Thursday, July 30, 2009
The high mountains share their craggy wares with the bipedal traveller begrudgingly. It seems their default is that of wintry chill, cutting winds, uncomfortably low temperatures. And although they let go their security blanket of frigidity for a couple glorious months each summer, the mountains are always quick to remind us who is in charge and what season really reigns at the highest elevations.
It has been cold in Leadville. I went to bed last night wearing a wool cap and a sweatshirt. There are still brilliant moments of sunshine, but when the clouds roll in they are darker than usual and when they finally roll back out they reveal an ever-so-slight dusting of fresh snow above 13,000'. Is it July? Really?
Nevertheless, the high peaks beckon, and I cannot resist. This morning, the summit of Mt. Elbert is my goal, and I can only occasionally see it as its upper reaches appear intermittenly from within the swirling clouds. Sitting on the Roost's tailgate, a few drops fall from the sky and I reach for my windshirt to tuck in my waistband. I debate about donning a singlet, and maybe even gloves, but, against my better judgement, the patches of blue in the sky convince me otherwise.
After a mile or so of warm-up on the road, I hit the trail. My legs feel good from the last few easier days that I've taken to recover from the weekend's race, and the gain in elevation comes easily. Today I am running in a cloud. I love the sensation of popping above a cloud layer that an inversion has created and right at tree-line the clouds end and the sun warms my back. The expansive view is as if from an airplane window.
In Ashland this winter, many mornings the town would be consumed by the dreaded "ice fog" that would sit in the bottom of the valley and not burn off until late morning. However, upon a mere three or four hundred feet of vertical gain, one would emerge from this chilled blanket into exceedingly warm air. Stepping onto Elbert's alpine tundra I am reminded of those southern Oregon mornings except for one key difference--here, on the mountain, the air above the clouds is even colder than further downslope. And, now out of the trees, the wind kicks up in ever increasing bursts that alternately serve as a helping hand or a frustrating hindrance, depending on the switchback.
Maybe five hundred feet below the summit I reach the fresh snow that I could see from town. Not surprisingly, this morning's conditions have thinned the troops out on the trail and I am allowed to make my final push to the summit without an incredulous audience. My cadence matches the beat of the chorus of a raucous song by The Dodos stuck in my head, and soon I am alone on the summit, hunkered down behind a crudely-constructed rock wall, desperately warming my fingers in my armpits.
Despite the wind and cold I have made the ascent four minutes faster than a month ago. On the way down I am soon enveloped in the clouds again and during the last few minutes on the road back to the Roost a light rain begins to fall. Even if this week is representative of only a freak weather pattern, it nevertheless serves as a reminder to get to as many summits as possible before the real winter elements make their inevitable return.
Sunday, July 26, 2009
I came into the taper with about six weeks of solid training after finally kicking a case of patellar tendonitis in early June. However, the final week before the race I was dealing with a couple potentially troubling issues: a bout of something that seemed to be very much like giardia, and a mildly inflamed/swollen peroneal tendon in my right ankle. Fortunately, both of these issues cleared up mid-week while attending the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Salt Lake City where Hal and I sweated it out in the Uphill Challenge. Nothing like throwing a little tempo run into the taper.
After catching a ride up to Crystal Mountain with Jeff Browning, Hal, and Carly, I had a great night's sleep at the race cabin. I usually sleep fitfully the night before a race, but this time I conked out and didn't awake until ~5am when Jeff started rustling around in preparation for the day. I usually just lie there, waiting for the alarm clock to sound, but this time I felt like sleeping in. I was a little worried that this signified a certain lack of nervous energy, not to mention inconsistent sleep all week, but I was mostly just happy to have actually gotten a good night's rest.
I didn't warm up very much for the race--no more than a mile of jogging--even though I anticipated a fairly quick start; my legs just didn't feel like they needed it, probably because of the judicious taper I'd employed most of the week.
After waiting for Scott to finally toe the line, we were off. Greg and Lon shot right to the front while I was content to hang a few dozen yards back chatting amiably with Scott as we strided down the initial gravel road. Kami Semick soon ran up next to us and admitted she felt stupid running in front of us, but I was more than happy with the fairly quick pace we were hitting.
(Chatting with Scott out of the gate.)
We were definitely running quickly through this section but it felt extremely comfortable and I could tell I was likely going to have one of those days where everything just flows. The tread was technical enough to keep it interesting but the pace was discernibly quicker than typical training pace. It was fun to be racing again.
Greg stopped momentarily at the station, so Scott assumed the lead and I followed closely behind. Soon, the trail started climbing up in impeccably graded switchbacks. This trail was gorgeous, as would become the norm for the trails all day. After a few switchbacks, and a particularly steep section where Scott broke into a quick hike, I stepped past him into the lead and held it for the rest of the day.
