A few people already know how the day went for me. For just the facts, ma'am, look no further. It was a beautiful blue sky day in Colorado on Saturday September 11th. I ran my fastest times ever to the Upper Camp Bird checkpoint and summit, hitting both of my time goals with everything going perfectly to plan. It all went south on the downhill. I had cramping up and side stitches, which is something I have never experienced in a race before. I also had my first fall ever in the three times I have completed this race, spilling some blood and rattling the confidence. In the end, my sub-4 goal was not to be, nor was it even a PR day. Still, when all is said and done, it's a privilege to get to do this race, and be healthy enough to make the trip from Ouray to Telluride the hard way.
Upper Camp Bird time (7.6 miles): 1:58:12
Summit time (10 miles): 2:59:25
Finish time: 4:28:39
Finish placement: 38 out of 76 in age group (literally the last of the top half), 248 out of 499 among females (also rounding out the bottom of the top half by gender)
That's the meat and potatoes. Here's the rest of the story, told through song. See, you thought I was kidding, Ilana and Jen. I wasn't. Be very, very afraid.
UNDER THE MILKY WAY TONIGHT
I headed out of town on Friday afternoon, checked into our standard hotel two blocks from the race start, and walked down to the fire station to pick up my stuff. I ran into the Nebraska Superstars, AKA Cara and Gary, and visited with them for a few minutes. These guys came in last year to run some times that would put most of us to shame, but they were both feeling a little under the weather this year, sounding like they were going to just try to enjoy themselves out there and make it fun. It's just hard to go all-out at something like this if you're not 100% healthy so it sounded like a great plan for their run this year.
I left and found my friend Butch outside, a local runner who tends to hit many of the same races I like to run. We made our way over to the new Ouray Brewery, eating on the rooftop patio where we could easily spot and holler at my race roommate Ilana when she made it into town a few minutes later. The brewery has only been open for a month and they were already out of all but two of their house beers by the time we sat down to eat and get in that pre-race beer. It was fun hashing out race times and strategies, as this was the third IPR for each of us. Butch and I were both going for sub-4, and for the past two runnings, our times had been very close. He was about ten minutes back from me both years, and we both improved a bunch from first to second year.
After dinner, we found our friend Jen, and grabbed a sweet treat at Mouse's Chocolates before heading our separate ways. Butch headed back to his campsite up the road in Ridgway and I went with the ladies for the standard soak in the outdoor natural hot springs hot tub under the clear night sky and stars. We swear by it-the muscles seem to get a little bit of an extra "oomph" sitting there, and it just helps a person relax and get a better night of sleep. Coincidentally, the race timers we met in the hot tub last year pre-race were also there again this year along with more company, all of whom were either going over the hill, or attached to someone who was running the race. The third part of the evening was devoted to race day wardrobe and gear selection. This is always fun as weather can move in quickly in the mountains. It's very unpredictable, and boy can it be COLD at the summit of any mountain even when it feels terrific down in town. I decided to go with shorts for the first time ever along with a lightweight, long-sleeved tech shirt, and the standard hat, lightweight gloves and jacket. There was nothing left to do at this point but try to get a good night's sleep.
LIGHT OF THE MORNING
You gotta go, you gotta go. Out that door and into the cold early morning mountain air. I was very pleased to step out the door and feel that while it was quite cold, it was hardly miserable or bonechillingly cold. YES. Perfect. It looked like it was going to be one of those great days for a mountain run. We dressed and geared up, drank coffee, and Butch ventured over to our room where we hung for a little bit before heading out.
Butch gave Jen and I a lift over to the bag drop bus. We got rid of our stuff and headed in to the fire station to stay warm for a little bit. Here I ran into my friend Ben. He considers himself a cross country skiier but is one of those "I'm not a runner" people whose trail running abilities still put most of the rest of us to shame. I wished him good luck with his first IPR, telling him to expect to see me crossing half an hour or more after him at the four hour mark. Jen and I then decided to head back out and move near the starting area.
We met up with Ilana on the sidewalk near the start, now with our friend Annette from Texas. There was a certain giddy, nervous energy in knowing that we were less than half an hour to starting the race at this point. There are disadvantages as a flatlander to doing this race when it comes to not being able to train at altitude or with any long climbs, but Annette's in great shape so there was really no doubt that she would be getting over the hill one way or another. We got another racer to take a few pictures of the four of us at the start.
