Tuesday, April 24, 2012

All These Things That I've Done/"The Hard Is What Makes It Great": The Desert R.A.T.S. Trail Running Festival 50-Miler

When there's nowhere else to run 
Is there room for one more son
 One more son
 If you can hold on If you can hold on, hold on

I did not intend to give this title an entry of epic proportion. This blog will be epic length, though, so I'll be indulgent and allow it to have double the Youtube entertainment value. If you're ready for an endurance read, pull up some chair and put your feet up. "All These Things That I've Done" was the song that I had in mind before the Desert R.A.T.S. 50-miler, and it still feels right on. The "The Hard Is What Makes It Great" quote from one of my all-time favorite movies, A League Of Their Own, entered my head after about 35 miles, and I'd be remiss if I did not include it as a central theme for the day.

 I've raced a marathon every fall and spring since October 2008, plus a summer marathon in Missoula in 2010. In the beginning of my running days, I did like getting on the trails, and would hit the nearby Tabeguache Trail for hill training in a pretty setting. Trail running was free of time or distance to me. It became a way to run without worrying about my pace or any other unit of measure. I ran a few short distance trail races as a new runner, but primarily stuck to roads. I just knew I wasn't someone who could do things those ultrarunners did. Or so I'd convinced myself. I did get kind of intrigued when my friend Carol, one of the first runners I met, told me about her husband Carson running the 17.1 mile Imogene Pass Run, and thought, well, maybe. But if I do that, nothing longer. I can't do that longer stuff.

 After signing up for my first Imogene and running it again the next year, my friend Jen put a new trail race in Moab called the RedHot on my radar. They had a 33K and 55K. After briefly dabbling with the idea of trying the 55K, I quickly reminded myself that this was TOO FAR for me. I wasn't someone with the trail legs or talent to pull off 55K. I ran the 33K instead, a little over 20 miles. It was really tough and I had moments of wondering why I'd signed up for this, slogging through snow and mud. It was amazing too. It felt like I was touching the sky, moving along on foot in the middle of nowhere. When I got to the end I couldn't believe I made it there on my own two feet. I had a celebratory beer with Jen and our friend Nick, feeling good about tackling something that was really hard for me.

In the next year, I resolved to give the RedHot 55K a go, even though I felt like a total ultra running poser in doing so. After all, I was a locally competent road runner who would plod along slowly, tripping over her feet and falling down all the time on trails. When I finished that first 55K, I was shocked and surprised that I'd gotten through it, this time in the rain and wind, without ever feeling terrible. Yes, I was exhausted, and the last few miles came down to the extreme physical and mental challenge of putting one foot in front of the other. I made the time cutoffs on the course and at the finish with plenty of time to spare, though. Here I was, a road runner with no business being out here, at the finish of 34 miles. It felt pretty damn good.

  I want to stand up, I want to let go 
You know, you know - no you don't, you don't
 I want to shine on in the hearts of men 
I want a meaning from the back of my broken hand 

By now, I was spending a lot more time on trails, even in the early mornings, when I used to think "oh, that's too dark and dangerous." My training partners and I found routes that were surprisingly runnable with a good head lamp, and pretty special and enjoyable in the dark. I signed up for my second RedHot 55K, this time with the goal of not just finishing, but taking off a chunk of time from the year prior. I got active with the Ultra Dogs, an informal Facebook group set up by my friend Mike from Olathe to help runners in our region with coordinating long trail runs and adventures. I was often the last or one of the last people in the train of runners on the trail, but nobody ever made me feel like a slowpoke, or a lesser runner. It was always about having a good time hitting trails with like-minded friends. Some of whom just so happened to have completed or even won major 100-mile races, and some of whom were brand-new to running long. I asked a lot of questions of the more experienced trail runners, and just listened to their stories about various racing experiences. I started thinking about a bigger spring race this time, and found myself believing I might be able to run 50 miles. I could do just as well do a road marathon and be very challenged by that, and go for a PR. I knew for sure that I could do that well, though. I needed to get outside my comfort zone this time, and do something I'd convinced myself for a long time was something I couldn't do, and not for people like me.

 I truly expected, when I made public that idea to a small handful of  local trail and ultra folks, to hear "oh, that's nice. But you should wait before tackling that." Or "That's a long way and you're not there yet." I was surprised that the feedback I received from everyone was uniformly some variation of "that's great! Do it if it's speaking to you!" I thought I could do it, yes...but I figured someone was going to be honest with me and bring me back to reality. I don't think of myself as someone who needs a ton of affirmation to do the things I want, but this affirmation it was possible was huge to me at the time.

