunteer who was out on the course as well as the spectators and other racers (specifically Lisa, Paul and Dierdre).  What I have come to love about ultra races is how great everyone is, how supportive the culture is and how uplifting people are. It felt like a community of people all supporting each other as much as a race.  This truly became a spiritual experience for me, fighting my own demons and forcing myself to grow my own inner strength while allowing my spirit to be refilled by the amazing people around me.  This race will, without a doubt become a yearly race for me.  I could not imagine a better place to have a wonderful experience running 50 miles then this course.