Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stand and Walk (It's A Long Way To Fall): The 38th Annual Imogene Pass Run Race Report

It's taken me a few days to formulate thoughts for a race report. And, because I'm a fan of theme music, it took me a few days to figure out the correct soundtrack to the race this year. Blues Traveler was a big part of last year's report, so an encore appearance seemed entirely appropriate beyond the way the fact that the song feels like it was written and paced just for Imogene.

Don't scare me at all
Well just a little

Swing number four at the Imogene Pass Run finally came last weekend. It was inevitable. Three years wasn't enough to convince me to just quit while I was behind or face-first and pointing downhill on a scree field. Looking at it by the time clock, it was another average performance by an average trail runner. (Wo)man does not run by time clock alone, though, and in almost every area that mattered to me, this was a breakthrough year.

Late last week, the pre-race chatter kicked off with some somewhat OCD weather-watching. As the week went on, the predictions were moving increasingly toward a chance of rain, snow and thunderstorms the night before the race, and on race morning. I packed for just about everything. Wear shorts in rain and snow? Well, maybe some especially badass trail runners do this. In fact, I know they do. I'm now to the point of being half-fast, so I was leaning toward tights in what seemed like could be a race of epic weather.

When I got a phone call from my friend Butch on Friday afternoon saying that it was not just raining, but hailing and thundering in Ouray, I just sort of laughed it off, but surpringly did not have even the slightest sense of panic or worry. I picked up my friend and first-time IPR runner Sandra from her job at a downtown bank, and as we drove toward Ouray, we could see weather ahead(pic by Sandra..I was not driving and taking pictures). We just kind of laughed it off, figured we'd have some good stories to tell if this thing turned into "Abominable Snowman Run '11," and made some plans for dinner.

Arriving in Ouray shortly after 5, we were pleasantly surprised that we were arriving to find the calm after the storm. The clouds were quite literally parting, the air damp and pleasantly cool. The weather had beaten the earth into submission earlier, but now it was almost spookily quiet. We did dinner, visited with friends at the Ouray Brewery, laid out our gear, soaked in the hot tub at our motel, as is now pre-race tradition, and attempted to crash out for a good night of sleep.

It ain't worth a dime
And your wounds
They'll all heal in time

When I woke up in the morning, the first thing I did was step outside to see if it was raining, snowing, or if the remnants of any stormy weather lingered. After predictions of up to a 70% chance of rain and snow, I was pleasantly surprised again to see that the ground was damp and dewy, but we were NOT in the midst of a blizzard or anything else. It was cool, overcast, and pleasant. My trail rash from the previous weekend's race at Mary's Loop was healing up, but I like the way my compression tights and shirt feel. I figured they'd also give me an extra degree of confidence in covering up those scabs, keeping worry out of my head over potentially taking a spill and re-opening them. I opted for tights, compression shirt, compression socks, and my Honey Badger iron-on tech shirt made two weeks prior with some members of the local running club. I was wearing my INOV8 trail shoes for the first time in this race as well. They'd been great in training and now I would finally get to test them out in the race.

I went to get my Garmin from the charger, and discovered my glitch for this mission. Part of the band had broken off and I wasn't going to be able to wear it. I'm not sure how this happened, or why I didn't notice it the night before, but surprisingly didn't care a bit. I wasn't planning to let the Garmin dictate my race, so I decided to just stick the whole watch in one of the front pockets of my Nathan hydration pack, and pull it out periodically to check my time and pace.

After handing off race packets to two friends who arrived race morning, Sandra and I wandered with our friend Jen to a nearby house where some local runners stayed the night before. We slapped some almond butter on bread, chowed down, made another pit stop and headed toward the starting line.

I don't know if it's experience with this race, my recent addition of power yoga (and its ability to clear my head) to my fitness routine, or something else, but my brain was totally empty now. We've joked locally that many of the "name" running cities and other major cities (Flagstaff, Boulder, Denver, etc.) are routinely mentioned on the mic during pre-race announcements, while our fair city of Grand Junction is routinely the redheaded stepchild and goes without a mention. It's not a big deal, but c'mon, we typically have somewhere in the area of 75-100 runners entered from our city and surrounding areas. Well, we DID wind up getting a mention this time, along with the surrounding cities of Delta and Montrose. Oh yeah, a little love. Sandra, the lone representative of Clifton, on the east side of GJ, started saying "Oh yeah, Clifton IN DA HOUSE!" I cracked up. Finally, it was time to go. About ten seconds before 7:30 a.m., the final countdown took place and the 38th Annual Imogene Pass Run was under way.