So, once again, I went to the experienced ultra runners, and asked about various races. Things kept coming right back to the local Desert R.A.T.S. Trail Running Festival, held on the trails in Loma and Mack, Colorado, over a weekend in April. Here's the elevation chart for the first loop. On the second loop, runners head out and run it in the other direction.

and the course itself

 I would be able to train the course, and sleep in my own bed the night before the race. There would be no travel expenses either, other than gas for the car. I would be as acclimated to the local weather and climate. The race director also had an unusual policy of allowing 50-milers to drop and get an official finish time in the 25-mile race if they couldn't, or didn't want to go back out. This was a funny double-edged sword. It was a relief to know that I could take this option if I was sick or hurting badly. I didn't want to plan on it, but everyone I'd spoken with told me how tough it was to head back out for a second counterclockwise loop after the first 25 miles.In the past, many 50-mile entrants have opted out, and taken that 25 mile finish time, unable to make themselves head back out. I knew this would be something important to prepare and train for-as important as logging the general miles to get ready for the race. With a lot of excitement and touch of wondering "What the hell am I thinking?" I signed up for the Desert R.A.T.S. (acronym for Run Across The Sand) 50-mile race.

Another head aches, another heart breaks
I am so much older than I can take
And my affection, well it comes and goes
I need direction to perfection, no no no no 

Throughout the winter and early spring, I was meticulous about time on feet on the weekends, almost always  running long with my friend Sandra who was getting ready for her first ultra at the Moab RedHot, sometimes joining in with larger Ultra Dog groups, and other times as a pair or small group. I hit track every week, and did lots of shorter runs on Serpents Trail, the 1.75 mile stretch of curving, twisting trail at the base of the Colorado National Monument. RedHot day came and I had my strongest feeling run there, lopping more than half an hour off my time from the prior year. I headed back home from Moab, though, with some pain in my right IT band. I was a little discouraged but knew I needed to rest it in order to fully resume training. At the same time, there were life stresses building and wearing on me. I hit a bottoming out point one night when I tried to run, and couldn't. I left the track and tried going to yoga, but found that I was spent, exhausted, and feeling broken. I was doubting that I could be ready in time for 50 miles. Running and yoga friends helped me get out of my pity party fast, though. I realized I didn't have to be giving 200% all the time. Rest and recovery was good. Making the effort, even when the workouts sucked, was good. After some patchy, uneven training weeks, I found the trail again and  made the most of the last month before Desert R.A.T.S.

 My questions to more experienced running friends in the final pre-race weeks became more course- and race day-specific, and in turn, the answers helped me form a checklist of things to do and to keep in mind. All the guys who had finished the 50-miler uniformly agreed that it was not a course for minimal shoes. It was very rocky in places, and the feet would take a good beating regardless. Thus, I planned on my Newton trail shoes rather than my very flexible and grippy but minimal INOV8 trail shoes. Everyone said the second loop had the potential to be very hot, and to make sure I took the opportunity to train midday whenever possible. I also heard that people would hard-charge out on Moore Fun, the beginning of the first loop, and that if I was patient I'd reel them all back in. I was also warned to pace myself, and not be tempted to go out faster than planned just because 25-milers were hauling buns. And it went without saying that training on the course was to my advantage  It all went onto my mental checklist for the race, and I found myself believing that I would finish 50 miles if I took all of this into account, and executed well. .Waiting for a cold winter, and  heavy snow in Loma and Mack course that never came, I trained the course every weekend. Sometimes it felt okay, and once or twice it was so warm I didn't know how I'd manage on race day. I kept doing it, though, and trusted that this training was going to do it for me.

In the last week before the race, I got down to race day specifics. At the Six Hours of Serpents Trail two weeks prior, Marty had suggested that I try Perpetuem for fueling and nutrition. It covers all race day nutrition needs for a long endurance event, can be mixed easily with water, and most importantly, doesn't taste like butt. I've always hated gels, and this stuff was somewhat pleasant and drinkable.

The night before the race, we picked up packets and separated single scoops of  white, powdery Perpetuem into individual sandwich baggies tied together with little rubber bands in some sort of operation that looked more like pre-sale coke dealing than anything else. No, really, officer, we're racing an ultramarathon in the desert tomorrow, and this is our fuel. I was kind of relieved to have a fueling strategy, and to not have to worry about eating random food. This would be everything I needed, and I wouldn't have my body diverting energy to food digestion, and possibly having some gastrointestinal distress to boot. I knew how much water to ask for in my Nathan pack at aid stations, would have them pour it in the flask so I could mix the drink.

I was still scrambling when I got home to make sure I had everything, but decided I was mostly there and that sleep was important. I headed off to bed and tried to get some shuteye. When I was almost asleep, I suddenly realized that with all my attention on the race, I'd forgotten to do my Friday cleaning at the yoga studio. I clean in trade for class credits and couldn't believe I'd forgotten to go down there. I punted on third down, figuring I would be awake early anyway, and could do it really fast in the morning.