The race director was on the microphone, and the girls laughed at me as I recited along with him "Welcome....to the 37th Annual Imogene Pass Run...from Ouray (pronounced You-ray) Colorado to Telluride Colorado over the Imogene Pass!" Although race founder Rick Trujillo always tells you it's pronounced like the woman's name Imogene, I pronounce it Eye-mo-gene, just like the race director and nearly everyone else seems to say it. He was sure taking sick pleasure in telling us over and over that it was 24 at the summit. I knew we'd be warmed up by then, but come on, man.
We reached final countdown time, and we were also informed that while there is normally about a 20% no-show rate, a record number of runners were present-over 1200-to toe the line. I think the weather may have helped with anyone who was on the fence about starting, along with the organized bib exchange/sale program for the race. Finally, we were off! I was focused and ready to go with my plan for the day-no photo ops or stopping all the way to the summit, make Upper Camp Bird in under two hours, and summit it under three. Bomb away on the downhill to Telluride like I did in 2009, and I would be right around that four hour mark I wanted to hit.
One change I made this year in gear is that while I still had my women's Camelbak, I opted to fill it a little less than half full. With its large capacity, that would trim 3-4 pounds off and would still be enough to take care of myself up there if weather mayhem rolled in, and it took me longer to get from aid station to aid station than planned. This turned out to be a good move. I felt very relaxed and like I wasn't hurting from the get-go. Of course, that's the Imogene pain scale. Running uphill takes effort at altitude but I was optimistic at how great I did feel. I did a double-take early on when a guy moved by in a very formal looking red dress, and recalled someone on the "transfer wanted" board for the race ages ago promising to wear a dress of the seller's choosing for the race if they would sell to him. I think this had to be That Guy. Well played, sir.
My Garmin has been a source of trouble on several occasions in spots where I find mountains towering over, but it worked, more or less, during the previous two runnings of IPR. I looked down at my Garmin this time, though, just before the first mile was up and saw that it was only logging time. Distance and pace were zeroed out. At another race, or as a brand-new runner, this may have sent me into a panic. This time, though, it was really no big whoop to me. Garmins are notoriously inaccurate on mountain terrain. They like to measure peak to peak, and the course measured barely 16 miles for me (not 17.1 or thereabouts) in 2008 and 2009. I kind of shrugged and thought "no worries-just need to check my time at Upper Camp Bird and the summit." I followed the mass of humanity up the early switchbacks and continued steadily upward, running most of the time with some short power hiking periods if things got really steep, or my heart rate felt like it was getting a little too high.
Early on, I see that Butch and I are more or less going the same pace. Sometimes he would be a little behind me, other times he would float a little bit ahead, and for part of the way were were pacing exactly the same. We were running our own races but it helped to chat with a buddy in the early stages when talking was still possible. He let out a loud whoop to wake up the crowd at one point. I laughed a little when he startled the lady in front of us. He apologized but she laughed it off and said that she is a kindergarten teacher who required more to be truly rattled. As we moved on, I wound up leaving him behind, not seeing him again until the finish where we were both surprised at how we finished relative to one another. More on that later.
At about the one hour mark, I was still plugging away uphill, running as much as I could with those short hike breaks. As I was pulling my sports beans out of my jacket pocket, I noticed a guy looking over his shoulder and I recognized him the second he said "Hey! You were in the alcohol study! How's it going?" HA. I know this had to sound really strange to anyone listening around us. I ran up alongside him and saw that he was with our local speedster who destroyed the top end of the curve in the beer study. I was surprised for a second because he's usually one of the first people finished at any race in the area. I quickly remembered, though, that word on the street was that he'd had knee trouble at the Leadville Trail 100, where he still went on to finish in the top 20% of the field. So, here he was just enjoying being in the company of fellow runners for some sort of twisted rehab run. Awesome. I asked them about their VO2Max results and chatted for a bit before they pulled away and continued up ahead.
