Sunday, November 6, 2016

Feel Gravity's Pull: Rim Rock Run 2016

Somewhere near the end it said
"You can't do this", I said "I can too"
(Finally an excuse for a song from one of R.E.M's greatest albums)

The Rim Rock Run started as a gate-to-gate, 37K run across the Colorado National Monument from Grand Junction to Fruita. Over the years, there have been times when the race was on the verge of extinction, but every year, various race directors and volunteers have kept it going. There has always been a passion to keep this beautiful and difficult race alive. I volunteered on-course for the last year of the original Rim Rock Run before the conversion to a full marathon, a decision that did not thrill all within the local running community. As a new runner, I recall thinking that the course was beautiful, and that these runners were out of their damn minds to run it. 

Fast forward a year, two marathons then under my belt, I found myself among the crazies at the start line for the inaugural Rim Rock Marathon. It began down the hill from the Grand Junction entrance to the Colorado National Monument, and followed Rim Rock Drive across and over the Monument, ending at the Charles Robb State Park in Fruita along the Colorado River. We whooped through tunnels, climbed uphill knowing that gravity would eventually reward us, gained some speed coming off the Monument, and then slogged down highway 340 into the park. As with the Imogene Pass Run, I felt a deep satisfaction in running from one place to another, and doing it with a little hill in the middle. 

I ran the marathon five times in to total before the 2014 Rim Rock Marathon. I was recently divorced, trying to balance many responsibilities, and didn't want to do the marathon if I couldn't give it the training effort it deserved. Enter The Bad Ideas Club. This was my first Rim Rock Marathon relay experience with my friend Tom, who said he'd only do it if he got to run the uphill. We signed up not after a heavy-duty, high mileage training cycle, but after a few post-run beers at a local brewpub when the race website announced the relay division was nearly full, hence our team name. This was good because I said I had no interest in the uphill, and just wanted to see how fast I could do the downhill without that 13.1 mile climb before it. We were the top Masters team and had a blast with it. 

The next year, my friend Bonnie and I ran it as team KAR-BON (she ran the uphill but BON-KAR just sounds weird). Again, we got it done, ran well, and decided to do it again this year. There was a brief conversation about switching legs, but when Bonnie gave it another moment of thought, she said "nah, just kidding. I'll stick with the uphill." We hadn't been exclusively running leading into this race. Bonnie was doing all kinds of running,hiking, and yoga, and I was had just finished my seasonal peaching job, squeezing runs in wherever I could. Still, our fitness levels seemed good, we'd run this sucker once as a team, and it felt like we had the fitness and right attitude to have fun, run hard and quite possibly run it faster than the previous year.

In the week before the race, there was a lot of unexpected, hard stuff in life that came up. One of my former co-workers at my regular full-time job lost her breast cancer battle. She wasn't that much older than me, had kids the same age as mine, and it's just not fair that this woman who was healthy two years ago is gone now. Two days later, I got a message from my oldest daughter that their high school was on lockdown after shots being fired. Her sister-my middle daughter-was still on campus after school for a team practice and quickly moved with other students and faculty behind the locked doors of a copy room. When finally released they learned that one of their classmates had ended his life in his car in the parking lot. It's the second suicide since school started. Two too many. Everyone has been left hurting and asking how to prevent another kid from deciding this was the only thing they could do. It made me hurt to hear my kid saying "I was so close, maybe I could have done something to change (the decision, the outcome)."  It feels selfish to say so, but I was relieved that we had Rim Rock on the calendar yesterday for a welcome pause from a heavy week.  My kids returned to their father's house for the next week, I did quick gathering of race-day clothing and shoes, and got to bed. This was not the impossible race I thought it was eight years ago. It was a welcome opportunity to do something hard, sometimes painful, but fun and satisfying.

My only worry had been doing a stupid sleeping through of my alarm, so I set about five of them for myself on my phone and asked Bonnie if she'd please give me a buzz when she got up in the morning. I just had to be on the bus in Fruita to the halfway point at 7:30. I woke up just fine, her call came, and I got to Fruita in a pleasant drizzle. Not too hot, not too cold. Rim Rock has had a history of some freaky weather but this was perfect. I was going to do a basic, bare bones gear bag but said screw it, I want to be warm and comfortable beforehand, take pictures, and have a really good time. I couldn't believe how many buses there were at the rec center in Fruita, and realized that this was due to the wildly popular decision to add a downhill half marathon. I found a seat on one of these buses with my friend Kevin, who crushes the "old guy" and overall divisions alike. I'd brought headphones to listen to music but instead we wound up chatting and joking on the ride up. 