Four a.m. came quickly, but I felt well-rested when I awoke. I headed down to Yoga Vinyassa, wondering if someone would think I was breaking in at that hour, and hoping that it wasn't one of those days that comes along every once in a great while when the place had been "well loved" the day prior. Thankfully, it was pretty clean in there, and I was able to do a good once-over quickly. I picked up Sarah, who was running the 25 and lives nearby. From there we headed out to the Loma/Mack parking lot where the race would begin. It was a zoo already but Sarah scouted out the million dollar parking spot where one could park, near a gate, but sat empty.

I located Marty, who had camped with his daughter Michaela in his van just a few feet away from the start, and threw some of my stuff for the changeover between laps one and two in it. I lathered up the sunscreen and bodyglide, and made sure I had everything I thought I needed. I saw several of the Ultra Dogs-Kirk, Jeff, John and Adam, who would be in the 50, and Jen, who was running 25 today. Ben would be running the 25 today after getting back from a month in Costa Rica less than 24 hours prior, and some of my friends had seen him, but I hadn't bumped into him yet. I figured I'd make my way to the starting area to get ready for the big show. It was cool but not cold at the 6:30am start. This was going to be a hot day.

Sooner than I expected, Reid, the race director counted off, and we were on our way. I relaxed, waiting for the crowd to start moving, and headed off down the road without any urgency to be at Moore Fun, the first portion of real trail, before most of the pack. Sure enough, when I reached the trail, there were some runners who were jockeying for position and calling "on your left!/passing on your right!" I would shift and let them pass. Tucking in behind a couple from Denver who was going about my pace, I settled into a comfortable rhythm. As warm as it was, it could've been hotter for sure. I chatted with the couple a little bit, and we traded the "must do" races we'd completed. Their next big race was the Pikes Peak Marathon-something wasn't on my to-do list, but very well could be in the future. I eventually felt warmed up enough to start moving slightly faster without overtaxing myself, wished them an enjoyable race, and eased on by, surprised that my familiarity with the course did indeed have me moving with a bit more ease than others who run my pace.

Cruising into the first aid station, I stopped long enough to let the course workers record my number, and continue on. After some thought and discussion with friends prior to the race, I'd decided that it would be best to keep my Nathan pack half-full, starting with 40 oz of water mixed with two scoops of Perpetuem rather than going out with a full pack and filling it to capacity every time I emptied it. I'd be refilling more frequently at aid stations, but would be able to run with less weight in the pack that way. I knew the pack wouldn't/shouldn't be empty at this point, so I continued on without any other fueling or hydration. I also had a handheld with water but was on orders to just use the Perpetuem, and hold off on water unless I really needed to have a little.

From the first aid station, the trail climbed up toward Mary's Loop, and I saw a lot of folks hiking already. I felt okay, and just ran very, very easy, with short strides and no real push. There was a guy named Steve from Boulder who seemed to be dialed in to the same pace as I, running most of the trail easily with some strategic fast hiking here and there. We chatted off and on through the next few miles, never far apart from one another.  I did hike a few short sections but  ran slowly for the most part. There were some runners, again, who seemed to be pushing it a bit, even if they were doing the 25, and hammering ahead only to slow down and hike. I kept a steady, even steady pace, and tried to find that sweet spot I thought I could maintain for a long time. Coming in to Pizza Overlook, just before dropping onto Steve's Loop, I did my first fuel refill. The aid station workers would greet us coming in, asking what we needed and how they could help. There wasn't any waiting or looking around for what I needed. I emptied what was left in my Nathan flask, since the Perpetuem can turn after a length of time, and it was hot, and then had the volunteer refill 40oz from her water pitcher. Here's where I made my one hydration error in hindsight, but I didn't realize it then. I should have added one bag/scoop per 20 ounces, but only put one in with my 40 ounces of water. Not realizing this, I went on my way with a watered down mix. There were four women with whom I kept leapfrogging. Every time they pushed ahead, I let them go, but they seemed to float back to me over and over.

I continued to feel good, and was able to run more or less all the way to the third aid station at the "Crossroads" without any unusual fatigue or attrition. I did hear others around me mention the heat once or twice, but it wasn't blistering yet, and felt pretty good to me. It had been far more hot out here on other runs, and an occasional breeze provided reprieve from the rising temperatures here and there. I've heard some debate recently about whether yoga is beneficial to running or not. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I can guarantee that I felt more acclimated to hotter temperatures from spending 75 minutes, several days a week, at 98-100 degrees doing heated power yoga. It's improved my focus an the way I move on trails as well. It was making a difference today for sure.

