My plan for the day was simple. Run the easier and less technical sections at the fastest pace I could that still felt "comfortable," so to speak. With the steeper and more challenging stuff, I intended to avoid the power hike in favor of running in the old "Zero Gear." This meant I'd be landing with relaxed compression while lightly lifting the other foot, running as slowly as necessary but still running. When I first started doing this last fall, it felt very awkward. I felt like I was shuffling and couldn't possibly be more efficient this way. Now, I am amazed at how different and comparatively easier to hiking the effort feels and can't imagine doing it my old way. My other strategy was to break the course up into different segments to pick apart-the first ten miles, the next eight to the mandatory time cutoff (had to get there by 12:30), the marathon point (26.2), the last aid station (29 miles), and finally the last five mostly downhill miles.
The first five miles were really just a time for me to settle in and let the body warm up. Some days you have it, other days you feel terrible, and I was relieved that things felt pretty good despite a few weeks of crap running, stress, and a bad night of sleep. I made it to the turnoff for the 14 extra miles on the long course feeling, dare I say, GOOD. There had been some hard rain to the face in the early miles but it seemed to taper off. The wind, though, was a different story. It was the only thing that was less than awesome on race day. I just tucked my head down a bit whenever it got bad and moseyed along.
I'd been told that this 14 mile loop was the "easier" part of the course, and that I'd already covered the tougher section running the 33K last year. Kind of a double edged sword since the hard part would come later, but that assessment was pretty right on. There was a lot of up and down but it wasn't steep or extreme, and there were some views that blew my mind along the way. I believe I talked to most of the City of Fort Collins, Colorado while looping around in this area. It turns out that they'd brought about 40 runners down for this. That's what I love about this kind of race-everyone out there enjoying and sharing the experience. You will have to turn the head for this next video....sorry. My iPod video cam skills were lacking sometimes but it's worth it for the sweet view in this clip.
The wind was still whipping around and the rain was coming off and on, but with relatively warm temperatures it was still kind of refreshing. Last year, it had been very sunny but cold, and frankly, this felt better. The sun wasn't beating down on me and nothing on me was too hot or too cold. Constantly running kind of off-camber and leaning downhill to the right was a little awkward but not awful. When I arrived at the third aid station near the end of this 14 mile loop, I was thrilled to see that unless I lay down and did nothing for an hour, I would make that 18-something mile cutoff with ease. I fueled up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, coke, and water before moving along, and passed the jeep where they were recording runners moving past the cutoff at around the 3:40 mark.
Now I was almost entirely by myself. We were pretty strung out near the back of the pack, with big gaps between runners. Occasionally, I'd overtake someone or a random runner would slide slowly past me, but there just wasn't much in the way of civilization out here. Reaching 20 miles, I was beginning to tire but wasn't hurting yet. It wasn't anything that broke my relaxation. When epic winds and dark skies moved in, and those little water drop bullets started slapping against me again, I felt as calm as I'd felt the entire race. The winds were brutal, the skies were dark, but I felt completely at peace in the middle of it all, and was feeling more and more confident that I'd be finishing with a smile on my face in a few hours.
When the marathon distance finally ticked away on the ol' Garmin around 5:45 or so, it was kind of anticlimactic. I hadn't been running a traditional road marathon pace so there was none of that feeling of impending glycogen depletion or hitting the wall-just the slow creep of fatigue, and when things started to hurt, it seemed like they'd eventually reach a point at which things didn't get any worse, and just went numb. By now my excitement was building even as I tired, knowing I was less than eight miles to the finish. Blue skies and sunshine made a brief appearance to mark the occasion.
I spent another mile or two by myself, with a few people in the distance behind me, and eventually found myself creeping up slowly behind another woman who was shuffling along slowly but steadily. When I reached her, we started chatting and just kind of kept chatting and moving along together. We were in just about the same place as far as pace and how we were feeling. Her name was Julia, and we seemed to also be very similar runners in being slower on the trails, but both a little faster on roads, and running Boston this year. It was her second time running the 55K, and she was also down here for relaxed, fun "me time" with kids back home.
I'm not sure if we were tired or if the flagging got a little bit sketchy here, but we went off-course for the one and only time of the day somewhere around 30 miles. We followed one flag toward a hill but then kept going up the hill. Only after cresting the hill did we realize that we'd overachieved, and should have turned right across the hill rather than climbing it. Whoops. Still, this wasn't a whopper of a mistake. It cost us two or three minutes. No big deal.
Now in our seventh hour of running, the feeling was sweeping me that this thing was in the bag. I'd be in the last fifty finishers, but didn't care. Somehow, I'd never reached the point at which the pain and fatigue was greater than my desire to keep moving along and do what I'd trained for today. There were now regular slow-shuffle/hike breaks but never did I reach the "shoot me, put me out of my misery" point. Making our final descent toward the finish area at the Poison Spider trailhead, the wind was really getting insane to the point of a full blown dust storm that stopped us dead in our tracks with about a mile to go. I felt like a wuss for stopping and turning my back against the gusts, but looking uphill I could see that the few other runners behind me were doing the exact same thing to avoid being blinded. It finally let up and we continued down to the finish.
I had my third wind to really finish this thing off now, and wanted to be done as quickly as possible. Right around 7:29, my Garmin decided it was done for the day and just shut off. NICE. Not a big deal but geez, it could have waited another ten minutes. I wound up pulling away from Julia just a bit, wanting to accelerate up with whatever was left and finish strong. Coming down the hill, I could see the finish area, and the few spectators lining the end of the course where whooping it up enthusiastically for those of us coming in. I had a smile on my face and soaked it all in as I finished, 34 miles and a few thousand feet of elevation change behind me in 7:38:06. This was roughly 2:30 after the winning open woman and 2:45 behind Masters/Overall winner (and Western States 100 Champ) Anita Ortiz, but I didn't care. I'd faced down my fear, ran it down and was now standing succesful on the other side.