I quickly opened a bit of a gap as the trail climbed pretty steeply through here and then hiked quickly up a short, steep flight of stairs. After a few more switchbacks I could see Mike Wardian gaining on me, but I just maintained my comfortable pace and certainly didn't worry about making any sort of meaningful break less than an hour into the race.
The night before the race Uli had approached me in the race cabin with a sticky note that outlined his splits from his completely unparalleled (except by himself) 6:32:43 course record run in 2004. Previous to that, Nate McDowell had raced a 6:50:39 then-CR and Mike had run a 6:52:50 just last year. These were the closest times to Uli's--a sobering 20 minutes back. As such--having never run on the course--I was pretty reluctant to even consider approaching Uli's times. Sub-6:40 had a nice ring to it if for no other reason than that it represented 8 minute miles, but shooting for a sub-6:50 time seemed much more realistic. Nevertheless, I had committed Uli's splits to memory so as to have an irrefutable definition of "fast" for the various checkpoints.
In addition to the aid station splits, Uli had mentioned to me two other intermediate creek-crossing splits on the initial climb, which I vaguely remembered the sticky note saying he had reached in roughly 49min and 1:14. I hit this first creek crossing in 48:55 after which the grade of the trail mellowed considerably and Mike caught up to me. I let him know that he was more than welcome to go past me if he pleased, and he responded by saying that I was more than welcome to lead, until the end, of course. Something about that comment rankled me mildly, but I just concentrated on running comfortably and evenly up the hill.
The trail briefly broke out of the thick forest to pass above some cliff bands, which offered expansive views of the White River valley below, but we were just as quickly back at it in the forest and Mike and I crossed Uli's second creek together in 1:12:20 or so. I was a touch apprehensive at going faster than Uli through these early miles, but everything felt easy so I just concentrated on keeping it that way, even with Mike quite literally breathing down my neck.
After a couple more miles of gorgeous, sometimes technical, singletrack Mike and I arrived together at the Ranger Creek aid station (11.7 miles) just under 1:39. At this point we'd already climbed over 2500'. I quickly refilled my water bottle and exited at 1:39. Mike, however, must've taken a few moments longer because leaving the station I was running by myself and it was that way all the way to the Corral Pass turnaround at mile 16.9.
This section of out and back trail was incredible. The views of Mt. Rainer were impossibly huge. The singletrack was buttery smooth. On this section I just tried to not get too carried away and run too fast; I was barely 1/3 of the way finished afterall. Mike caught me just as we came into the Corral Pass aid station turnaround. I again made quick work of filling my bottle and grabbing a couple gels and left the station at 1:22:50. It was the last I would see of Mike all day. I was also surprised to see that my accumulative split here was only about 30 seconds slower than Uli's 2004 run.
I rolled back down into the Ranger Creek aid (22.1 miles) feeling good, though, mostly because I couldn't see Mike behind me on any of the many switchbacks. I stopped only long enough to refill my bottle and was out of there at 3:00 flat, less than 1 minute behind the ghost of Uli. It was also a mental boost to see March--a good friend of mine from college cross-country--out on the trail here getting some quality time in the mountains.
My legs relished the steep drop from the Ranger Creek aid station. On this ~5 mile, 2500' descent back down to the White River I felt great. The trail could not have been more perfect and I felt effortless pouring down the trail. I took this chance to drink a lot of water and try to get ahead a little on calories and salt, too. I'd been dreading hitting the bottom of this descent and having my legs feel dead on the flat terrain, but that wasn't the case.
Instead, they readjusted quickly and I came into the 27 mile Buck Creek aid in 3:34:30 or so feeling appropriately fatigued but ready for plenty more. I left the station right around 3:35--still about a minute off of Uli's pace--and was actually really looking forward to the Sun Top climb so as to give my quads a break.
I got a high five from Scott McCoubrey, turned back onto singletrack, and started the climb. It went really well. Many people had told me it was pretty steep, but I found the grade quite runnable, and fast. Whenever there was a 20 or 30 yard steeper-than-normal pitch, it seemed it was always immediately followed by a decent flatter pitch that allowed recovery. Additionally, a nice layer of clouds had rolled in to give me a little extra cover in the clear-cut zone, so my one-bottle gamble paid off.
This being the second/last big climb of the race, I opened it up a little and settled into a cadence that was ambitious yet totally doable; seeing as I never had any idea what was lying in wait for me, I didn't want to get in over my head. However, this was the one section of the course that I figured I might be able to match or even exceed Uli's course record splits. I turned out to be right as I was soon running into the Fawn Ridge (31.7 miles) aid in 4:15:30ish and leaving right at 4:16. I was now evenly matched with Uli.