As I continued upward, the body still seemed to be holding up okay. It gets harder to deal with the altitude the higher you climb, but I felt really good about the night-and-day difference between how I felt at this point in 2008 versus today. That year, the thought running through my brain going into the second half of the climb was "Please, if I get off this mountain I promise to never do this race again." Today, it's like I had two extra layers from two successful finishes where I was thinking "Meh-sure this hurts, but only to a certain point. Look around. It's a beautiful day." While I moved progessively more slowly the higher we climbed, and my mouth and fingers felt like they didn't quite work anymore at altitude, I really was keeping a cool head about me on the course. I looked at my elapsed time somewhere in the sixth mile and knew it looked good to be at Upper Camp Bird in under two hours. SWEET. I power hiked as quickly as I could with short, efficient steps. Coming around the corner to UCB, I was stoked to get in just under that time in 1:58:12. I was there in 2:02:29 the year before, and felt like I'd moved steadily then, so this was progress.
FIRE ON THE MOUNTAIN
Long distance runner, what you standing there for? (NO WAY are we breaking out any John Denver in this race report) With no time for berry-picking today, I grabbed a couple of peanut butter sandwich cookies from a table at the aid station and kept going. This next section is just HARD due to both the altitude and the slippery scrabble and scree underfoot. There are a few very steep pitches uphill, and it's pretty easy to tip yourself over moving that slowly with not much forward momentum. I kept going, though, and just blocked the pain out of my brain that comes from being so close, yet so far from the summit. The sight of a woman who was barely moving but still creeping forward, practically willing her body to make tiny, deliberate steps, was a good reminder of the great key to success at the Imogene Pass Run (say it with me folks)-IFM. Incessant Forward Motion.
I slipped a little at one point but managed to regain my footing without a fall. Soon, the summit was in sight. I was listening for Cowbell Lady, but they switched things up a little in this World Cup year. Soon, I heard the distant sound of a Vuvuzela. Hmmm. I'm not really sure this is an upgrade from Cowbell Lady but I'll take it. A lady next to me asked if I just checked my watch, wanting to know the time. I tell her, and from her positive reaction I could tell she was working to reach the summit in under three hours. Onward we pushed, and soon I was in the single file line with rock fields on either side to the summit.
Once you're that close, there's really no passing possible unless you want to knock someone down a step slope. The guy directly in front of me was having a bit of trouble, and lagging a few feet behind the woman in front of him. It IS just a race and it wouldn't be a great tragedy if I missed the three hour mark, but I looked at my watch and could see that it was going to be very close. C'mon, c'mon, keep pushing, man. We're almost there. And then....we were there! The last piece of land to the timing mat where it's possible to just run it out. I crossed over that puppy in 2 hours, 59 minutes, 25 seconds. YES! I was pumped. It was just a bit faster than my 3:00:46 summit time, but any time trimmed off at this race feels great. I did a little fist pump as I came across the timing mat.
My next order of business was securing some hot, salty chicken broth. I didn't chug, but I drank it as quickly as I could manage. I then grabbed some water, just like I'd done in the two previous Imogene runs. Don't know exactly how long I was at the summit, but it was less than five minutes for sure. Time to switch gears and head down to Telluride.
BLOW OUT (And everything I touch turns to stone)
Starting downhill, my legs were a little burn-y but I didn't worry much and took it a bit easy off the summit. This is where most injuries and accidents occur, and it's not hard to see why. After going uphill for ten miles, it feels SO good to reach the top and point yourself down to town, no longer gasping for breath. It's easy to bite off more than you can chew, or not realize how loosey-goosey the legs are really feeling. Still, I was a bit more shaky than I expected. As I continued cautiously off the summit, I began to notice a dull pain in my side that became more sharp the more I tried to ease into a downhill rhythm. This caused me to back off a bit, but the pain did not go away. People were moving past me right and left.
Once I was close to a mile down, I got into a bit of a slow jog but I could feel that I wasn't moving anywhere near as fast or as confidently as I did in 2009. Every time I pushed, my side screamed right back at me. I have NEVER, ever cramped in a race before and it really threw me off. I have used S-Caps for all my marathons without an issue, but IPR has been a salt tab-free race for me to this point. I started walking again and the cramp subsided a bit but I could still feel that pain in the gut. My quads felt tight and tired, and while my mental game is usually my strongest suit, it seemed like the more I tried to block out the pain, the more I felt things on the verge of going haywire. I don't know if there were more jeep tours than usual over the past year, but it seemed a lot more rocky than I remembered from the year before, and I was having a hard time plotting my trajectory downhill.
