Sunday, September 16, 2012

You Can't Rollerskate In a Buffalo Herd: The 39th Annual Imogene Pass Run

All you gotta do is put your mind to it
Just knuckle down, buckle down, do it do it do it!

Last weekend marked the fifth time I headed two hours south for the Imogene Pass Run, a 17.1 mile race which begins at 7800 feet on the main drag in Ouray, climbs 10 miles to the summit of Imogene Pass at 13, 114 feet, and then descends 7.1 miles to the finish line in Telluride. The race has been a puzzle I'd failed to successfully solve in prior years. It's said that one's marathon time should be fairly equivalent to an Imogene finish time, and for many others, this is true. The best trail runners can hit this race even harder and faster than what they'd accomplish in a road marathon. 

For me, as a stronger road runner, though, the race has been fraught with mishaps, spills, tentative feet on the mountain, and times 45 minutes to an hour slower than my best road marathon times. Each year, it was frustrating, to say the least. The only time I've ever broken down in tears after a race was at the finish of the 2010 Imogene Pass Run, when I'd hoped to finally break the four hour mark but wiped out, ripped flesh, side stitched, and gimped on in to the finish nearly 15 minutes slower than my 4:14 PR the year prior. I'd wanted so badly to do well, had a good training work ethic, and it was just so damn frustrating that I couldn't seem to make my feet as fast and steady here as I could nearly anywhere else.

This year, I came into the race in an oddly zen state of mind, feeling very confident about my chances. My year had been unlike any other in terms of running and training. While I have always logged time on trails, I hit new highs and extremes for time on feet, and didn't talk myself out of trying new things. My first 50-mile race on a hot day was a success, largely in part to trusting my training, and sticking to a very specific race day plan that was formulated with help from friends who had been there and done that. 

Then, when the opportunity came-and kept coming-to play a part in pacing and crewing at 100 mile races, I smacked down that little voice in my head that said "these people are badasses, you don't belong there," and let the other voice that said "holy cow, what an awesome opportunity! DO IT!" prevail. It led to some of the most challenging, surreal, amazing, and satisfying moments running I've ever had. Suddenly, 17.1 over the mountain didn't seem so scary. And in daylight, after a good night's sleep-finally running it in under four hours seemed like child's play. 

I'd also fully taken on a program of regular speed work in the past year, with my only non-trail runs being our two regularly occurring speed group workouts. These groups evolved into a very supportive network of friends, and I just got in the habit of showing up whether or not I was feeling it ahead of time. Those Facebook "Some E Cards" for runners that say "I really regret that run-said no runner, ever?" They totally apply to the speed work. Some of the workouts were really tough. I could feel them paying off, though. I was able to hit a 5K PR (a mark that had been unchanged for three years) over the summer, and felt like I could really power through rough patches better in races with the inclusion of some fast running. The week before the Imogene Pass Run, I placed in a trail race for the first time ever, coming in second at the 8-mile Mary's Loop race, and with a pretty big race PR. In that run, I was patient, ran my own race, hit my strong suit (downhill running) as hard as I could, while pushing myself to not be weak-willed and hike the second I was hurting on other portions of the course. It gave me confidence that I could do the same thing a week later. 

When race week rolled around, I was just excited to get down to Ouray, where I would be staying in a house right by the start with a bunch of friends, some of whom were regular local training partners, and others from out-of-area but still people whose running exploits I was quite familiar. I'd picked up a ton of ideas about how I wanted to tackle the race, and had broken down the sections-Ouray to Upper Camp Bird (7.6 miles), Upper Camp Bird to Summit (10 miles), and Summit to Telluride into chunks with time goals attached. My "long runs" for the summer had basically been two 8-hour pacing gigs, and a half marathon race in Ouray, but these felt far more valueable to me than anything I'd done before. And general course familliarity-yeah, I had this. Going to bed Friday night, I didn't have that first-timer punchy nervousness, and was ready to log some quality R.E.M. sleep.

The next morning, I awoke refreshed, and pleased that it was cold but not freezing outside. We enterained one another in the kitchen of our house viewing the above video...Johnny Knoxville of Jackass fame on roller skates, getting pummeled by buffaloes. Maybe I'm part 12-year-old boy but it never stopped being hilarious, and I just kind of walked around singing it to myself without a care in the world. 