Read the scene where gravity is pulling me around
Peel back the mountains peel back the sky
Stomp gravity into the floor

Cold Runners, Warm Car

Julie is smiling because we're about to have our own personal port-a-potties

In my extreme mellowness over the race this year, I didn't even look to see that they'd changed the relay hand-off point, and maybe they didn't tell the bus drive as he totally overshot the pull-off where we were supposed to unload. After trying unsuccessfully to make a tight three (five? seven? ten?) point turn into the lot, he finally gave up and said hey guys, just go ahead and get out here. Seeing where we were, I realized Bonnie was going to be running a longer leg than last year. I wondered if she knew she had a longer run in store as well. The previous relay exchange point was short of a half-marathon but made for easy vehicle and spectator access; this was the true marathon halfway point. She was going to have to do that climb with gravity working against her, and have a "bonus" stretch before reaching me.

The half-marathoners got off to their start at 9am, and this left a small handful of second-leg relay runners, including my friend Julie, a meterologist, who said yep, we're going to be rained on soon. We enjoyed having the port-a-johns pretty much to ourselves, and goofed off with the race volunteers. It continued to spit but never turn into a heavy rainstorm, and the temperature felt good. 

Runners began coming in for the relay. I hadn't seen Bonnie's husband, or her parents. I  wondered if they'd accidentally overshot this small exchange point, and were at the old spot. Julie's relay partner came through and she headed out. Expecting Bonnie in soon after-I wasn't sure where we were on time exactly-I stripped off my jeans and sweatshirt. I saw someone who looked like her coming over the hill near our spot and squinted up the road, seeing her husband Danny following along. I knew then that they'd missed our aid station. She came in fast, we high-fived off, I pointed to my ginormous duffle bag of stuff, and took off.

Step up, step up, step up the sky is open-armed
When the light is mine, I felt gravity pull onto my eyes,
Holding my head straight (looking down)
This is the easiest task I've ever had to do

There was something about running downhill that made me want to squeal and yell "whee!" despite not doing this race in the middle of marathon training and tons of 20-mile runs, when this task was a much easier thing to do. It's just a beautiful course and it's not overcrowded with people. I let adrenaline be my friend for the first few minutes, and enjoyed the fun of going as fast as I could. Then, I tried to adjust my pace but not the cadence of my feet so that the pace was something sustainable for the duration. I've always enjoyed being competitive in a race situation, be that against myself or other runners, and my first goal became passing two gals running the full marathon. Yeah, they were running twice as far but it was a good, confidence-building first pass. They both had headphones and didn't hear me coming. I heard one of them say, oh, she's just running the half! We've already done 13 miles! I know she truly meant it in a positive way but I smiled on the inside and thought-keep moving fast enough that they don't ever have a chance to pass back. 

Three miles went by at a comfortably hard pace, and I tried to play that edge between being disciplined about pace, but also looking around, enjoying myself, and saying yes, these are my people and this is my place. The weather could not have been any better for running. Not hot, not cold, and overcast. I started yelling "woohoo!" and each mile marker. It was something to keep the mind busy and engaged. If doubt or worries about how I would hold up near the end, I would go back to my form, breathing, and making corrections that would keep me going at this pace. I'd sporadically come upon and pass runners, and tried to do it with control. We were heading toward the tunnels on the Fruita side of the Monument. This is my favorite part of the entire course. Two tunnels and then this long, twisting downhill off the Monument. I'd gotten really stupid here in a previous full marathon run, getting to a pace that caused glycogen depletion or "hitting the wall" around mile 25. While this was not a full marathon, I had learned from my stupidity and didn't want to repeat it. 

There was a gal in all pink, and I was pretty sure she was a full marathoner. I'd been eyeing her for awhile, and had been inching toward her for a few miles, but she was running a strong, even pace. I let out a "woohoo!" on both tunnels, deciding to push and see if I could overtake her. I was getting closer but not getting to her. Bad ideas be damned, I decided I was going to pass, picking it up and finally getting past her. Coming off the Monument, and onto Highway 340 with traffic and small shoulder to run on,  I was tired but feeling good. If my eyes allowed themselves to wander all the way down the road to Fruita, I made a point to look down about six feet in front of me. A couple were pulled off roadside to cheer on runners, and they yelled "So close!" They laughed when I yelled back "Yet so far," and the guy hollered "there's beer at the finish!" Yes indeed, that sounded good.

