Monday, October 24, 2011

Ray Of Light: Run To Whitewater (18 miles from Grand Junction to Whitewater...The Pretty Way)

And I feel like I just got home
And I feel

After my ten minute pity-party for my ugly running fest through the canyons in Moab, I was already thinking ahead to making the most of my little bit of time between now and the Rim Rock Marathon, with the Winter Sun 10K and February's Moab RedHot 55K in my head. After a few days off following The Other Half, I resumed running with a nice sunset "recovery medium-long run" with Sandra, one of my frequent running partners, and another shorter recovery-ish run with Laura, my early morning headlamp show running partner for about two years now. The good thing that came out of the crappy race was that it lit my fire to bounce back, really get accountable about my time spent running, and enjoy the process of getting ready for the bigger races. What worked so well for me last fall with my string of PR's was just running a lot, but for enjoyment, and picking out routes and courses that would make me WANT to run a lot but still provide a challenge and progress in my running.

One of the key components to good training then had been back-to-back weekend runs, typically consisting of a long road run on Saturdays and a medium-long to long trail run on Sunday. I hadn't done this for awhile, but I know my running improved at all distances with it as a regular part of my running schedule. While this would have been ideal in my head this past weekend, Saturday was just too jam-packed with triple-booked kid stuff and my stuff to even consider that option. Sandra and I decided we'd do an easy up-and-down early Saturday on Serpent's Trail, at the base of the Colorado National Monument, and then something for a long run on Sunday. We did it around 5:30 on Saturday, and it's amazing how this run has gone from being really painful the first few times to something that one craves, and enjoys. It's still hard, but I can feel the strength that comes from just doing it, and practicing that continuous climb followed by "how fast can I go in the dark?" descent back down.

We'd kicked around running on Rim Rock Drive (the road that runs across the Colorado National Monument, from Grand Junction to Fruita) as a long run, looking to get in a good 18-20 miles, on Sunday, but left it open. Some time Saturday, though, we started thinking seriously about one of the few Mesa Monument Striders run/races I have not done-the "Run to Whitewater," starting at the Bangs Canyon staging area, and running the Tabeguache Trail for 18 miles to a trailhead in Whitewater, Colorado. I'd never done this run before, and it's probably one of the most sparsely attended races. It's a self-supported gig, crossing slick rock, dirt, and rock fields which vary widely in condition from year to year. No aid stations, no Rock and Roll Marathon bands. You have to pay attention to the course instructions, and keep yourself going in the right direction because no one will be flagging or directing for you out here. The beauty of this event is the beauty of this event, though. It's a trail that's a little less populated than a lot of other ones in this area. There's also that thrill of going point-to-point, like the Imogene Pass Run, "Seventeen miles from Ouray, Colorado, to Telluride, Colorado, the hard way." And, as I've learned, the Beer Cooler of Awesomeness and real food always seem to appear at the end of these no-frills running club deals. When it looked like we could make pretty easy car shuttling arrangements between Sandra, me, and Ray, another local racing regular, I said yes, let's do this thing.

I'd been up later than normal the previous night, attending a small gathering with some friends (hosted by Julie, who was one of my 24 Hours of Moab Dirty Girls teammates, and her husband Mike, ultrarunner and Mad Dog team runner at that same relay) just south of town in Olathe, Colorado. I'd eaten dinner before heading down with three of my kids for this fire pit and Dr. Seuss reading party, eating what amounted to a second dinner, and also partaking in some peach moonshine provided by Bryan and Elizabeth, fellow runners and generally outside-type folks who came here by way of Kentucky. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but I slept like a log for a good six hours. Getting up in the morning, I didn't even bother to look at the weather forecast. My muscles were still sore from last weekend's race, so I figured I'd go with some lightweight tights and a lightweight tech shirt, even though I knew it would probably be pretty warm by the time we were wrapping up this race.

I picked up Sandra and headed out to Whitewater, which is straight south out of town on Highway 50. We had rough directions from Ray on where to park, but were not sure where exactly to go. As it turned out, he was only a few minutes back, so we just pulled off and waited for him, following his truck over to the lot where we'd finish later in the day. We left his truck there, and shuttled back to the Bangs Canyon staging area in town in my car.

As we pulled into the lot about half an hour before the starting time, we saw several other runners and the regular race director for this gig there in the parking lot. Signing in, I was beginning to regret my choice of tights. It was clearly going to be warm today. Upon pulling out my Garmin which has been duct-taped to my wrist for two races now, I realized that it was just about time to have a proper burial for the thing. I zeroed out the previous run, but then couldn't get any of the buttons to work. Oh well...I think I knew this was coming. I tucked it in one of the pouches of my Nathan pack in case the thing decided to work at some point, and I wanted to calculate elapsed time. Sandra and I both agreed we'd just treat it like a training run, and try to run on feel without regard to pace and time. It was a brand-new course for both of us so might as well keep ourselves guessing.

