Tuesday, June 17, 2014

As I Am: The Leadville Trail Marathon

"These arms of mine were made for lifting up
And when I set things down again
I hope they are better than they were"

-Paper Bird, As I Am

"I will not just survive, I will be better than before." 
-Vince DiCroce, as quoted on the back of a Leadville Marathon runner's shirt.
DiCroce, a former city attorney in Denver, recently passed away from a brain tumor. He ran more than 30 marathons and 7 Ironmans, most after his 2004 diagnosis.

I admit, I had a different song in mind all along for this race. Then, sometimes, another message comes through- loud, clear, timely, and meant for me. The above song popped up on shuffle as I drove past Turquoise Lake early Saturday morning to pick up my race packet. The "lover" in the song is definitely my mountains, and speaking to letting go of fear and the past could not have been more timely. I had also never heard of Vince DiCroce until the final moments waiting to start the Leadville Trail Marathon, where I read the above message on the back of a shirt, and saw repeatedly as I followed the man up the mountain who was wearing the shirt. I committed the quote to memory, and upon googling it when I returned to Grand Junction, learned that Mr. DiCroce was a kindred spirit to those of us who like to get out, live life and challenge ourselves despite the odds. So, this is my humble tale about trying to be better than before.

Winds are blowing, the sky is clear
Let go of fear
And what's happened to you

The Leadville Trail Marathon, while I'd tried not to play it up in my head, was kind of a big deal to me this year. Leadville Trail 100 dreams went kaput pretty early last year, but this year, things have been different. My game plan has been one I've put together to point myself toward success in August, doing what I think is important for me to accomplish a finish in under thirty hours.

I abandoned speed work, the roads, and anything that would be a hindrance to reaching that goal. I took every opportunity I could to climb hills, and get more and more used to steep up and down terrain. In a perfect world I would have liked to have a higher mileage base, but I felt that I really was doing things better than I have done before. The mileage, right now, has been enough for this point in the game, so long as I continue to build and challenge myself. Still, I was very nervous. Yes, I'd run on the Grand Mesa, gone on long outings on the Fruita trails, done the gnarly Garfield Grumble and done another steep run up the backside of Garfield with my friend Cheryl. Would it be enough, though? Despite all that work, I am still much slower on trails than most of my friends. I don't know why, but no matter how hard I try I am not the same speed there as I am on roads.

I had at first thought I would go up solo, but late in the week, I chatted with my friend Butch about coming up to Leadville for some cool mountain air, and hanging out. Our friend Ernie was also going up, and offered space at the campground where he'd be staying. A plan had been hatched.

Friday night came, though, and I was a literal hot mess. It was 98 degrees when I got off work. I couldn't find anything I needed. I wasn't motivated to pack. And, despite an overwhelmingly high number of good days dealing with my new life situation, it wound up being one of those evenings when I had a total crying meltdown. I'm kind of ashamed to say that, but sometimes stuff just comes out. And, well, I think it was meant to be. I hit the shower to cool off, and felt like I'd pretty much purged any negative, pent-up energy I'd had going on. I picked up Butch, we headed to Leadville, found Ernie's campsite and pitched his tent at about 11pm. Despite the late hour I felt very mellow and relaxed. The skies were clear, the temperature perfect for sleeping in the mountains at night. I must have been awake for no more than 30 seconds before I was out like a light, and I did not wake up until I'd accomplished six good hours of coma-like sleep. For a gal who has trouble sleeping much of the time, this was great.

Waking up before my alarm, I took a stroll to the shore of Turquoise Lake, just steps from our campsite.

 It brought back good memories of pacing my friend Ben around the lake in 2012, on his way to a finish in the LT 100. The sun had been rising on his second day of racing, and he was still going, having survived all the troubles of the night. I made packet pickup at 5:58, hit City On The Hill, the coffee shop, at 6 on the nose, and got my steaming hot caffeine just prior to the massive rush of runners piling in through the doors. This seemed to be a sign that this would be a good day; it was also a treat to be in here since it had been two years since my previous involvement in a Leadville race. I seemed to have the mojo and energy of it being MY first time to be the runner, not the support crew or pacer.

After the beverage I came back to camp, finding Ernie and Butch awake and ready to go. We rode into town for the start, and the skies were clear and blue. I managed to make it through the bathroom line just in time to join the massive throngs of Heavy Half and marathon runners with about two minutes to spare. Unlike my disastrous gastrointestinal issues at the Colorado Marathon, everything had thankfully, uh, come out just fine today. I was feeling good and ready to go.

As the race began, I felt free, happy, and in the moment. I'd made it here, and was going to enjoy this experience for all it was worth. As we started, I moved forward with the crowd, and was pleased that my lungs were not screaming. A mere mile in, I was talking with new friend Kate who had recently moved to Grand Junction, and was glad I could carry on a bit of a conversation.  Soon, we reached the split where the Heavy Half-ers went straight ahead and we, the marathoners, turned right. This was the beginning of what I expected to be much more steep and straight uphill, but had more of a nice continuously rolling uphill feel. I had no grand plans to knock myself out today; this was about maintaining an honest effort, running as much as I could, and being present on the course. When a fellow runner said it was a privilege to be out here today, because not everybody could do such things, I knew what he meant. I kept moving ahead, looking around and appreciating where I was.

After hitting the first aid station, we reached a flat with gorgeous 360 degree views. I stopped to look around a bit and take a picture or two before continuing on.

 This was the first time I really noticed the blowing winds. I debated staying in my short sleeves, and was really feeling "The Force" of my shirt...but decided that I did not want to get too cold and then try to warm myself out. I tugged my old Boston Marathon shirt out of my bag and it seemed to be just the ticket. Climbing up, up, up, I would chat with some of the now usual characters with whom I'd been sharing the trail. Soon, we saw the first Heavy Half-ers come flying through...Ewen North first, with another guy and a badass chick not more than a minute back. As a woman in the sport, this was exciting to see. We would learn later that she went on to finish third overall, and set a new course record for the ladies. Great stuff.