The Answers Are Getting Harder

Wow, this was quite the bottleneck of runners early on. I did not recall being clumped together so tightly with other runners in previous years, and avoided wasting energy with a lot of weaving in the first mile. I saw Jen from Delta blow past right away, and just kind of kept in mind that I was planning to focus on good POSE technique, stay upright, keep my rate of turnover high, and run MY race. I felt pretty relaxed. There was nothing weird with my breathing, or any other early strangeness indicative of trouble. This was good news.

The crowds started to thin out a bit, and somewhere in the second mile, Sandra moseyed up alongside and paced with me, looking pretty comfortable. Well, "comfortable" for Imogene. The starting line altitude is 7810 feet, with a ten mile climb to the summit at 13, 120 feet. Lots of heavy breathing all around. We were able to chat some, though, which is a good way to pass the time early on. My shoes felt great-very grippy on the damp jeep road, and I was experiencing zero sliding around between the good grip and keeping with the relaxed compression of POSE running. My training was so patchy over the summer with some great altitude runs, but weird periods of illness and life stuff that resulted in more missed runs than ever before. This wasn't a blistering pace but it felt like things were going my way more than ever before at IPR.

The answers are getting harder
(If an answer comes to those who pray)

Whoa, nelly. Hello, altitude. I was really starting to feel it now, but continuing to refocus on my breathing, much as I'm learning to do in yoga practice with the Ujjayi breath (can't do exactly the same thing on a mountain run, but the general principle of opening the lungs and calming one's self work) was working. Focusing on running in the moment, and just keeping my eyes a little bit ahead was another excellent piece of advice I'd received regarding the continuous climb. This may sound like "DUH" advice, but it's so easy to look way up and get intimidated by the climb. This was also keeping me from getting distracted and faceplanting. I've never fallen on the uphill, and didn't want to start today.

I don't like to get really negative or worry much about other people's races, but I do have to mention the scene that kind of bugged the crap out of me in the early miles. If you were someone in the +/- 4 hour finish range at the race, you saw these people. I saw them early on but I think about halfway up the mountain was when I decided if there were two people I needed to beat, it was this duo. A woman in a pink tutu (that's not the bad part-I'm all about color and flavor on the course), attached to some guy by a long rope and two carabiners, kept coming up alongside of me me. This guy was literally PULLING her up the hill. Not cute or funny, actually rather dangerous with other runners around, and while I can't find a rule that says they cannot do just doesn't seem like it should be legal to pull someone up the hill like that. I'm still not quite sure if I did get over to Telluride before them, and I guess it's good. It would make a little of me die inside to know I was beaten by a the human mule and driver.

The answers are getting harder
(If an answer comes to those who pray)

Approaching Upper Camp Bird, 7.6 miles up the hill, with a mandatory cutoff time of 2:30, I was happy to see that despite not having a high mileage summer, and without looking at my watch, I'd reached this checkpoint in 2:07. This was slower than any of my prior three runnings, but truly not by much, and I felt 100% more in confident than each of those races combined. I kind of split the difference between my "no time for berrypicking!" run-through in 2010, and taking many pictures in 2008 and 2009, stopping to fully consume a cup of Gatorade and take in the view but then moving on my way. It was colder now. There was a bit of a breeze. I was warmed up, though, and continually refocused on my breathing and relaxing my quads every time I started to feel that I might be jamming the quads and working too hard to get down without a fall. Conversation among runners was almost non-existent now, but there were some short pleasantries exchanged here and there. I just tried to feed off that good mojo and stay relaxed.