We were nearing the big ugly butthole of this beautiful course...crossing over I-70, going uphill and around the traffic circles, hopping on and off concrete sidewalks, and finally downhill into Fruita. I love that the race ends where it does in Fruita, and we have great traffic control from the State Highway Patrol, but this part of the run sucks. The only time I was passed by someone was approaching the overpass. It was a guy I'd passed coming off the Monument, and he passed me back here. I couldn't hang with him, but fought the fade. Finally, looked up toward the finish. The band at the finish line was playing Godzilla. I laughed and sang along for a few words...."Oh no...there goes Tokyo..." This was probably the weirdest song in my memories of finish line songs but it felt so oddly appropriate with the green dinosaur by the finish in Circle Park in Fruita. I got my first look at the time clock, too, and saw that a team PR was in hand. I got through in 4:15 and change, somewhere around two minutes faster than our team time last year. I saw Bonnie, Danny, and Bonnie's parents, and we all high-fived and hugged. 

Hello Fruita!

Part of the welcoming party..Bonnie, Danny and Max

Bonnie indeed was not expecting that bonus mile, making it feel even better that we'd still turned in a faster time. We hung out in the park, made an obligatory visit to the Hot Tomato for post-race stromboli and pizza, and came back to the park to hang out and get our free beer. One yoga class later today, I'm sore but feeling decent. Nothing that more running won't cure.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Time/Breathe: Imogene Pass Run 2016

Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day 
You fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way 

Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town 

Waiting for someone or something to show you the way

I've missed writing, and missed racing. I was racing myself, not others this weekend. A year from now, I'd like to be here racing others. This weekend, though, I was one of the faithful, being called over the mountain, from Ouray to Telluride, and what a glorious day it was. 

My first Imogene Pass Run was in 2008; it was my third race ever, and one that "they" said should not be done without many factors in place with regard to training, gear, and mountain preparedness. It's true; the mountains do not care. During my first run at this race, I was well-trained for my first road marathon, had never done anything as hard as this run, was carrying a huge pack of water, gloves, jacket, hat, and everything but the kitchen sink. I made a deal with myself that if I finished that day, I would never, ever, do this thing again. It's probably the last race I would expect to see as my longest ongoing running streak since then. A year later, race amnesia an authentic condition, I signed up for the 2009 race, and have been on the starting line every year since. Right now, slightly more experienced at life (I'm not old) and running, it makes perfect sense.

The weekend of the race came after a few months of inconsistent but focused training. I lost almost a month of time on feet due to the single stupidest and scariest running injury I've ever ever had. It was frustrating and made some of my first runs back feel kind of tense. Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come that my first major workout after that was a Fourth of July Mt. Garfield climb with friends Cheryl, Mike and Dewayne. If I'd let myself be too safe, I might have couch-dwelled, but instead, we took in a glorious fireworks display across the valley under starlit skies. And there was a little bit of Fireball to commemorate the occasion. The few others up there had made the same effort to see the show, and that made it special. Imogene, in comparison, draws 1600 entrants and 1200 runners on race day, but the intention of most entrants remains the same. Do something that you're afraid you might not be able to do. Or, do something you know you can do, and know will hurt.

I came into this race not well-trained, not well-rested, but experienced. I have high expectations of myself, and the idea of not performing to previous levels, or not finishing at all, was truly enough to make me want to not even start.  I think it was the thought of potentially not finishing that had my stomach in knots for the first time ever before a race that produced the early morning nausea I experienced for the first time ever-either that, or the head congestion that was draining into my throat that morning.  One year I came in with the goal of breaking four hours. This year, making the 7.6 mile Upper Camp Bird cutoff was heavy on my mind. My "long run" has been one ten-mile trail run. On the flip side, I've consistently been running and focusing on quality. I've returned to yoga. There was a great day on the trails with my friend Jen prior to my faceplant that reminded me why mountain time,away from phones,work,and daily shit, is important. And, although I can't say that my work schedule directly translates to running, it has taught pacing and endurance. All good things at Imogene.