It was here that I began to think that I might have a shot at getting the record. I had essentially been hitting his splits the entire way and had somehow managed to even gain back the minute or so that I'd been in the hole. The second half of the climb went equally well. Before I knew it I was descending down to the Sun Top road and then it was just another five or six minutes before I topped out to the crowd at the summit of Sun Top (37 miles).
I flew down the road. Scott had informed me that I'd only had a 3 minute lead on Mike at Buck Creek and the last thing I wanted was a 2:21 marathoner flying down the road after me. With a 2:42 marathon PR, I don't have the greatest confidence in my legspeed. As a result, I probably over-did it a bit on the downhill. I knew that Uli had covered it in 39:40 or so, and I figured I would have to be all-out to equal that, so I went pretty much all-out.
The final mile or so coming into Skookum Flats the road levels out a bit and I felt really slow through here as my legs readjusted to the flatter terrain. I hit the aid at 5:42:high, filled my bottle as quickly as possible, and got out of there at 5:43 flat with two gels left in my pocket. I knew I was three minutes under Uli's split, but I also felt it was going to be tough to equal Uli's 46ish minute split into the finish for the final 6.6 miles.
I was right. The last 45 minutes of running was pretty tough. I'd really cranked the road--averaging 5:45 miles--and now I was paying for it. Gradually the legs came around and I felt like I wasn't crawling anymore but I was soon out of gels and still hungry. With maybe 15 minutes left to run there were a couple short downhills that got the legs moving again, but it was too little too late and there was no chance for me to break 6:30, like I'd thought I might be able to going into the final leg of the race. It also would've helped to have done a short pre-race out and back on the final couple miles of the course so as to know when I could truly start ramping up the final effort into the finish.
Soon enough, though, I was rounding the final corner into the finish and I when I could see the official finish clock turning over to 6:32 with only a few dozen yards remaining I knew I would finish under Uli's standard.
Mike did a good job of hanging on and actually improved his time from last year by a minute or so to finish just under 6:52. Greg Crowther backed up his fast start by rounding out the top three in 7:02.
Here's a video of the finish:
Everything I'd heard about the organization and execution of Scott McCoubrey's race proved to be true. The course was impeccably marked and the finish line food and crowd was excellent. White River is definitely a race I can see myself returning to in the future. It's obvious why it's such a classic event on the ultra racing circuit.
Friday, July 17, 2009
At this past year's shin-dig, Rob Cain (co-emcee, party host, co-director of Ashland's Siskiyou Out and Back 50K (SOB), president of the Ashland Woodlands and Trails Association, general awesome dude) presented Kyle with the illustrious "What the F---!?!?" award for his unprecedented run at the Hardrock 100 last summer. Apparently, according to Rob, this award is descriptive in its nature, of the only rational response that a performance like Kyle's Hardrock should elicit from any knowledgeable observer.
Since that evening, I have expanded Rob's use of WTF to help categorize other exemplary elements of my life. After this morning's run, I can say with confidence that the Maroon Bells Four Passes Loop is an excursion worthy of the WTF tag-line.
At this point in my short life, it makes an even shorter list (in no particular order):
2) The Grand Tetons
3) The San Juan Mountains
4) The Koln Cathedral (a notable non-natural landscape item)
I made the trip over the pass to the Aspen area under cover of darkness yesterday evening. Driving Independence Pass at night is something I try to avoid, simply because the views are so outstanding it seems a crime to miss them. However, the subsequent view of the Milky Way might have made up for it.
As a result, when I rolled out of the back of the Roost this morning in the trailhead parking lot at 9500', I was in for a treat. I have seen the Maroon Bells multiple times. I've even run a double crossing of 12,462' Buckskin Pass before (the first of the four nearly 12,500' passes of the day), but these prior experiences seemingly did nothing to prepare me for the view of the sun rising on the Bells this morning.
(The Maroon Bells, with Maroon Lake.)
North and South Maroon Peak--both over 14,000'--stand sentinel over the valley. Their presence is regal, unflinching; their pyramidal faces exude a sense of complete security in their unquestioned authority, their immutable timelessness. Long after all the mechanized, frantic, desperate skitterings of those two-legged pests below has finally permanently ceased, these mountains will still be there. And they know it.
The Bells are the centerpiece of the valley, but all visible horizons are adorned with craggy, striated minarets from which fall streams of water. Entire mountainsides can be seen to be blanketed in flowers. Suffocating in flowers.