The answers are getting harder and harder
And there ain't no way to bargain or to barter

The air was getting thinner, and the pitch of the mountain was getting steeper. I was beginning to see folks dotting the sides of trail, stopping for breathers, usually facing downhill so as not to get intimidated by how much more we still had to climb. I started feeling that strong urge through here, but refocused on race founder Rick Trujillos mantra, "Incessant Forward Motion." I really wanted to stop several times here but kept going. There were a few short, flat-ish pitches close to the summit that I've run in the past, only to find my heart rate out of control when the climb started again. This year, I tried kind of a POSE-inspired hike with very quick turnover, and short strides. When I got out of the flats and started climbing again, I didn't have that redlining heart rate, and even passed a few people. There was no time to get all overconfident, though, as we were still climbing, and man, was this HARD. Soon, though, I could hear the sweet sound of the Cowbell People at the summit. Last year, we'd been greeted by a vuvuzela, and I was just happy that the tried-and-true cowbell was back. It was pretty breezy and cold but not miserable, and I'd never need to stop to put on my jacket with the long sleeved compression shirt/short sleeved tech shirt combo.

But if you've got the angst or the ardor
You might faint from the fight but you're gonna find it

Finally, I was in the single-file line to the summit. I found myself a wee bit lightheaded approaching the 13, 120 foot summit, but it wasn't like I was about to pass out either. Last year, I was very impatient to get there in under three hours. This year, I was moving ahead as fast as I could but focused on the moment and not the clock. Moving along, stepping up past the Cowbell People over the summit timing mat at 3:09:46. This was my slowest ascent ever at the race, but it marked a first with no a single slip or slide. I've never fallen on the first half, but have sure skidded around plenty every year. This marked a departure and step up from HOW I've done the race before. Running with confidence more slowly means that I can start to practice running with more confidence more quickly.

I took my time at the summit this year. No pictures were taken, but I slowly consumed some hot, salty chicken broth, then another full container of Gatorade, retied my shoelaces, and got ready for what was my downfall last year, literally, and my slowest descent into Telluride ever.
For every challenge could have paradise behind it
And if you accept what you have lost and you stand tall
You might just get it back and you can get it all

I began the trip down the hill purposely cautious, but it wasn't out of the fear I've had in previous Imogene Pass Runs. It was out of what I considered reasonable caution in protecting the ankle that I sprained badly last spring, and re-sprained to a lesser degree over the summer. It's hard to not brake when moving more slowly but I tried my best to kind of "spring in place" down the steepest part below the summit. People were flying past me but that was cool. It really sucked to be unable to run last spring, and I just knew I needed to control myself here and not take the kind of fall or roll on that ankle that would be the one that tore tendons all the way through, or broke anything. I relaxed, though, and smiled my way past the guy from Elevation Imaging on the side of the mountain.

As the downhill became less steep, I opened up slightly and picked up a bit of "speed," but this is really a relative term. I couldn't remember where exactly I went down last year; all the switchbacks looked like "the one," and I just kept doing that thing of focusing on the now, and watching where I was going next. Soon, I was at the first aid station after the summit, and realized that the point where I'd fallen had not made a permanent impression on my brain. I was past it now. I stopped to drink again, and then opened things up some more.

Somewhere through here, I heard a "Hey Karah!" It was my friend Julie, who had originally planned to run with the Dirty Girls relay team last spring before an injury. Her son is also in the same kindergarten class with my youngest daughter, and we do run in the ballpark of one another pace-wise. We chatted about kindergarten, school, and other various stuff, picking up speed as we chatted. I was feeling better physically than I did two years ago, the only time prior that I'd felt like the downhill didn't own me. Looking at the time, it was obvious that I wouldn't PR today with the slower ascent. I was looking at a strong finish, though, if I kept up this pace and stayed upright. I joked with Julie that "I haven't gotten through Imogene without falling on my face until I get through Imogene without falling on my face." We leap frogged back and forth, continuing to pick up speed and move well. At some point, I started to ease ahead, just really feeling good and like I wanted to fly.

So now you know why it's a long way to fall
Yeah cause it's a long way to fall
Cause it's a long... way to fall

Dare I say that my legs and body mechanics in general felt GREAT? I was passing people right and left now. There was a method to the madness, though, and control that I've never had before. It felt very odd to be on nearly an identical finishing time pace from the year before, but feel so good to be running an entirely different race.