With regard to the next decision after my morning coffee and jackassery in the kitchen, I needed to figure out what to wear. I've tended to bundle up a bit for this race, and bring every bit of advisable gear "just in case." Part of me used to think that "oh, it's just good protection in case I fall." And I'd wear very traditional, non-colorful (read-black) pants or shorts. But, this seemed like part of my problem in other years, so I knew I needed to change it up.

One might ask, so what? Who cares what you wear? Well, I like to dress very, very, colorfully at races otherwise. Color and two main rules. Getting on neon pink compression socks and a fun running skirt that fit well always helped me get my game face on at other races. I realized that I'd never followed these rules at Imogene, and that I would certainly be faster and have better racing mojo if I did. I also needed to not preoccupy myself with the potential for falls, or dress differently than usual for it. So, I went with a colorful skirt that had super comfy compression shorts under, the shirt my friend Jana designed for a group of us in 2009 at this race with a runner cresting surreal pink and orange mountains, and a bright paisley hat from my new sponsor, Wizbang Hats (that cool story to be told another time). I'd initially donned a compression shirt under Jana's shirt but got rid of it when Marty, one of my fastest friends, said "you move faster if you're cold out there." Good logic and I went with it.

We all took a group shot

And then headed down to the starting line.

 Notice Ilana also wore her cool shirt, as did our friend Jen (not pictured)...something that wasn't planned but seemed like good mojo again.

With the house so close to the starting line, we were only there for a few minutes before the race was underway. I never had time to get nervous nor was I feeling like I would've been nervous had we been standing around longer. The weather was perfect. I was cold but it was manageable and I knew I'd feel great once moving. The crowd was just HUGE. And that Roller Buffalo "You Can't Rollerskate In a Buffalo Herd"  song seemed oddly appropriate between the herd of humans, and that to many, this race might seem about as appealing as, well, getting nailed by a herd of buffalo (and feel like it at times). It seemed like an all-time high number of runners had made it to the starting line, thanks in part to the bib transfer program this race has, likely coupled with dream weather conditions.

We were quickly off, and on our way. I'd lined up closer to the front than I ever had, but not right on the starting line. I still had very little room to move so I kind of found my line and stuck with it, vowing that I would NOT start hiking the second I felt a little uncomfortable. I reminded myself that every step running at a high cadence-even with tiny strides-would be a lot faster and more efficient than hiking. Right away, I was just not feeling great. My lungs felt a little tired and sluggish. Instead of resigning myself to a mentality of failure and "oh, it's gonna be another 4 1/2 hour trip," I adopted an attitude of patience, and laughed thinking of the Sh#t Ultrarunners Say video where the dude says he takes 30 miles to warm up anyway. Two miles went by just like that, and I was feeling less craptastic. I also did not feel anxious or discouraged that I'd blown the race already. My head was in the best place it'd ever been at Imogene and I moved along knowing that I could warm up, push some more, and perhaps hammer the downhill to make up for the slower start.

Coming along to Drinking Cup Curve, I was feeling a lot better, and really taking in the sights and sounds around me. I watched as a man walked over to the edge of the curve-a straight dropoff you wouldn't survive if you went over-and offered a very sincere "Namaste" to the mountain. I never knew what that word meant before taking up yoga. Now that I know that it means "The divine in me honors and recognizes the divine in you," I appreciated and felt the energy this dude put out there. The mountains don't care, you can get hurt, lost, hypothermic, and other things out here-but they are still these great, big, beautiful things that you just can't experience any better than in person, on foot, without aid of motorized transit. I picked up my step, and  tried to always be conscious of using good form with short strides and a high turnover, and not allowing myself to break that to hike unless I absolutely felt like it was necessary.

You can't rollerskate in a buffalo herd,
You can't rollerskate in a buffalo herd,
You can't rollerskate in a buffalo herd, 
But you can be happy if you mind to

Continuing up the trail, the crowd now somewhat thinned out with better room to move, I had that song on continuous loop in my head. I've had other songs in my head at this race that were never nearly as helpful. The mental image of Johnny Knoxville on roller skates, a disco ball, and getting hammered by the buffaloes just kept me going. I encountered my friend Jan, who was on her 20th run here. We'd been talking up going under four hours this year, and while she claims to not be all that fast, she's actually pretty excellent on mountain trails. When she picked it up from a hike and started running a steep section, I said, "OKAY...if you insist!" and laughed as I lulled myself from what I then realized was a comfortable hike I needed to push through.

