Monday, September 14, 2009

O Telluride, Where Art Thou? The 36th Annual Imogene Pass Run Race Report

"You seek a great fortune, you three who are now in chains. You will find a fortune, though it will not be the one you seek. But first... first you must travel a long and difficult road, a road fraught with peril. Mm-hmm. You shall see thangs, wonderful to tell. You shall see a... a cow... on the roof of a cotton house, ha. And, oh, so many startlements. I cannot tell you how long this road shall be, but fear not the obstacles in your path, for fate has vouchsafed your reward. Though the road may wind, yea, your hearts grow weary, still shall ye follow them, even unto your salvation."

-The Blind Seer Monologue, O Brother Where Art Thou

The above is from one of my all-time favorite flicks, O Brother Where Art Thou, which is loosely based on Homer's The Odyssey. I saw enough things, wonderful to tell, on the way from Ouray to Telluride, that you wouldn't see anywhere else, and the scene referenced above just kind of entered my brain somewhere along the way. But, let's start from the very beginning.

Last year was was my first go at the Imogene Pass Run. I was a tad bit injured, doing marathon training mileage for the first time ever, and generally not a natural mountain goat like some other runners. Still, I made it over the mountain in a time of 4:41 and change, taking my time to do it carefully, and kind of came out of the thing with an extra layer of skin that was a huge benefit to me for my first marathon two months later. I quickly forgot the times on the way over the mountain when I would think to myself, "If I finish this, I promise to never do it again." Like many other IPR runners, it took not more than a few hours to start plotting and planning for the next year, and how I was going to do it better the next time around.

Fast forward a year. Not only did I sign up again within hours of the race opening (a good move, as it sold out in a record 24 hours this year), but my partner in crime from the 2008 IPR, Ilana was back, along with fellow Colorado runner and friend Jen, and two girls from Nebraska-Jana and Cara-whom we'd encouraged to sign up after they expressed serious interest in making the trip for the 2009 race. The Nebraska girls hit the road together, I picked up Jen an hour south of my home, Ilana came up from Durango, and soon we had all convened in Ouray for this weekend adventure.

After the orientation, which features a slide show of previous IPR's, current weather conditions and other anecdotes (my personal favorite being race founder Rick Trujillo's "don't just sit there on a rock cryin', lady!" story incorporating the "Incessant Forward Motion" mantra). Then, it was off to dinner for the Nebraska girls, while Ilana and I hung with them and ordered some yummy dessert. Jen was fighting a bug and headed back to the motel in the hopes of sleeping it off and holding off a full blown bug for a day or two. Lots of obsession over race day wardrobe continued to the point of being comical. I struggled to remember what I wore the year before (pants? shorts? tutu?) and where I'd pinned my number. We finally headed back to our rooms to lay things out and get some shut-eye.

I hoped it was not a harbinger of things to come when I woke up on my own a minute or two after 6 a.m. to see that the alarm set for six had never gone off. As it turns out, we had indeed set the alarm for the right time, but the clock itself was twelve hours off, and reading 10 a.m. the night before. Luckily, that race day body clock seems to get people up and moving most of the time, alarm or not.

I took my gear bag and Jen's gear bag to the gear truck (actually, a yellow school bus where I just climbed aboard and stuck our bags on a seat) while she waited in line at a coffee shop to score us some bagels. Final weather condition announcements were made, and after some very sketchy forecasts during the previous three days, it appeared that any bad weather might just hold off until the afternoon. Excellent. I thought that this might just be a good day for me.

This was such a different situation this year for me this year compared to a year ago. I am pretty much 100% healthy, have been maintaining that 45-55 mpw range for a good year now, have now finished two marathons and did some work improving my trail form, as well as getting in a high altitude 20-miler two weeks prior. Okay, okay, so we wound up getting our butts kicked in the final miles of that 20-miler. I had blue lips and nail beds by the end. Good stuff. Still, I was feeling like I could beat the prior year's time, and I had this "I Feel GRRR-Reat!" time goal of 4:15. We awaited the final countdown, and off we went. Oh, wow. I am really doing this again. I've had the Imogene Kool Aid.

Between the uphill and downhill, I most definitely handled the uphill better last year. The goal for me this time was to do the same, try to get the best hiking stride I could in the places I couldn't run, and run the runnable sections as fast as I could without sending my heart rate out of this world. I don't have any heart rate gadgets, but decided to follow Jen's school of thought where you just dial back as soon as you feel that heart rate rising. This made sense, and coupling that with my own "run the mile you're in" magic mantra, I was pleasantly surprised that there was really nothing negative going through my head as I started to scramble up the hill with this sea of humanity.