Did I say that the Garmin was the glitch for the mission? Oh, yeah. There was one more to come. Right around mile sixteen, I started feeling the unmistakable ache of a side stitch. I tried blocking it out but it got sharper and sharper. I didn't want to walk because everything else felt great, but then I could feel what was almost a stabbing sensation. Well, crap. That wasn't part of the game plan. I started walking it out briskly to try to make it go away. Some of the people I'd just passed wound up passing me back. Julie came along, and asked if all was ok as she ran past. I said "just a side stitch...gonna try to walk it out." Soon, I didn't feel that fabulous stabbing sensation anymore. I started running again, determined to make up as much time as I could from that minute or two spent walking.

Coming down the final mile and last couple of switchbacks, I was very focused on controlling my breathing in a way to keep that side stitch at bay. I could still feel dull pain but I could run through this with no problem. Soon, I was passing back some of the folks who made up ground on me. I started to see fans and earlier finishers along the side of the trail. And then I could see Julie...I was determined to pick it up and catch back up to her. Turning onto the pavement, I turned it up as much as I could. I'm not sure if she knew someone was behind her but she was picking it up too. I got almost all the way back up, but it was Julie oustriding into the finish, and I came barreling through a second behind, kind of slapping her on the back and saying "Hey Julie!" as I finished in 4:29:07. She said "Ah, I'd hoped you'd catch up!" and we hugged after the finish. I don't know what my exact time was when I started running again at the summit, but this either matched or was slightly faster than my prior best performance on the downhill. I was thrilled and ecstatic. It was actually about 25 seconds slower than my overall 2010 time, but didn't look remotely like the same race.

Stand and walk

I strolled around, found some of the hometown folks, scored a fresh peach, and kept talking to folks. As it turned out, the local guys and gals had all run very well, with no less than three of them winding up with podium finishes in their age groups. I went to look for Sandra coming in, and someone said "she just finished!" Damn, I missed it...but she was so happy, crying tears of joy at her 4:44 finish that I don't think she'd have cared if nobody was there at the end. (Okay, that would sort of suck. But she was happy).

Some of us gathered wound up at the Brown Dog in Telluride post-race for a celebratory drink,

(Eric, Sandra's husband, Sandra, me, Julie, Shannon, with Ray and Greg hiding behind the camera)
and then we moved over to the park to watch the awards ceremony, and cheer on our local peeps. I was so happy with finally seeing a real improvement in my trail skills, even though I didn't PR. It was true icing on the cake to loudly cheer each time we heard "From Grand Junction...." during the awards, and really appreciate all the outstanding races from athletes across the spectrum of age and gender.

So, will I be back next year? Yeah, I think I'll be doing this race as long as I have air in my lungs, legs on my body, and I can still get into the thing before it closes out. The goal next year IS to run it with a focus on time, along with focus on form. Because, if I don't-it's a loooooooong way to fall.


sllygrl said...

I love love love reading your race reports. It sounds like you had an awesome day. Congrats!

Elizabeth said...

Every year I am so admirable of you for doing this race. Congrats-- you ran this one really smart!

Brenda said...

Dang girl, that race sounds intense! I have enough trouble running over here in flat, low altitude country. Go you!

Jonesy said...

Nice job on the race and the report. I enjoyed the run as well and plan to do it again next year. The information I learned from your Imogene race reports came in handy - especially during that brutal downhill. After a breakneck start down from the summit, I slowed down and took it pretty easy, deciding that my teeth were more important than my time. I didn't have any crashes, but I came close a few times.

Girl In Motion said...

Congratulations, Karah! I love your comment about it not feeling remotely like the same race, that's so exciting. You just keep getting faster, stronger and more adept, it's wonderful to see.

GJ said...

Great Job! BTW, the woman in the pink tutu you mention is blind. She was being led up the mountain, not pulled. :)

TiredMamaRunning said...

GJ, regardless of whether the runner was blind or sighted, the rope was long enough to be a hazard to other runners. That's the issue here. I'm also surprised that neither runner had "blind runner" or "runner guide" noted on an armband or back, another typical safety measure that is frequently employed by visually impaired runners to make others aware to provide adequate space. I love that our sport embraces everyone who wishes to participate, but safety and common courtesy should be practiced by all runners, regardless of personal circumstances.

Hanna said...

I'm Hanna from Finland. I googled marathon blogs and found myself here. I liked your race report =o). I've run one half marathon two years ago and have started training for another one this December. I've exercised all my life but I'm new to running. I think I will pop in here again =o)