After another hike/walk break, I thought I'd quieted the side stitch and tight, crampy legs and got into a somewhat loose jog. I didn't push hard because I didn't want that sharp pain to return, and seemed to feel kind of okay. As I moved ahead with a bit more speed, I saw a woman walking her mountain bike along the edge of the trail. She yelled "Woohoo! Looking good, runners!" I smiled as I was about to pass her.
CRASH BURN (WHEN WILL I LEARN?)
AAAAAAAAAAAA..........OOOOOOOW......CRAP! My body was sliding like cheese across a grater over a bed of rocks. One second I was upright, and a split second later I was laid out with my head pointing downhill. I think my toe didn't clear one of those big rocks and I did what I've always referred to as "toe pick" from that really horrible movie The Cutting Edge. My right hand was throbbing, my calves were cramping from tensing up after hitting the ground, charley horse style, my right arm felt like it had been jammed hard into the socket by someone, and I had open skin from the outside of my right knee up to just below my right hip where there was a red, puffy, road rashy mess.
Instantly, there were about four runners around me, all asking "you okay? you okay?" along with mountain bike lady. I'd landed more or less at her feet. Talk about adding insult to injury-wiping out on my own would've been a lot less embarrassing. I slowly stood up and didn't feel anything busted to the point of needing to stop my race, but the palm of my hand was on fire. I pulled back my glove-I had thought about taking them off at the summit for the journey to Telluride but decided to keep them on since my hands get cold easily. I am SO glad I kept them on, as some of the rock had gone straight through my glove, slicing my hand which was now a bloody mess. I told the others around me that I was okay, and just started applying pressure with the glove to the palm of my hand. The mountain bike lady said "Walk it off for a bit," something that I planned to do anyway, but was good to hear. Someone else encouraging me to shake it off was just what I needed right then.
My mission now was to not fall apart and have a complete mental collapse after being badly rattled by that fall. I've skidded and slipped plenty in this race, but I've never fallen-let alone with enough speed and at just the wrong angle where I am very lucky I just banged myself up and did not break anything. My hand was burning and oozing, and even though I really didn't want to stop and waste more time, I knew I HAD to get that thing covered with a clean band-aid. At the next aid station, it took about five minutes for someone to locate one-they'd had a full first aid kit there but apparently had to take it to one of the other stations. A volunteer found one in his personal stash (thank you sir!) and slapped it on for me. Just having that extra layer of protection made it feel a bit better. Not great, but it didn't hurt as bad.
From here on out, things evened out a bit. I tried to push but darnit if that side cramp was not omnipresent. I was gritting my teeth from the pain, trying to block it out, and run as much as I could. Every now and then, I would stop to walk to get a break from the pain and to try to make it go away. Sometimes it didn't hurt quite so bad, but most of the time it was this sharp thing that wouldn't go away. I was fighting back being really upset that a good race was just slipping away from me. As the miles went on, it just sucked because endurance wise, I felt like I had more to give. Between the pain in my body from the fall and the cramping, and being honestly pretty spooked and afraid to push too hard and fall again, I was just barely keeping it together.
The town of Telluride finally was in my sights, but the first time you see the roofs of those Victorian house, there is still a LONG way to go. Still, it's a bit of a pick-me-up when the race-watchers, family, friends, and random tourists start dotting the trail. With maybe a mile to go, I see my beer study friends. They gave me a nice shout-out but I think I must've been running ugly and like I didn't feel good because a second later they were going NUTS yelling for me. I didn't know I needed that right then but boy did I appreciate it. I found out later that they'd both come in around 3:30-ish.
My sub-4 had gone out the window a long time ago, but it was another kick in the butt to look at my watch at around 16 miles to realize that I wasn't even going to PR. 4:14 came and went, and I was still out there. I really bore down and just let the pain come with it. I just wanted to be finished, and not make it any worse than it already was. It was now pretty dicey for even a 4:30. My jaw was clenched tightly as I forced some speed out of myself. Finally-relief was in sight. I could see 90 degree turn onto the road to run two city blocks downhill (that .1 mile in the 17.1) to the finish. I'd salvaged things just enough at the end that I was now assured a sub-4:30 finish, and I just pounded hard and fast toward the finish chute. I heard my name-extra points to this guy in the announcer's booth for nailing my first name with extra letter on the end, and hyphenated last name-and barreled on in, crossing the line at 4:28:39. Forget Ouray to Telluride the hard way...this was Ouray to Telluride the ugly, bloody way.