As we moved through the first few miles, I would alternate the power hiking and running as needed, and seemed to be keeping things under control. Around mile three, I looked over to see a curious stuffed animal peeking out of a backpack. Getting closer, I saw that this animal was a monkey. Hardy-har-har. No, seriously. I chuckled at that. I overheard a couple going up together, one saying to the other "You know, these mountains-they don't care." I smiled at that-"the mountains don't care" is the other Rick Trujillo mantra that he wants people to understand before they enter this race, and that you should be well prepared for the mountains. Because, well, yeah. You get it. Another woman joked to her race partner, while passing a rock "Okay-time to make a choice!" in reference to the woman crying on the rock in Rick Trujillo's story, in which he also told her "You gotta make a choice, lady! It's 7.5 miles back down to Ouray, or 9.5 over to Telluride!" (and, for the record, the woman referenced in the story gave up and headed back to Ouray).

I knew I'd made it to the summit in shortly over three hours the year before, and it seemed like I was probably making similar time on the way up. My effort was in the very hard range, make no mistake about it. This year, though, it was hard without struggle, if that makes sense. The feeling of strength with each completed mile kept me going. I banished from my head the reference a local runner here had made to this being a "death march." When stuff got really hard, I'd turn to look at the mountains and trees, or listen to the water in the rivers. This is going to sound more than a little wierd, but when I passed a guy leaning against a tree that stuck out over a ledge, literally peeing down a deep ravine, I thought "how cool is that?" Seriously..this guy's inner little boy was clearly at play here. Pee in a nice safe spot...or hundreds of feet in the air? Off a cliff makes for a better story, and you don't get a lot of chances to do that.

I periodically checked my time as the air grew thinner, but there was no obsessing about splits today. I just wanted to check my times at Upper Camp Bird (7.6 miles up-there is a 2 hour and 30 minute time limit to get there), the summit (4 hour and 30 minute time limit here), and the finish. I realized that I was a little ahead of last year's pacing when I got to Upper Camp Bird, which pleased me. I was slow, but steady with this last year, and never had to stop for self-motivation or pep talks. I reached the 7.6 mile point in 2:02:29, plenty of time to spare before that cutoff. I stopped to pull out my gloves for the hike to the summit, take a few photos, and load up on all the great munchies at this rest stop, just like the year before. Then, it was off for the steepest part of the uphill.

This last section to the summit is where you start to see people struggling with the altitude. Breathing becomes very labored for most, even the fittest of the fit. The footing is rocky and slippery. People were trudging on, though, and you just had to smile when folks looked up and said "look, there's the summit!" off in the distance. At around the nine mile mark, I saw guys on both sides of me stopping, hunching over, and not looking uphill. Before I could even get the words out, someone else behind me said "INCESSANT FORWARD MOTION" loudly. The guys pulled their heads up and you could just see them willing themselves to get the legs moving forward again. Me...I was fighting too. I would take a step up and kind of hover for a second, feeling like I was going to fall backwards, and finally fall forward onto the other foot. This was serious baby-stepping our way to the summit.

Finally, we hit the last single-track line of ants marching to the summit. This actually evens out some, and I felt like I could go faster, but because of the narrow trail and heavy, slippery rock on either side, I stayed in line. I was antsy, though, seeing that I was painfully close to reaching the summit in three hours. I could hear the cowbell, and the wonderful woman who stands there hollering encouragement endlessly to runners. That lady, and the guy with the cowbell rock, and keep you going through the final stretch. At long last, I jogged smiling to the summit in a time of 3:00:46. In that three hour range by a nose!

It was then time for some chicken noodle soup at the summit, a few photos on my crappy disposable camera (I hope they turned out! Didn't want to bring our new camera up there and wreck it a few weeks after we had to buy it), and smiling as I looked down to Ouray on one side, and Telluride on the other side of the summit. Not wanting to lose too much time, I got my things together and started heading toward Telluride. This is the shot they got of me on the downhill. It never looks as steep to me in the photo as it felt going down.

Now, here's where things fell apart for me last year-sort of. It was the longest race I had done to date, though I'd already put in a 20-miler and several 17 and 18 milers back home. Running on a road is very different from mountain terrain, though, especially after that ten mile ascent. I'd slipped and slid my way down the hill, not ever hurting myself but just not having great confidence, and feeling very tired. I passed no one in that 7.1 mile stretch last year, and took much longer than otherwise evenly matched runners did coming down.