I'd remembered that very few people ran this race the year before when I'd gotten the club newsletter with results. As I found out later, there were a whopping seven runners the previous year, and the course had been sloppy as hell. As starting time approached, I was surprised to see that there appeared to be about two dozen runners here. It was a beautiful, crisp, cool, and bright Western Colorado morning, though. Most runners were folks I knew, and the few unfamiliar faces were quickly introduced. One of the runners showed up about two minutes before the start, which was held off long enough for him to make a quick pit stop (one of the great perks about small, local deals where everybody knows your name). Once he was out, Kim, one of the co-race directors, said "okay, you guys can start now!" as our official start.

For a minute or two, everyone was fairly together, but we quickly strung out across the early ups and downs over slick rock and rocky trails. This was to be a good training run for us, though, and we'd never seen the course, so it was just about settling in to the run now. I was kind of tired from the previous weekend, and putting in a good effort over the past few days in training, but things felt pretty good. We worked our way over some pretty regular climbs, took in the view, and I marveled at how freeing it was to have no clue on my time or pace. Five years of running, and this was my first race, other than a Thanksgiving prediction run in '07, when I would be running without any gauge of pace or time.

In the early miles, my body felt kind of slow to warm up to the running thing, but it was waking up, little by little. There was quite a bit of climbing in the early miles; I'd say that this is my area of running that is always in a "state of progress." We were moving along at what felt like a consistent pace, though. We chattered about upcoming races, past events and runs, Zombie Prom (which I said was Sandra's official descent into running madness...skipping a local event she'd attended with her husband for several years in a row in order to have a more productive and run-filled weekend), and anything else that came to mind.

Now it was definitely warming up. Shorts would have definitely been a better move for me, but I was getting some cooling from rolling up the sleeves on my tech shirt. I'm not sure if there's any science to it, but I'd slathered myself in sunscreen so I didn't feel like my face or head were overheating and burning, and was only mildly bothered by wearing those lightweight tights. We hit what felt like was about the hour mark, and were kind of rambling through more narrow, tree-lined trails now. Passing another runner for the first time, he said to us "Oh, I was wondering where you were. I thought you stopped for lunch." Hehe, wise guy. We saw our friend Ray,who had car-shuttled with us, on several occasions up ahead. It seemed like every time we got a little close, though, he'd be out of sight when we crested the next ridge.

Continuing on our way, I kept wondering to myself why I'd never run this race. It was so pristine and quiet out here; we'd occasionally pass cool landmarks, like an ancient, flipped jeep that had been used for target practice, and at one point, there was a funny voice in the trees behind us. It wound up being the mountaineering partner of the guy who was now running right behind us, and who happened to be camping out there. We kind of laughed about the "talking bush," and moved along until we hit a bit of a crossroads with two different directional options. We'd been told to keep meandering right after one initial left, but the way that it seemed we needed to head was toward the left. We decided to wait for the guy behind us to see which way he thought was right because we just didn't feel like getting lost.

When he caught up to us a few minutes later, we looked for tracks on both trails, and just were not sure. It seemed like there were more tracks on the left trail, though. Coming back to the crossroads, I finally noticed the post near the left trail with an arrow and "Tabeguache" on it. We were relieved to confirm the correct route, and headed on our way. I was running in front, Sandra a few feet back, and our trail buddy behind her.

After about a mile, and moving into a rocky downhill section, I heard the distinctive "thump" of body hitting trail. Turning around, I saw that it was the guy. He'd eaten it pretty good. We asked if he was okay, and he replied with an "Oh, I'm fine," as he picked himself up and began to run again. Sandra and I kept moseying along with his "all good." Soon, he wasn't right behind us anymore. We didn't know if there were any other runners behind him and were a little concerned at how he was doing, but he also one of those old trail runners you know will make it in one way or the other.

Faster than the speeding light she's flying
Trying to remember where it all began
She's got herself a little piece of heaven
Waiting for the time when Earth shall be as one

The sun was still shining bright, and lighting up the bright autumn colors on trees near and far. We'd get views here and there of Mt. Garfield, the Grand Mesa, and back toward Grand Junction, and it felt pretty sweet to see how far we'd already come on foot. There's something cool about these point-to-point races that are off the beaten path. We were gathering a little bit of momentum and starting to loosen up into the run now, and it felt pretty good. We still didn't have a clue on time or pace. I was imagining, since we weren't really "racing" today, that we might be on pace for about a four hour finish. It didn't matter much, though. We hit a point that felt to me like it was probably about ten miles, and rather than wanting it to be all over, I really just wanted to take in every bit of the run and hard work. Our next encounter with another runner was somewhere in this stretch-a guy who came bounding along and said "Boy, am I happy to see you guys! I took a wrong turn for a mile or two" before running on ahead.