Coming in to the next aid station, I topped off another 20 ounces of water into my Nathan, and dropped another powdery bag of Perpetuem inside with the help of an aid station volunteer. I trotted out and continued on Steve's Loop toward Troy Built. I hadn't run this section until earlier in the winter with the Ultra Dogs, and it's one of my favorite stretches of trail, meandering and rolling gently uphill with the river below. The ascent is gradual and while one cannot become unfocused, it's a great place to let the eyes wander a little, and check out the scenery. I also had that catchy song "Somebody That I Used To Know" by Gotye enter my head, and just continue to play over and over on continuous repeat. Rather than being annoying, it was kind of nice and meditative. I'd heard it in a class at my girls' dance convention the prior weekend, played it many times over the course of the next week, and heard it again the night before the race during the Perpetuem baggie assembly effort. I suppose it's not surprising that the tune decided to take up residence in my brain today.

Getting over to Troy Built, and around Lyons Loop, it was getting warmer. I hit the Mile 19 aid station and did my now standard dumping out the last drops from my hydration pack, getting water added, and then adding mix. One of the Boulder ladies, wearing a St. George Ironman triathlon shirt, moved a bit ahead. Her friends were talking to themselves, saying they didn't have 50 miles in them today, but they were worried about their friend who was out for her first fifty, AND first ultra today. Dang. Some people really do like to go big or go home. I suggested that maybe they see how they feel at the end of the loop because there was still lots of time and distance before the end of the loop. We saw the first of the 50 mile frontrunners coming through in the next few miles. I saw local Jeff, who hollered "Hey Maude (after my Maude Lebowski Halloween costume)!" as he ran past. The Boulder girls asked "Oh, is your name Maude?" I laughed and explained that it wasn't but that I did a pretty excellent Halloween costume for a party with some running friends last fall.

On the way up, I passed Joel Arellano, a captain with the Grand Junction Fire Department who was fundraising for the Wounded Warrior Project and running the 25 miler in a 65 pound bomb suit. I couldn't even imagine...this was a steep hill and any extra weight sounded miserable. I said "Wow, I feel like a pansy now! Great job!" as I moved by.

Heading to Mack Ridge, it felt as if time was really flying now. It was getting warm now but the temperature still felt like it was rising gradually. I started mentally preparing to not stay too long at the start/finish line. I suppose I was a little tired because all of a sudden it became very concerning and important to me that I couldn't quite remember where I'd stuck my things for the transition between laps. Did I put everything in Marty's van? Did I leave some of my stuff in my van? Crap. I couldn't remember. Suddenly, the thought of "where did I leave my van keys? I don't remember where I left my van keys!" entered my head out of nowhere. For about five minutes, I drove myself nuts with thoughts of missing keys and missing gear. I eventually stopped this crazy thought cycle because it really didn't matter. I couldn't look for my stuff out here. I figured I'd run in, dig around for socks and a dry tech tee and head out. And I'm sure my keys were somewhere. If not, somebody would likely let me thumb a ride home.

As the trail descended, I saw a slew of runners, including Adam, John, and Kirk. When I yelled "Hey Kirk!" the woman in front of me, with whom I'd chatted for a bit, said "Kirk? As in Kirk Apt?" I said yes, that's the one. She said, "Oh, wow! He won Leadville the year I won Leadville!" She turned uphill and hollered "Kirk Apt!....Linda Lee!  It's been a long time!" He greeted her back as we headed off in opposite directions. I asked Ms. Lee if she was going 50 miles today, and she said "Oh, no. No more 50s for me. Just 25s." You know...because you want to slow down and take in the scenery and "just" run 25s in your fifties.

Help me out
Yeah, you know you got to help me out
Yeah, oh don't you put me on the backburner
You know you got to help me out 

Coming down the hill from Mack Ridge to the frontage road, I could see some folks were already walking the hill on the road. It had been drilled into my head, and now out of force of habit in practice, I agree-run as slowly and with as short a stride as I needed rather than walking whenever possible. I knew as someone who would be one of the last ones to finish-if I finished-that I would run slowly here. I felt pretty good so there was no sense slowing for no good reason. As I came down the hill and then gradually uphill toward the end of the first 25 miles, I could see two people running in my general direction. As I got closer....is that....yes, it was! Bryan and Marty were coming down the road to meet me. Ah, friendly, familiar faces! When they got to me, they asked how I was feeling, if anything hurt/didn't hurt, etc., and asked how I wanted to do this time between laps. Did I want to get in and out as fast as possible, take some time, other? What I wanted to do was split the difference; not rush through in a hurry, but not stay too long either. I could see on the way in that the elapsed time on the clock was somewhere around 5:50. Right about where I hoped to be and thought I would be.

