Monday, January 9, 2012

Occupy Bangs Canyon: The 2012 Bangs Canyon Fatass 30K and 60K

The idea of running something called a "Fatass" is probably not all that appealing to the uninitiated. You don't hear about tens of thousands of people signing up for the 116th Boston Fatass, or the Fatass 5K to Benefit Children in Need. It's such a refreshingly simple means of getting out to run, race, and learn to rely on one's self, though, that the appeal really should be as wide and long as the race this past Saturday through Bangs Canyon, amidst the dirt, sand and slick rock of Western Colorado.

A Fatass is the moniker attached to smaller, community-based races characterized by the phrase "No Fees, No Award, No Aid, No Wimps." They often occur just after the new year, and are most popular with your rank-and-file trail runners and general long distance crowd. Courses are generally very sparsely marked, and runners can't depend on aid stations or rock and roll bands to get them through. Runners carry what is needed, including a map, cell phone, water, and whatever else one needs to bring along to stay out of trouble.

Grand Junction had a Fatass that was put on for many years, and the tradition was revived a few years ago by local Ironman, Leadville Trail 100 finisher and all around great athlete Kevin Koch. I'd never heard of a Fatass in my early years of running, but as I got into longer distances, I heard that we had one in my neck of the woods. A really well-written piece on last year's event in our local newspaper really piqued my interest, and with no marathon and two long trail races on my spring schedule, I was all over it this year. The Race Formerly Officially Known As A Fatass had been given the civilized name of the Bangs Canyon 30K/60K. Whether it was good word-of-mouth in the local running community, the more "friendly" name, or generally decent whether, there seemed to be many more people talking about running and racing this year compared to the previous few years, when 10-12 people total participated between different distance options. Besides local usual suspects, my friend Jen from Delta had committed to come up, as had Mad Dog relay teammates Mike from Olathe and Audra from Ridgway.

Usually, I've got a plan as far as my race and distance when there are multiple options, but I was decidedly undecided right up until the start. A couple of other runners thought they'd be doing the 60K; Jen and I both said that we'd play it by ear and consider a "loop plus", if not the whole two loops out in the canyon. Jen showed up at my place, and I drove us up Little Park Road, past sections of the Tabeguache and other area trails, until we got to the Bangs Canyon Staging Area. I still remained completely noncommital on distance, with a plan to run the first loop at a consistent pace, and then figure out if another loop would be prudent based on the first 19-ish miles (yes, 19 miles is a bit more than 30K, but as with some longer trail runs, all "official" race distances are approximate).

We signed in, and more runners started to trickle in. It was a truly gorgeous morning, and the early sun lit up the canyon while runners socialized and milled about. As race time approached, I stripped off some outer layers and put on a bright pair of OP shorts. I wasn't about to wear a skirt in this-I know how often I've fallen in other trail races-but needed some color and flavor out there. Probably sounds insanely stupid but I race better that way.

(Sandra, Ben, and I are really confused over the trail map)

(some of the boys, with race director Kevin at left)

(and some of the girls)

Besides the human entrants, there were a number a canine runners as well. This was going to be an all-comers kind of day. We all had our maps in hand, and when race time came, Kevin asked if there were any questions. I had to throw out a "Will there be any bands on the course?" smartass comment before he gave us the official go-ahead.

Almost immediately, we had our first-near crisis in the run. EVERYBODY failed to follow the course map and Kevin's directions, bearing right at the first fork in the trail instead of left. Shannon, Kevin's wife, immediately saved the race and yelled that everybody was heading in the wrong direction. Whoops. Soon, the two-dozen odd runners were turned around and headed in the correct direction, running downhill over packed snow, dirt, and some occasional muddy and icy spots.

Rather than embracing my inner "You're not as fast as these gnarly trail chicks, hang back, be conservative," I seemed to be setting a plan early on to run one strong loop, more aggressively paced than I might do on my own. I stuck with the half-dozen or so ladies who went out in a pack together, not able to run AND talk at that pace, but able to tuck in at the back and keep up. Eventually, Audra and Vanessa meandered ahead, but I seemed to be able to keep up with Sarah, Shannon and Kathaleen decently. I wasn't quite sure how long I could maintain this effort but stuck with it. I'd run sections of this area before, but never this portion of the trail, and the novelty of something new was helping me to hang in there. When Kathaleen started talking about how wet she was (from her Camelbak leaking), we all just busted up. This was making it pretty easy to mosey along at their pace that was a bit faster than I'd have gone on my own.

We'd been warned to save something for the climb back, but as we ran toward the river, I started to feel more and more relaxed, continuing to hang at the back of the pack of ladies. Mike took multiple pit stops in the early miles, and I had to give him a hard time the third time he passed me up. I also chatted a bit with Adam, who had a beautiful chocolate lab that looked much like my dog Wilson as a pup.

Plummeting down toward the river, I just had to look around a few times and appreciate everything about this run; the beauty of the trail, the company I was keeping, and having the good health to be able to participate.

Hitting the bottom of the route, we ran along the river, and then began the long, steady climb uphill-the hard part for which we'd been told to save ourselves.