We were getting more frequent downhill and flat-type sections now, and it felt good to open up and fly down little stretches. My other "area of progress" on the trail stuff has been the opposite problem of sometimes building up enough speed that I loose all control. This leads to those rolled ankles, falls, and awesome bruising or other body marks. It was feeling okay today, though, with no out-of-control hurtling down rock fields. We kept gathering a bit more speed here and there, backing off a bit at times on the climbs, but staying consistent in the effort.

Coming over one of the hills, we passed another runner, this time one of the ladies we'd seen at the start area. Sandra knew her from one of the local outdoor stores. We said hello and moved along. Not too far up, we encountered Tom, who is kind of a jack-of-all-trades when it comes to outdoor activity. He runs, puts on all the cross country ski races with the nordic council here, does adventure races (one of which involved a mechanical bull ride for one stage earlier this year), and anything else outside that seems fun. He was running more slowly and carefully than he normally would, and seemed to be backing off to just finish without hurting himself in a tired state. We said hello, and he said "save a beer for me!" as we ran along.

Next, we saw a funny, out-of-place looking landmark we'd been told to watch for-some fenced off retaining ponds that kind of look like a random tennis court in the middle of a Colorado wilderness area. Sure enough, there was the tennis court oasis. We laughed at how much it did look like a tennis court on the approach, and kept moving along. It was nice that I'd started this thing a little sleepy and not really warmed up, but just kept warming up and feeling stronger as we continued.

Coming over the top of another hill, we saw a guy on the edge of a trail with a jug of water. I recognized him right away as one of the local running club's older, long-standing members. "Need some water? Trail mix?" he shouted as we came down. Sweet! An aid station of sorts? I was still pretty good on water, but I happily accepted a top-off. I figured it would be good to have a little something extra to rehydrate. Sandra had a smaller flask in her hydration pack, and was near empty. She refilled hers, and we thanked him for being out there. "Only 3.9 miles left!" he told us. "Some sections you'll have to hike, but mostly runnable." Off we went again. Turning left toward Grand Junction, it was awesome to see how far we'd come. We were running through more open-type space now that kind of rolled nicely but didn't climb a ton.

And I feel
Quicker than a ray of light she's flying
Quicker than a ray of light I'm flying

Finally, we could see that we were near the road where we'd left our vehicle to take back to town. Our pace may not have been blazing, but it sort of felt like we were flying now with the finish in sight. We came over one last hill and around a bend, and could see right down to the lot. They could see up to us too, and started hooting and hollering. This was great. We weren't expecting a cheering section, and it was cool to descend the final switchbacks from above to reach them. Getting to the edge of the trail and hitting the last bit of road, we weren't sure if we were supposed to get on the road and just come to them the easy way, or if there was some trail on the other side of the street into the lot. They saw our confusion and waved us down the road, and in we came. As it turned out, we were well under four hours in our fun long run on trails, coming in at around 3:43.

I went back to the vehicle and changed my clothes, grabbing some camping chairs for the finish area. There was a full spread of pasta, bread, zucchini chips, grapes, water and Gatorade, and of course, the Beer Cooler of Awesomeness. As we sat down with our post-drink refreshments, stories were swapped about wrong turns and getting lost. Turns out that we'd done well to not go totally off-course, and find our way in that moment of confusion. Several runners ran a little bit out of their way, and our friend Bryan wound up getting so off-course that he decided to turn around and go back to the start. Another runner, a previous winner of the Leadville Trail 100 with a streak of about 19 finishes in a row there (sans pacers), added a bunch of extra miles somewhere, and wound up coming in behind us due to his extra long run. Someone yelled "Ah, here comes Kirk and that walking stick!" and we hooted and hollered for him as he finished. Most runners continued to chat, eat, and rehydrate on various beverages until all were in, and then hung out and talked a little longer on this beautiful late October day. Usually, I'm the one saying "let's go do X, Y or Z race or run today." This was a day when I was really thankful that others suggested something totally different, because it wound up being one of those days when I re-charged and hit the old re-set button.

I'm looking at a week ahead of solid running and training, and then will figure out some sort of two week taper plan for the Rim Rock Marathon. Upon thinking about what went wrong at The Other Half (and there was a LOT), I think I need to be careful that I'm not building or doing some sort of reverse taper in these last few weeks. I may have gotten a bit overexuberant leading up to that race, and just didn't taper enough. It was just one of those days, too, but I'm going to make sure I fix the things for Rim Rock that stand out as things in my power to change. If I make the most of my preparation, then I'll be ready for those things that are not in my power to change.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oh, this sounds awesome. What a great day!