As we approached the start/finish, I was surprised to see that all my friends were there to cheer me in. I figured some of them might be around but this was totally unexpected and awesome to have a mobilized cheering/crewing station. Somebody put out a big cooler for me to sit on. Everyone was asking what I needed, how I was feeling. I had people rubbing my back, arms, legs, rubbing on sunscreen, getting my socks off and  having someone cleaning the trail dust from them with a cool, wet washcloth that just felt heavenly at this point. My bag of extra gear was brought to me. I didn't have to get up off the cooler to do a thing. Bryan asked how/what to mix in my hydration pack and ran off with it. Shannon (I think it was Shannon) scored me some banana, and PB and J wrap. I finally saw Ben, whom I'd missed before the race. I asked about his 25 miles, and turned out he'd done some course detouring, as had several others. Grayson was there cracking jokes and being upbeat. Sarah, Angela, Jen, and Elizabeth were all there too, and Michaela was snapping away on the camera.

I said I was kind of hungry, to which Marty quickly and matter-of-factly replied "Then you're not drinking enough (Perpetuem). Did you pee yet?" No, I said, I had not. He took his wristwatch (I wasn't carrying one today), set it for two hours from then, gave it to me, and said to be disciplined about continuing to drink the Perpetuem-no water-until I did need to pee, and to drink everything in the pack before the alarm he'd set on the wristwatch. I was surprised because I thought I'd had enough to drink in total fluids. I wonder in hindsight if this had anything to do with my one watered down batch of Perpetuem. He doused my hat in cold water before giving it back to me as well. It wound up being fortuitous that I couldn't find my two favorite visors, and wound up going with a large, wide-brimmed white running cap. My head and scalp would've been fried without the full coverage today, even with sunscreen. I'd done a good job of lathering myself up for the first loop, and was red from the heat but not sunburned at all.

The peanut butter wrap was kind of grossing me out, so I chucked that. The bit of banana was okay, though, so I kept working on it. I was surprised that I didn't feel any desire to stop now. I had beaten it into my head that I could not and would not stop here, but figured I might be feeling more rough. I knew it was time to get out while the getting was good. Mike Barton had told me a story from one of his races about staying way too long and getting too comfortable at an aid station. I said thanks to everybody for being there, and headed back off down the gravel road to the trails.

Heading to the end of  the road, I saw the couple I'd run with early in the race, coming down the hill and ready to head down the road to finish their 25 miles. They waved and the husband/boyfriend yelled "Ah! You made it back out! Good luck!" Climbing the hill, I tried to not think too deeply about the fact that it was getting really warm now, and I had to do this whole loop all over again. I thought about races like Imogene, where it all feels really hard, but everybody who wants to puts one foot in front of the other and makes it through. My mind wandered to "A League Of Their Own" when Geena Davis' Dottie leaves to go home to Oregon with her husband, saying "It just got too hard," and Tom Hanks' Jimmy Dugan tells her "It's supposed to be hard. If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great." This resonated 300% with me today. From that same scene...this running thing gets inside me, like Jimmy tells Dottie in that scene. It IS what lights me up from the inside. I made my mind up to be patient, not get frustrated or down on myself, and keep moving one leg in front of the other.

Heading back up Mack Ridge, I saw the guy coming down in the 65 pound suit again. I think he'd wanted to be done by noon but he was going to be done, it appeared, which was great on a day like today. I had not seen Stephen from Boulder and wondered what happened to him. I hoped he was far ahead making good time. Getting to the top of Mack Ridge, I felt a little less intimidated by the task of loop two. I found that short stride again and ran, and soon I could see St. George Ironman girl ahead. One would think that the big, steep hill leading to the first aid station would feel good but I was having a bit of trouble controlling my running on something so steep. I kind of skittered, and hiked a few spots. I remember how bad it hurt to sprain my ankle last year, and how much of a bummer it was to not run. Soon it became less steep, and I trotted down into the aid station, having some oranges and checking to see how my Nathan pack looked. I was doing a good job of drinking it down, and was sort of feeling like I would need to pee soon. We topped it off and I added some more drink mix. I thanked the aid station workers and headed off again.

I encountered a few mountain bikers in this next section of climbing up from the aid station, and tried to alternate slow running with a fast hike on the steeps. Ironman Girl was always 1-3 minutes ahead of me, but I couldn't really see her on these curving trails. I hadn't seen a 25 miler in awhile, but along here I saw a guy who was walking slowly with a number pinned to him. "Do you have a few ounces of water to spare"?" he asked me with a look of desperation. I said "I have a full pack on my back, you can have all the water in my handheld," and dumped it into his empty small flask. I asked if he was okay; he said he was and I let him go on his way but was a little concerned. It wasn't warm anymore; it was plain 'ol hot now. I made sure to be disciplined about taking regular, consistent sips from my Nathan, whether I felt thirsty or not.

Winding back to Steve's Loop, I could see Ironman Girl again, and got a strong psychological boost to be off that lonely section and back above the river. Somebody I Used To Know kept playing on continuous repeat in the head, with the occasional "I Got Soul But I'm Not A Solider," from "All These Things That I've Done" by the Killers. The ironic hipsters in trucker caps may very well hate this song. I'm a 38-year-old mom with a minivan, I run ultras, and I find this song to be the perfect race day anthem, so they can suck it.