Continuing on ahead past the Victorian house that was the former mine supervisor's house, I ran into my friend Jen, who was just not feeling great today. Up ahead I could see our friend Cheryl, who has a strong high school and college track background but newer to trail running, and doing her longest run ever today. I eventually moved past Jen, and didn't rush to catch up with Cheryl, instead just running my own race, and keeping my head on roller buffalo and high cadence. Hey, it's simple, but it works.

Around here, I saw my "favorite" people from last year. I rarely, if ever, complain about other runners at races, but I must say a few words about bibs 1363 and 1364-a man and woman with a long rope or tether of some sort between the two to pull the woman along. Someone commented to them "hey, is this the modern day equivalent of a Ball And Chain?" The woman in the duo joked that next year maybe they'd get kinky and have a dog collar and leash, or something to that effect. Me, on the other hand-I don't find it cute to break the rules or impede other runners they way they were. And, she's definitely not blind as an anonymous commenter on my blog last year claimed. I just knew I wanted to get past them and resist the urge to say something about breaking race rules that everybody else seemed to have no problem following. I guess I can thank them because I moved on ahead faster than I likely would have-I just didn't want to get stuck behind them and their behavior that wasn't cutesy to me at all.

Just a few minutes before Upper Camp Bird, I reached Cheryl, and we moved along together, talking intermittently. She was feeling good, and I was glad that as one of the two first-timers who was sort of hating me for encouraging this race the night prior, she was doing just fine today. I looked at my watch, at saw that I likely wasn't going to hit my goal of 1:45-1:50 to Upper Camp Bird. Rather than being discouraged, I was pretty excited that this would still be the earliest I'd ever made it there.

Then, rounding a corner after a climb, I remembered how short Garmins measure in the mountains, and was pretty ecstatic to hit that 7.6 mile aid station at 1:53. I'm a steady climber but generally slow, and this was not that far off the most aggressive goal I'd ever set for myself here. Some people were stopping for pictures, or stopping for no reason, and I advised Cheryl to just keep going and not stop unless she was really needing to make a gear adjustment or eat something there. She said "okay" with focus and went right on through. It's SO hard to get going once you stop at this point. If anything, it's better to save that for the summit if one wants to savor the moment and accomplishment. She was in a great zone so "keep on keepin' on" was for sure the way to go here. I moved a little past her and got ready to attack this final stretch to the summit. The air was thin but there was a huge shot of adrenaline to the system, knowing that the climb was 3/4 of the way behind me.

Now, I was really feeling the altitude. I think this was perhaps because I was moving faster than I ever had here, and pushing myself as much as I could. Between watching "Unbreakable," about the Western States 100, and watching other runners at 100 mile races, I'd decided that using my hands to push down the quads on steep climbs would be a good tactic. I did this and it just seemed to flow naturally. When I hit the couple of flat-ish sections, I was actually able to run them, inevitably followed by this weird woozy/high/rush of blood to the head feeling that would subside after 30 seconds or so. I remember coming to a near standstill near the summit, willing myself forward, the first few times out. I was moving far better today. Looking at my Garmin for the first time in a long time, I realized that no, I wasn't going to summit in my goal of 2:45, and probably have no shot of running under four hours total. Again, though, I was as unfazed as I'd ever been at Imogene about this. Yay! I'm going to summit faster than I ever have! And it feels awesome! That's where the head was. 

Getting into the last stretch-that awesome line of ants marching to the summit-I started talking with the woman immediately ahead of me, who was from Durango. She was a mom of three with her youngest being under age one, and this was her first big run again after a c-section with that kiddo. Having gone emergency c-section with my son and repeat the last time out, we both agreed that this race was a LOT easier than recovering from major abdominal surgery while caring for a newborn. It was very cool to be taking these last few steps to the summit with another woman who just gets why I get out here to do this stuff, and likely does it for a lot of the same reasons-no explaining what all that crazy training is about. She hit the summit a step or two ahead of me, and then I crossed in 2:51, 18 minutes faster than the prior year and 9 faster than my best ascent ever. I realized that based on prior Imogenes, sub-4 was unlikely, but again, I just felt good to get up here faster than ever before. My goal now was a quality PR, and with that in mind, I walked through, drank half a cup of chicken broth, and headed out without lingering. It was time to knuckle down buckle down, do it do it do it.