THE MOUNTAINS WIN AGAIN
I won't lie-I've never felt so down in the dumps after a race. I had a plan that was going well, and I reached the summit thinking I was going to be able to carry it through to the end. The downhill is a lot harder to me for many reasons than the climb, but I felt prepared to do it like I did the prior year. I was not expecting a Murphy's Law death march into Telluride. Yeah, sucked dry and disappointed pretty much nails it. I was standing there, kind of dazed, when Ilana came up to tell me she already had my race bag, and to come meet her and Butch (what? I never saw him go by?) on the green downhill from the finish after I had a chance to visit the first aid tent to get my hand cleaned out and rebandaged. A fabulous volunteer at first aid washed it out with some solution that really burned, but got it nice and clean before getting a new little bandage on it with a mesh sleeve to hold it in place.
When I got back to Ilana, I found out that she had finished slightly faster than her previous year's time, and Jen had finished five minutes ahead of her. I asked Butch his finish time, and he showed me his watch, reading 4:24:xx. He didn't seem to realize he'd come in ahead of me, and made a weird face when I showed him my watch at 4:28:xx. He never saw me either, and had reached the summit about 12 minutes behind me. We assumed it must have been when I was futzing around at the aid station, looking for a band aid. Cara and Gary stayed true to their plan and did a "photo hike" over the hill in a bit over five hours, complete with a re-creation of her epic fall last year where she did a good job slicing up her hand before racing in on pure adrenaline. Annette came through in a bit over five hours too-a great, solid time coming from sea level and trying to get through it safely and consistently. Ben was long gone by the time I came in. He had a race not unlike mine with a terrific start, blazing to the summit in about 2:20, feeling loose and awesome. He twisted his knee near the same point on the course where I fell, and couldn't run from that point on, walking it in in roughly 3:55. It was an all-over-the-board day for my friends on this gorgeous September day.
Even though I was down about the race, part of the fun of this weekend is enjoying the fruits of our labor when it's all said and done. Annette, Butch, Ilana and I sat on the patio of the restaurant just down the hill from the finish, had a bite to eat, drank a little beer, and listened to the awards going on across the street in the park. Some performances that stand out included the 67-year-old woman who knocked over half an hour off the 65-69 yr old age group time, finishing in 4:07. I'm still working on a time like that now, and love hearing about strong Grand Masters women who can kick butt like that. After finishing lunch, we walked down to the river to get the ol' tootsies wet, and passed through the park right when everyone rose to their feet for a rousing standing ovation for the lone finisher in the 75-79 year old male age group. The super healthy and strong looking 76-year-old was grinning from ear to ear, enjoying the love the other runners were giving him for his finish (5:26). I want to be like those guys when I grow up.
We had a fun bus ride back to Ouray, which is surprising since they didn't have enough seats for everyone and we were all crammed in together at the back. We made it work, sharing seat edges and taking turns standing (even though it was a school bus,they'd been charted...so we were not required to sit down and could "bus surf" legally. Tee hee. Fun.). Upon returning to Ouray, it was time for another hot tub soak followed by dinner and margaritas at Buen Tiempo, where I think we did indeed have a good time. It's kind of become the perfect place for a celebration after what has been the most challenging race on my schedule every year.
Three days later, I am well over the dark mood I was in after the bad race. I went to my women's toning class on Monday, and we laughed hysterically at how my body was just screaming "ooooooh nooooooooo" with half the things we do in class that normally aren't a problem. I just kept laying down on the floor, shaking my head at how tired all over I am for a couple of days. I couldn't do anything right, and didn't have the energy to care other than to laugh at it.
I went for a run this morning, and remember that as much as I've dreaded that first run each year after Imogene, it always goes MUCH better than expected because I'm back at my normal 4600 foot altitude, where anything feels easier. So, what have I learned? For starters, I still need more time on trails, and need extra special focus on downhills. I thought I was getting in good trail time, and have in fact spent more time on trails this year compared to '09, but I am clearly hit-or-miss with downhill.
I also think the S-Caps will be a no-brainer next year. Maybe I'll never cramp again-who knows-but that's an easy thing for me to do. It doesn't bother me to take them, and if it prevents cramping, then all the better. For now-I'm just watching the scrapes and bruises on my body change colors, and considering that I did do some things right in hitting my goal times climbing out of Ouray. All I can do is shake it off, learn from what I screwed up, and come back next year to take another swing at the mountain.