 My legs had less spring here than the first time through but I had fun on this section. It's got some nice roll and flow to it; I took the opportunity to just play on the trail here. I looked down occasionally at the newly acquired wristwatch to make sure I was giving myself enough time to make all aid station cutoffs and finish. Things still looked decent. Every now and again, Ironman Girl and I would get close enough to converse a bit, see how the other was doing. We were both pacing very similarly and smartly (I thought). She could run a little faster than me, but was doing some strategic run/hike alternating, and didn't look hunched over or to be in any kind of trouble with the heat.

She got down to the 37 mile aid station just ahead of me, where we talked with aid station workers as we refueled and snacked on oranges. I mentioned that there was a guy who was not in awesome shape to whom I'd given all my water. Ironman Girl (who, keep in mind, was just slightly ahead of me), says with concern "*I* gave him water too!" The course workers were concerned as well, so we gave them a full description of the runner, though we did not have his bib number. When we headed back out, we were near one another for a bit, and approaching 38 miles or so, I asked, "So, are we good to make our cutoffs?" Ironman Girl said "Yes! We've got it! We're going to finish!" "Oh, awesome!" I replied, feeling my first little surge of emotion. I kept it in check, though, knowing I had to focus all the way in. The temperatures continued to climb and it was crucial that I not become dehydrated or cramp up late in the game. I was surprised that we were the only ones out here. There were folks with way more experience at this stuff than a couple of girls doing a 50-miler for the first time. I did not think that the "home field advantage" would make much of a difference before the race. It was becoming more and more apparent that it was huge to be able to run here in the warmest part of the state, on the trail, even if I wasn't doing it fast. Continuing to follow the trail, I meandered along the rim of the canyon, like I'd done many weekends to get from the trailhead down to Horsethief Bench (not part of the course today). When I turned the corner, I expected to see Ironman Girl, but didn't see her anywhere. I kept turning corners and switchbacks and still didn't see her. Oh s#it, I thought. Several of the guys had gone off-course in the 25 mile. I was pretty sure she'd taken a wrong turn when I didn't see her. There was no way she'd gone from looking great to crashing and burning off the trail somewhere.

Climbing up to the 40-41ish mile aid station, I let them know right away that I thought my running companion  had wandered off-course. I had been fairly lost in my own running world but did remember seeing flags kind of going in two different directions. Just being local and knowing where I was supposed to go, I hadn't paid much attention to the other flagging, figuring it might be for the 5-mile or the half on Sunday. I was guessing after the fact that she went that way. My heart sunk because we were ahead of the cutoffs, but not by much. I didn't know, IF she was still feeling good and found the trail, whether or not she'd be able to finish in time now. There was one other guy here in the 50-miler, and we stood there for a minute or two, grabbing oranges that, in the words of Matthew Inman, who does the great online comic "The Oatmeal," "tasted like unicorn tears." Besides writing a hilarious comic, The Oatmeal guy is a runner as well, and did a great blog entry separate from the comic about running his first 50-miler last year. I'd highly recommend reading it whether you've raced a 50-miler or not. I guarantee a laugh or three. Anyway, those were the best damn oranges I'd ever had in my life. I found myself getting emotional again, knowing that it looked like I was going to make it 50 miles. I shut that stuff down, and headed out just a minute or two after the other guy at the aid station.

I got soul, but I'm not a soldier
I got soul, but I'm not a soldier

Now meandering on Mary's Loop, I had the "I Got Soul But I'm Not A Soldier" running over and over through my brain. I got a bit of a third wind, and was able to slowly run quite a bit of this section. I eventually  caught up with the guy, who said he was from Sheridan, Wyoming, and having a tough time with the heat and rockiness of the course. Therefore, he was dialing back, being smart, and hiking at a pace that would allow him to to conserve what energy he had left and not trash himself. He said he had friends who came to race but dropped from the 50, and that it had been cold and snowy all winter where he lived with no opportunity to train in the heat. Dang. I was creeping along and getting tired but wasn't in the world of hurt so many others seemed to be in. I stifled that little bit of emotion that kept welling up, and decided to push a little bit down Mary's to the last aid station. We said "have a good run" to one another and I moved on.

At this point, I was transitioning into a different mental and physical state. Every step was becoming harder, and I was beginning to kick and catch my toes on rocks. I slowed down and hiked a bit but kept the pace up as much as I could, trying to scamper and be as light as I could on foot. I couldn't remember what the cutoff time was for that last aid station at the bottom of Moore Fun. I was a little confused now. Was I going to miss the cut at 44-45 miles? Shit. I didn't know. I was a little anxious now. I came off the single track trail and scrambled up the road to the aid station, where a whole table of aid workers still sat with all the necessary goodies. They asked what I needed and I asked "Did I make it? Did I make the last cutoff?" One of the guys said oh, yeah, you made it with plenty of time. For the first time, I let my guard down a little and had this fleeting moment of smiles and a happy tear or two. Or maybe dehydrated and confused smiles/tears. Or both.