Early on the uphill, we encountered Greg doing his best zombie impersonation,

and soon after that, we saw John, a 2-time Leadville Trail 100 finisher, and Kirk, a 17-time LT100 (and onetime winner) and Hardrock 100 finisher. We were about eleven miles in now, and I felt okay, but a little off the pace of the other ladies. Somewhere in here, I was doing nothing in particular, and felt a little "ping" in my right calf. Nothing bad or horribly concerning, but running uphill took on a new level of tweakage, with that calf kind of pinching with every step. As much as my mind was totally in the game for pushing to stay with the ladies, I recognized that as a Bad Ideas Club submission immediately, letting them go as I fell back a bit.

There were some lonely miles in here. This was the greyest part of the course; I was by myself, and my A-game wasn't around today. I had a bit of a moment during this time, alone with some people moving on ahead, and others out-of-sight behind me. Any deep, profound moments didn't last long, though, as I refocused on making an effort to alternate speedy hiking with running to avoid overtaking and injuring the calf.

Turning back onto a familiar section, I passed the ancient, overturned blue jeep I've never photographed (soon...soon....old camera died and am still awaiting a battery on a "nused" DSLR camera). Ah, yes, I knew a big uphill slickrock climb was coming, but I knew there wasn't too much more to run. As the trail snaked up and down, I'd hear occasional joyful, faraway yells from other runners, but wasn't sure how close or far away they were. It echoed through the canyons and put a smile on my face.

Making a turn downhill for one final plummet before the long final climb, I could see a runner who looked like Shannon. She appeared to be closer than she was; in actuality, I needed to snake around quite a bit to get back to where she was. I heard a few more celebratory whoops off in the distance, and as I eventually started moving uphill myself, I could see two runners off in the spot I'd been when Shannon seemed so close. Continuing up the slick rock, I was very tired, but managed to alternate hiking and slow running. Then, clear as a bell, I could hear a loud, operatic scale being sung somewhere behind me in the canyon by someone I presumed was Elizabeth, one of the runners who did a little singing on New Year's Eve. I couldn't tell exactly how close it was, or who it was for sure, but was music to the ears late in the game.

Getting close to home, I saw Adam and his dog heading back out again. Ah, so there would be at least one 60K runner today, or so it seemed. Nice. I knew I was not doing another lap, but thought it was cool that others were going to stick it out for another loop. Continuing uphill, I passed John and Marty, who were done, but meandering their way back down the slick rock a bit. It was pretty slick here, and as I slid around cautiously on that funky ankle, I saw John go down hard. He seemed okay, but it made me cringe. I had no doubts as it was that I was just doing one loop, but knowing myself, I knew that calling it a day after one solid lap was probably a great idea. The light was getting flatter, stuff was icing up a bit, and I didn't see anything for me to gain today by attempting another lap.

Once off the slick rock, I just scampered with what I had left to get up the trail, but didn't know the time. The borrowed, newer Garmin I've been using yet again died before the event was over (I'm wondering if anyone else with newer Garmins has experienced this issue, which I never had with my now-dead 205), so I didn't really know where I was time-wise. I was sure I was over four hours, but was feeling decent about my effort regardless of the time. Coming into the lot and finishing, Kevin called my time as 3:57. I was the last sub-4 runner in, and pretty stoked to hit that mark. This hasn't been my forte, and it was a sign that I've indeed closed the gap a bit between my road and trail running.

In the end, Audra had won the women's side of things,

and that pack of women I stuck with for the first 10 or 11 miles had finished about ten minutes ahead. Feeling really good about my performance, and hanging with those ladies (yeah, it was easy running for them, but still), I happily got into some dry clothes and assumed my position by the fire pit. Thus began the "Occupy Bangs Canyon" portion of things. I've joked with friends that when I finish the Desert R.A.T.S. 50-miler, I'd just like a few of them to show up shortly before I come in. They can go home, read War and Peace, shower a few times, kick back a beer or two...I don't care, it'd just be nice if the finish area is not deserted. In that spirit, I layered up and settled in for the long haul, as Adam continued his second loop, and Jeff, who was running his one loop consecutively after his wife Kathaleen so someone could always keep an eye on their kids. As we hung out, the snow began to fall, vintage 80's boomboxes appeared, and hula-hooping skills (or lack thereof) were demonstrated. Ray busted out a buffalo pelt from his car (because, as you know, everybody keeps one of these things in the trunk of their car, right?). Too much fun was had with that thing.

Now that it was getting later in the day, I was beginning to chill, but Adam and Jeff were also due in anytime. Sooner than expected, we saw Adam and his doggie come up the trail, and soon after that, Jeff made his appearance. Adam got one of the lovely plastic winner medal that the male and female 30K champs had received.

When Jeff got in, he got a beer and the satisfaction of being through running solo late in the afternoon. No, he's not really crying here, though it kind of looks like it. I'm not going to pick on Jeff-he brought me a shirt from the GABR, or the Great American Beer Run, which he will be putting on again for the first time in a few years at the end of this month.

I stuck around for a little bit before heading off, thoroughly invigorated by my own race, and the ensuing hang that followed for the others still on the course. There was a brief bit of worry that I'm not quite prepared for the Moab RedHot or the Desert R.A.T.S. run, but that thought was squelched because I knew this was a good run for me for the day, and that with incremental increases in effort and distance, I'll do both of those races upright and unbroken. On this particular Saturday, it was good to just get out and move my post new year's "fatass" around the trails with friends for a bit.

(Thanks to Shannon and Kevin Koch, and Jen Stagner, whose photos appear in this entry)

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