This year, though, I felt stronger. Not like a mountain goat, but like my little bit of added trail work and altitude run had helped. I was careful for that first two miles down. This is the area where they see the most injuries and falls at IPR. Legs have been going uphill for ten miles, and now you're switching gears and muscle groups-on muscles that are pretty tired as it is. I checked my watch and knew I'd run faster than last year in the end, but it seemed like I was not going to make that 4:15 stretch goal.

The incline evened out just a little bit, and this is where things changed. I liken downhill trail running to skiing, and that first time the advanced beginner or intermediate runner tries something with a steeper pitch. They cautiously move side to side on the trail, follow other people's lines, and generally do what they think is playing it safe. I did this last year at IPR, but this year I finally got it that it was more efficient and easier to point DOWNHILL, and had the confidence to go downhill for the first time, not side-to-side, letting gravity help me, and choosing my own path. Water and rocks in the way? Well, if my body's moving that way, why not let gravity get me there, and just focus on where I want my feet to land next? I could not believe that this felt (almost) comfortable.

I stopped at one aid station for some Gatorade, and could feel the lactic acid building in my quads. I realized that I needed to just power through and finish, skip the next aid station altogether, and not give my body a chance to realize how tired it was getting. As I kept moving on, I was gaining momentum and passing people. Holy crap. I didn't pass a soul last year, and this year, not a soul was passing me on the downhill. I checked my watch around mile 14. It would be a real stretch for a 4:15 finish, but if I could finish as strong and fast as I could, I might just make it. I kept moving along, feeling more confident with each step and (almost) like a mountain runner.

The trail was now evening out just a bit more, and I really gunned it coming in to that final mile. Tourists and hikers were now starting to dot the Telluride side of the trail, and I just kept lifting those knees so I wouldn't take a last minute digger in a moment of broken concentration. I looked at my watch again. Crap, I'm going to be close. Go, go, GO!

I final took that final turn, two city blocks down the street to the finish line. YES! I am going to make it. I crossed the finish of the 36th Annual Imogene Pass Run in a time of 4:14:12. This officially moved me out of the back-of-the-pack and solidly into the midpack this time around. For something that does NOT come naturally for me, and took a lot of work to gain that experience and relative confidence on mountain terrain, this average finish time made me giddy.

I was soon greeted by Ilana, then Cara, and found out that Cara had aced the course in 3:40:XX. We got "Nebraska'd," as Ilana put it. We were thrilled for Cara, and all the more impressed that the flatlander had kicked such impressive butt out there. Ilana and Jen had a photo finish, coming in right around 3:55 together, with Jen getting squeaking ahead by a nose. Jana had a previous injury, much like me a year ago, and really wanted to run smart and safe this time, and soak in all the beauty of the route. She came in just over the five hour mark, ecstatic to have made it over and to have enjoyed herself along the way. And, like many other IPR finishers, we were all talking about next year just minutes after the finish.

I hope to have some pictures to share in the next week-and details of all the other celebration that took place at Imogene '09. It was a blast, and well worth the fried quads I'm dealing with today. If you have made it through this epic race report, thank you for reading. It was indeed an awesome odyssey, loaded with sights, sounds and startlements that you cannot find anywhere else.

One truly final note-Jana designed some awesome Imogene Pass Run short sleeved tech shirts for our little group, and took care of getting them up on, ordered, and ready for us on race day. We all wore the shirt over the hill or at some point before or after. We had lots of people stopping to ask about the shirt, so in case anyone winds up on my blog searching for the shirt, it can be found here. This is the tech shirt and the most expensive variety-you can also get it made with non-technical fabrics cheaper. Make sure you check out the front AND back of this awesome shirt.


Anonymous said...

Woo! Way to go, juicebag! You're gonna go sub-4 next year!

Mama said...

Wow! Great job!

MCM Mama

L.A. Runner said...

Awesome job to all the ladies! Your weekend sounds like so much fun, with all the girls, etc! Congrats on a super race. I'll also say that the pic of you bundled up for cold-weather running practically made me drool! I think I've forgotten what it feels like to be cold during a run.

SimonSays said...

Karah - Amazing experience! I LOVE to read your reports - I felt like I was right there with you! Next year - I hope to be there with you!!!

Black Bear! said...

Yeah! What a great race. I love the passing on the downhill. Nice pic, wow, I forgot until I saw your pants that it might actually be cold there. Brrr.


HappyTrails said...

Thanks for sharing your race report. I found your blog via The Pinkcorker. You ladies inspire me to want to try Imogene next year!!! Yes, passing people is an awesome feeling - keep up the great work!