I let them know again about Ironman Girl. They said "blond? White shirt?" I said YES! And they said YES...she'd found her way back to the course. Ah. I was really happy to hear this but didn't know where she was out there. The aid station workers had a ton of ice, so I filled my handheld with ice and water. The Nathan was good to go on Perpetuem, so I thanked them for being out there, and got moving. I was entering what felt like nothing at the beginning but would be the hardest part of the course on the way home.

I thought I had plenty of time left, but every step was becoming labored now, and man, was it rocky. There are a few sections where the trail runs straight up and then snakes straight down. Had I not run this before, I very easily could have gotten confused and stuck in an endless loop of the same up-and-down section of trail. I did have to stop for a second at one point, look at where I'd come, and confirm that I was still continuing forward on the trail. I could see a few runners ahead a few ridges. So I wasn't the only one way back here.

Yeah, you know you got to help me out
Yeah, oh don't you put me on the backburner
You know you got to help me out

Continuing to climb, I saw what looked like a person sitting on the ground. As I approached, I saw a guy in an Ironman hat and tech shirt with a woman next to him. This was about 46 miles. I was thinking, c'mon, man, get up! Get up! Don't sit! You're SO close! I asked if they needed any endurolytes/salt caps, since I had a few packets. "No, thanks," said the woman. "He's taken some already, just cramping up bad." Well, crap. It looked like this guy's day was done. I kept moving because I could feel myself  losing the will to continue moving forward. I looked up once which was a bad idea. I got used to living in the space three feet in front of me. I was starting to feel really pathetic. I wanted to see some friendly faces. I was starting to get a little panicked that I was going to make it this far and run out of time before the course closed.

 A few minutes later, as I trudged uphill, I looked up (I know, I wasn't supposed to do that) and saw the shadows of two men at the top of Mack Ridge. "KaRAAAAAAAAAAAH!" they shouted, and a whoop or two followed. Bryan and Marty! Oh, happy day. I was SO glad to see those guys. I was feeling pretty dead on my feet but pushed up the hill. Turning a corner near the top of the ridge, I could see them crouched in a bush but played like I didn't. They popped up, took a picture on my approach, and started running with me.

"How you feeling?" Tired. Sore. A little chilled, I said. "Did you pee?" Marty asked. Yes, I said. "Good. Because if you didn't, I was going to be pissed," he says. HA. Bryan told me that Elizabeth had some sort of  liquid treat for me at the finish.I joked that I hoped it wasn't moonshine, but truly I didn't care what it was but in this fatigued and emotional state was touched by every bit of help or good vibes from my friends. They said they'd seen me coming across one of the other valleys from that vantage point and had been yelling at me. Did I hear them? No. I'm not sure if I was lost in my own world or their voices just didn't carry that far.

The guys weren't putting pressure on me to move faster as we continued on, but I was putting some on myself. I stumbled again several times, kicking rocks, and finally said apologetically "I need to hike a bit." They said hey, you're fine, don't force anything, just keep moving. I relaxed a bit, and scrambled as fast as I could. FINALLY....ah, there it was...the gate at the end of Moore Fun, leading out to the hill that leads to the frontage road and the finish.Coming down the hill, they said the van was parked there and they were going to drive on down to the finish, but made sure I was feeling okay and good to go before taking off. This was it. I was going to make it. What's strange is that I was so drained now that all that emotion that I expected to come pouring out of me wasn't there anymore. I was single-mindedly focused on getting down the road and crossing the finish.

Over and again, last call for sin
While everyone's lost, the battle is won
With all these things that I've done
All these things that I've done
If you can hold on
If you can hold on

Heading down the gravel road, it was a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other operation. Some guys drove by slowly in a truck and yelled "looking good! Almost there!" I got some good comic relief when could see that the guys had stopped again down the road, and appeared to be helping someone with a flat bike tire. Soon, I was caught up to them and kind of gave Bryan a friendly "moving through!" pat on the back when I ran through where they'd stopped to help the guy. It seemed to be a quick fix, and they zipped down the road to finish. By now, I could see the big flags marking the start and finish area. This was it! I had it. I was going to be an official 50 miler finisher today. I looked at the clock ticking off in the 12:40:xx range and pushed in to the finish line. I was exhausted, drained, spent. And finished. The emotion I'd fought so hard to contain in the latter miles couldn't work its way out because I'd put it all out on the course. There was nothing left physically, emotionally, mentally. It felt so good to be fully and pleasantly drained.