Since the last time I've blogged, there have been some cool life changes. My Dad, also an Imogene finisher, decided to move to Colorado. That happened much more quickly than I think he expected, and it's wonderfully surreal to have one of my first running influences around and about. He decided to come down to watch the finish, and cheer me in, along with the many others coming over the hill.  I also got engaged to Andy, which is one of the most unlikely evolved friendships one can imagine. We're independent, we challenge one another, and we support the passions that drive each of us. He came in for the weekend as well.  Then, we all got to experience this beautiful weekend.

My morning began at "The Blue House" near the start of Imogene that has been a Grand Junction runner staple for the past few years. Andy and I came in late Friday evening. I picked up my packet, we had dinner, blew up an air mattress, and we turned in, my mind still racing about race day. The next day, I did something I'd never done-ever-in eight years of racing. I tossed my cookies. Not what I wanted going into things. Andy got me water and told me to stop thinking about the puking. I needed this in this moment, despite the gut feeling weird. It brought me back to my very specific plan. Run and hike aggressively enough to make Upper Camp Bird by 10 a.m., respect my lack of training and take things slow and steady to the summit, and downhill to the Tomboy Aid Station, and then gradually accelarate toward the finish. It's remarkable how finishing with a solid strategy felt more important this year than any of my faster goals here.

Breathe, breathe in the air
Don't be afraid to care

I started the run and spent a lot of the uphill pacing with my friend Conrad from our Mesa Monument Striders running club. He wouldn't tell you, but he's finished the Western States 100, Leadville, and a lot of other stuff that many people don't know a thing about. He gave me a great Leadville shirt when I trained for my own failed attempt at the race, and organizes the Run To Whitewater with his wife Kim. It's that kind, experienced and generous spirit that is one of many things about trail running that is appealing to me. This was his first time back at the race in twelve or thirteen years. I made it through to Upper Camp Bird, looked around and saw that Conrad was there too. I had been concerned about making it to this point, and it felt good to know that I'd arrived. It felt even better to see that Conrad was here too. Heading out, I was smiling to myself and thinking about how I had never learned to give up this race. 

The route to the summit was as it has been every year prior. A strange, joyful, oxygen-deprived march to the summit. This year, there were two gals in colorful wigs making noise and ready to give a hand for the last step onto Imogene Pass. I danced and smile as I saw them, and accepted two hands on either side, sling-shotting myself up onto flat ground. Finding my chicken broth, Gatorade and water (how is that for an unholy trinity?), I allowed a man in a baby blue tuxedo to take my picture at the Imogene Pass sign. All is well when you take in this kind of view. 

Andy had said he was going to hike up from the Telluride side and do that end of the race with me. I knew this would be a tall order for one from sea level, but knew there was a slim chance he might be meeting me there due to a similar love for this perspective, and this kind of athletic "play." As it turns out, he was one $16 breakfast burrito and two-hour wait away from actually starting early enough to make the summit when I did. I was following my race plan exactly to plan, and beginning to pick up speed, when I encountered him below the Tomboy aid station. He had no sun protection, hydration pack, or anything but an enjoyment for climbing the hill and coming up to meet me. It was truly wonderful to have this time, enjoying beautiful blue skies and sparsely populated trails, and move along together.  He's faster than me at any short burst but I've got endurance. And, eventually, I knew this was questionable finish was in the bag. I accelerated with purpose. Nowhere near as fast as other years, but as fast as I could in the moment. It felt good.

Hitting the road in Telluride for the last few blocks, I was smiling. I care about this race and I care about respecting the mountains, the weather, and those who make it possible for this civilized but extremely difficult run to happen. This was my gateway to things I couldn't have dreamed of years ago. Running fast, running far, and perhaps not making friends with pain, but knowing how to approach it. My friend Tess who owns our great yoga studio in GJ always says "suffering is optional." Never has this been more true than last Saturday on this familiar path from Ouray to Telluride. 

Nothing is ever to be taken for granted, but I know this. In two months, I plan to be running the Rim Rock Marathon relay with my friend Bonnie, reprising team KarBon. I still want to do the downhill if she's cool with that. I want to get back to the Winter Sun 10K in Moab, a downhill and ridiculously fast 10K. I'm probably not going to run a PR but I just need to run it, breathe,and not care about anything but running and racing in the moment.