As I took those first few strides from the summit, I felt great. I mean, bulletproof great. I've been pretty tentative in my steps here each time but I was running this time. Passing the camera dudes on the side of the hill, I did an impromptu fist pump and yelled "yeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeah!" as I ran past, something I never do at races. Certainly not this one. I bombed ahead a bit, and then realized that damn, my legs were a little jello-y. I backed off a bit but gone was that tentative bounce/put-on-the-brakes slide down the hill. I didn't turn into a head case and get cautious, just backed off as needed if I felt like I was getting a bit out of control going downhill. Sub-four was certainly out now but hey, I was passing a few people, and felt like I was setting up a pretty good race PR here. 

About two miles down, I knew I was past that steepest section that gave me so much trouble two years prior when I yard saled in awesome fashion. I picked it up a bit. I felt like I was getting that pre-sidestitch sensation and though NO. NOT today. I backed off just a bit but the good downhill form was intact. I got that stride really small and the cadence high, trying to avoid jostling myself all over the place and hammering hard like I was trying to set a land speed record. Soon, and thankfully, that sensation passed. I was picking up steam, and passing lots of runners now. Vowing to use my Garmin for nothing more than checking my time at key locations, I did a quick look at 14 miles to see where I was.

Now, every runner will tell you to NEVER do running math. It just doesn't work. But, looking at my watch, with 5K to go, I realized-no way. I had time to go under four hours if I hammered all the way in to the finish with no letups, falls, or break in form. It was REALLY close but there was a chance. Every time I pushed myself in speed work when I just wanted to sit on the couch at home with a beer-that lightning storm at Hardrock when keeping calm and focused was the only choice-the disappointment I'd felt at this race before to fall short on my goal over and over-all those experiences were going to come into play in an all-out finish. 

I picked things up, telling myself  "It's only 5K. It's only 5K. You can push really hard for 5K." I was gathering steam and passing anyone I could. I was tired and starting to hurt but I knew that waiting another year to go under four hours if I hadn't pushed myself to my breaking point would be no good. I reached mile 15, checked my time, and saw that I'd need to hammer the last two miles harder than I ever had. I was also at that flattest point on the course, with the gentle downhill where I could fly with confidence, and that I did. It wasn't a matter of "can I pass that person?" It was "what the most efficient way to get past that little group?" This felt so bizarre, but I can't lie, it felt totally awesome. 

Getting to mile 16, I checked my time again, and knew now that I would do it-I was going to run this sucker in under four hours! And I was still picking up steam. Now, I wanted to see how far under I could go. Unless I lay down on the trail, I had it in the bag. Like a blubbering idiot. and already on the verge of tears, I randomly told some runner whom I'm sure couldn't have cared less that I was going to finish under four hours here for the first time in five tries. I'm not sure what his reaction was because I was still cranking it up.

Finally, I could see all the people dotting the trail as it turned off to the steep, short couple of road blocks to the finish. I could see a 3:55 on the clock and just RAN. Like I never have before. I came flying through, saw my friend Elizabeth and few others, and went over, temporarily overcome with emotion that's rare for me-high or low-at the end of a race. Good thing I never really tried to develop some serious, badass runner chick persona. Because it wasn't this mushy chick crying with happiness over a time that's really, honestly, pretty easy for most trail runners to come by.

Since my very first race in 2007, there have been good days, bad days, average days, interesting days, learning experience days, and plain old in-the-crapper days at races. There have been a select, very few races that would make the cut as outstanding days at the races where preparation, race day strategy, execution, conditions, and experience all came together for a near-perfect day. This was one of them, and I think may top the list because it was on a trail, and not a road, where I have always felt so much more comfortable.

While my final time-3:56:04, and placement-24 out of 102 in age group, 153 out of 553 for all women, is nothing notable, it was a mega-leap forward for me after kind of stagnating at this race and on trails in general. I didn't have it in mind, either, but a few days later I remembered my secret thought that if I ever wanted to train for 100 miles, I wasn't going to let myself until I could do this short, hard effort in under four hours. Well, that day came. And now there are days coming that I won't fear, and will work toward with the belief that it's possible if I just put in the work and don't allow myself to quit when it's hard. You may not be able to roller skate in a buffalo herd, but you can be happy if you mind to. All you gotta do is put your mind to it. Just knuckle down, buckle down, do it do it do it.

1 comment:

Shannon Koch said...

Congrats, Karah! With a lot of hard work, it all came together!!