Elizabeth gave me my liquid treat, which turned out to be a coconut water. I LOVE those things anyway but again....unicorn tears today. Ah. Forming basic sentences and putting out words was a challenge. So was walking. We moved over so I could sit in the back of the van, and Grayson scored me some sodas, which were the best damn sodas I've ever had in my life. I don't drink soda anymore but that coke on ice was pure bliss. We sat and I tried to speak and make conversation a little. Then, I heard the finish line announcers say that someone was coming. It really could only be one of two people-the guy from Wyoming, or maybe IronMan Girl if she'd really rallied late. I hobbled over to see who was coming. As she made her way toward the finish, I could see it was IronMan Girl! She was going to make it. I was almost as excited about her finish as I was about mine. She'd run a smart race with one mistake at a crucial juncture, and I thought that if I hadn't seen her by now I wasn't going to see her. It was awesome that she made it in, and was the last official finisher before the course closed.

What followed was a goofy hunt for my keys (I wasn't crazy...I'd really stashed them in a safe place where nobody could find them). After half an hour, I remembered that they were in the pocket of  my sweatshirt with a rainbow-breathing T-Rex that nobody thought was mine, and thus had not been checked. From there, we went to the End Zone in Fruita, where I received my finisher plaque in the 50-mile, and those who had placed got hardware. Because there were so few female finishers, I had a default age group award...second in women 35-50. I felt kind of funny taking it, but I took it. Reid, the race director, said this was the lowest finisher rate they'd ever had in the 50-mile at Desert R.A.T.S.,  that numerous runners had been pulled off the 50-mile course for medical reasons, and that winning times were a lot slower than they'd been in other years due to the heat.

 We got to hear Melody Fairchild talk about her running career, and how inspired she was by the ultra runners she met on the course during the race, among other things. One of the Boulder women who knew her came over with Melody afterward and said "Maude!" (HA. I guess that Halloween costume nickname is going to stick with some people more than my real name.) "I have someone for you to meet!" Melody hung out and talked with our group from Grand Junction for quite awhile, and I thought about how strange and cool it was to have someone who has stood on a world championship medal podium and won the national high school cross country championships just sitting here in a sports bar talking with us.

When the final results were published, I found out that the total number of finishers was 32, breaking down to 27 men and 5 women. Nineteen runners who started the second half of the 50-miler had a "DNF" (Did Not Finish) by their names. The number of 25-mile finishers was close to 200, indicating a likelihood that a good handful of 50-mile entrants decided to call it a day, take a finish time in the 25-mile, and not venture back out.

Duncan Callahan won the men's race, and Helen Cospolich was the first woman, crossing the finish in a bit over 9 1/2 hours. Another woman finished an hour later, and then the last three of us ladies finished in the last 45 minutes that the course was open. My running buddy Stephen from loop one, who had looked so good, paced so smart, had DNF'd in the second lap. The guy who was cramping up at 46 miles definitely didn't make it in either, according to the results. IronMan Girl was the last one in on one hot day in the desert in Western Colorado.

Since Saturday evening, I've found that I've got that "First 50-Miler PermaBuzz" thing going on. I feel blissed out, tired, my muscles don't really work, walking a straight line is a challenge, and I apologize to anyone who has attempted to hold a conversation since then. I asked Elizabeth if Bryan felt this way after his Desert R.A.T.S. 50-miler last year, and she said oh, yeah, he was out of it for a few days. So, at least I know this ADD/fried brain thing isn't unusual. On the upside, I am not in any pain, though I am quite sore all over. I made it to yoga on Monday evening, and only did things that stretched and challenged the muscles, stopping the second anything started to strain. It felt pretty good, and movement is starting to resemble that of a normal biped today.

If you've made it through this War and Peace length entry, thanks for taking the time to read. I don't want to bore people to death, but there was really so much to tell with the backstory leading in to the race, challenges I had along the way, and all the experiences of race day (some of which were left out here because that would be cruel and unusual to make this any longer for a reader). It was amazing, though. The brotherhood/sisterhood amongst those on the trail was something I can't quite put into words. I feel lucky that I got to experience it, and hope others who have that little pipe dream in the back of their heads will turn off the "I can't do it/That's not for me/It's too hard" switch, and turn on the "I want to try it. It's going to be hard but I can do it." The hard is what makes it great, and getting to experience the hard with all the other runners and my friends is something I'll never forget, and made for a truly amazing day.

1 comment:

Kendra Stumpf said...

Awesome story Karah! Thanks for taking the time to write it all out for those of us that will "someday" be as brave as you and go for it. The idea of a 50 miler has been on my back burner awhile (actually, more like in the Crock Pot)- You make me want to push it up to a front burner. I've got no doubt I will do it within the next couple years. Reading your story will help me get through it, from training to (hopefully) the finish line. I'm going to print it out so that I can reread it again, after I've signed up for something crazy. Thanks for the honest and humorous inspiration!