Now, it was time for more climbing. Again, no great speed on my part but I had not stopped once due to fatigue or a less-than-tough mental state. I was emboldened by feeling for once like I did not suck at climbing. It was, in a weird sense, relaxing and meditative. To quote Scott Jurek, "Sometimes you just do things." I just did what I needed to do here.

Reaching the last aid station before the final climb, I saw eventual winner Timmy Parr go blowing by. He'd stayed at our place for Desert R.A.T.S. in April and it was exciting to see him absolutely killing it; he'd had a tough day in the mud here two months prior. After passing through that aid station, I saw local Corey come flying through in 4th or 5th, and as I continued working my way to Mosquito Pass, I eventually saw new locals Sean, and then his wife Laura. I was further along than I expected when I saw all of these characters, and I just kept that momentum going.

In the last series of switchbacks, I was feeling pretty good. Relative to the racers I was with, I was able to push uphill as well as anyone, and challenged myself to give the most I had here. Finally, I could see that the summit was imminent. Upon reaching it, there were two people manning it. A kid bundled up in a sleeping bag and jacket, and..Ken Chlouber, Leadville Trail 100 founder! It took me a minute to figure it out, and when I did he was taking a picture for a runner. I asked if he wouldn't mind getting a quick one for me and he happily obliged, telling me it would be better if I stood by the sign to get it in the picture, adding "Honey, you're getting cold!" I assured him I was more than fine, and didn't mention that I was totally geeked to be in his presence. A very genuine interaction, and one that would have me grinning all the way down the mountain.

Heading downhill, it was decidedly colder and windier. the water flowing down from the top had increased and was now very muddy. My hat blew off as I ran a section with plowed snow next to the trail. I jumped up on it quickly and was able to retrieve the hat before another gust could pick it up and blow it away. The sky was no longer clear but I felt invigorated by Mother Nature making her presence known.

Another issue was causing me troubles now as well. I'd stepped hard on a rock a month or two back, and it had pressed up through the sole of my left foot against my cuboid bone. On the one downhill section on the climb in miles 5-8, it was causing me some grief. Now, I could really feel it. It did not require any debate in my head about what to do. I was going to protect it, and not hammer down like this was my big goal for the summer. I needed to be able to run the next weekend. I hated not hammering but I knew that to preserve my future races, I needed to not do anything super stupid today.

Moving along, the skies were darker at times, but there were also breaks of light. At one aid station, a volunteer asked if I had rain gear. Uh, no, I said. Just this shirt, but I do have hat and gloves. "It IS going to rain, he said. Put your gloves on if it comes." I was actually rather annoyed with him thinking I didn't know what I was doing, and somehow I had this feeling, in the certainty of his remark, that the rain was not going to come during my run. I politely let him know that I had been wearing the gloves the whole time anyway because my hands get cold easily, and that my long sleeved shirt was perfect for me for the last nine miles down the hill. I made a quick pit stop and continued onward.

Chatting with gals I'd been with the whole time, I hit what became the most challenging section of the course; miles 18-21. I'd been advised by veteran trail runner Bernie Boettcher to save something for this section, and I am so glad he offered this advice. This was the same territory covered in miles 5-8. Holy shit. This kind of hurt. Once again, though, I was surprised that I moved ahead of all the gals I was with, and never felt like the climb had the best of me. It more of a challenge for me to prove to the hill that I could handle it. Reaching the final aid station, I got a few more comments on my shirt, and I commented on how I'd been hoodwinked about this being a flat and fast course with a rock and roll band on every corner. I grabbed a handful of salty chips and got ready for the final descent. It was still windy but no rain had come.

Moving through the final miles, I was stoked. I was not in it to win it; far from it. I was in it as a first test to see if I was on track for my summer, and I believe I was passing this test. Heading down the last stretch of road to the finish, I just soaked up knowing that this was not the end of the line but a first big step of letting go of my fears of failure and just going for it. When I finished, my friend Butch was hollering like a madman and gave me a huge hug. This would've been a great solo journey, but it was super cool to share the finish with a friend who has a thing for the mountains as well, and knew what this day entailed for me.

The last few hours in Leadville involved dark skies, and high spirits as we cheered in the final runners. It was a thrill to encourage them on, and see them smile and fist pump upon coming through.

Some say Leadville has sold out or that it sucks. And, I hear it WAS kind of a mess at the 100 in 2013, but I was not there so I can't comment. Maybe that is their truth; it's not mine. This is where I first saw friend and neighbor Bryan finish the 100 in 2011, barely ahead of the cutoffs and with 15 minutes to spare at the finish. I watched my local friends go six for six the next year, and aided one of them along the way to that goal. Now it's my time, my goal, my race. I'm smart enough to know that I can't base success in August off a marathon in June but it was a huge positive step forward toward that. Getting ready to leave for Junction, Butch and I encountered a guy who was a LT100 finisher, and who had advice that had kind of swirled in my head, but not as he articulated it. "Just look at it as another day. Sometimes you'll feel bad in that day but it's just another day and it'll keep going on." He also added, "See you in August." I am actually starting to see myself there in August.

This was advice that was race-specific, but quite applicable to all I've been through lately. And, after the race, I did feel like I'd lifted my arms up and offered myself to the mountain, and had come out better than I was before. If I can just keep doing that-keep trying to be a little better than before-there is a strong chance I can keep it going to the finish of that race, in August, as I am, as I came to be.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So glad you had a good race! I didn't realize LT100 came before Imogene - you'll be zooooomy by then!