The run begins with a shortish jaunt up the valley over exceedingly rocky trail, from Maroon Lake to Crater Lake. At Crater Lake, the loop starts and the climbing begins in earnest. I punch up the 3000' of vertical without effort nor concern. The sheer beauty unfolding before me is almost overwhelming, however. The top of Buckskin Pass is crested with a 15-20 foot high frozen cornice that the trail conveniently skirts. From the apex, the scenery somehow improves. The Bells have been traded for the still snow-covered Snowmass Peak and Mountain. Snowmass Mountain is another 14er.
The trail down from the pass is impeccable. It is expertly constructed and picks a perfect line down into the next valley. At the base of its granite reaches, however, are the silky cerulean waters of Snowmass Lake. The contrast with the white stone is stunning. As I stride through this section and start the 1700' ascent to Trail Rider Pass, a thought occurs to me. I wish I could transplant my eyeballs into every human head, transmit my sight to the masses, identically relate the felt experience of moving effortlessly through this landscape. If that were possible, if people could see and feel and drink in this beauty, there is no way that strife could exist in the world, I think. War, money, material goods, their importance would cease to dominate the national, the global conversation.
Of course, this is not true. World War II was fought in the Alps. The San Juans of Colorado are some of the most mine-ridden mountains in the country. How has beauty ceased to inspire?
The summit of Trail Rider Pass proves to be a gateway to a different kind of landscape. Fravert Basin--the headwaters for the North Fork of the Crystal River--is pulsing with color. Emerald doesn't begin to describe the shade of green above treeline. How can mountains be this lush? Fravert Basin is Ed Abbey Green. John Muir Green. Al Gore only wishes he could get people to believe he is this Green. Envy only has this palette in its dreams. Ireland is jealous. Contrasted with the blood-red stone cliffs and peaks rimming the basin, it looks like Christmas.
As I begin the 2200' climb to Frigid Air Pass, the obligatory WTF moment occurs. I round a bend and there before me, in all its unexpected cascading glory is King's Falls.
The descent down the West Maroon Creek valley stretches on a bit longer than I expect. At times the brush is so thick and deep that I can't see my feet and I pray to not trip on a rock. I encounter hiker after hiker making their way up the valley. Many are burdened by impossibly large packs and I try not to be smug about the paucity of goods I carry: one 16 oz bottle, one 3 oz jacket never retrieved from where I tucked it into my wasteband this morning, the foil from four 1.1 oz GUs.
Finally, Maroon Lake is in sight, but my legs feel so good, and the morning is so flawless that I am almost saddened by the end of the run. Four hours, 46 minutes, and 55 seconds after leaving the trailhead, I am back. I jog a 15 minute cooldown and resist the urge to log still more time. I am satiated, though, and I need to save some of this feeling for next weekend's race and return to the Pacific Northwest.
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
(On Massive--I just can't get enough of that mountain. Photo: Marco Peinado.)
Once, a Colorado Springs reporter called me in order to comment on this particular feeling, of the sensation of being so physically adroit at a given task that focus and consciousness seemingly cease to exist. Scratch that, seem to exist on a much higher plane, rather. At the time, I was living and going to school in Bozeman, MT. I was studying for a mid-term in the campus library, so I went outside to take the call. Except that I had to hang up because I needed to walk on crutches to leave the building. And my foot was in a boot because over a month earlier I had been experiencing one of those ineffable moments during a run when I stepped on a rock and something gave way in that foot and it would be months before it was right again and I would feel that way again. And there was frozen slush on the ground. And night was descending so it was bitterly cold out because it was Montana in the winter. And yet, the feeling he wanted me to describe is so non-subtle, so singular, that I had no problem conjuring the notion of the concept, despite being so far removed from experiencing it. Distance from the flow of running does not lessen the emotional impact it has on me; I never forget.
I remember an October evening in Tyndall, South Dakota. In 1998, a bridge was built across the enormously formidable Missouri River, approximately two miles east of my home town of Niobrara, Nebraska. At this point in the Missouri, the river is over a mile wide. Think, for a moment, about a river that size. And then, try to imagine the reasoning for spanning a waterway of such breadth with a man-made structure. What was on the northern bank, opposite of the ~400 person hamlet of Niobrara, that was so important to reach? Some fantastic, 100 foot high, cream-colored chalkstone bluffs (type location for the Niobrara shale formation locally found in the Garden of the Gods). A cattle pasture. Some red cedars. That's about it. But, I digress.
(A quick aside: as I sit here leaning against the outdoor wall of the Lake County Public Library, plugged into the only outdoor outlet on the building, two volunteers are on their knees on the library's meager lawn, picking up, by hand, cottonwood tree cotton. This is what draws me to small communities like Leadville and my home town of Niobrara--the sense of ownership, and pride in simple values, that still reign among the citizenry.)
On this particular evening, I was doing a session of 3x1mile with a full mile's jog between each one, the idea being to allow one to really get cranking, stretch the legs, blow the tubes out, test the limits. With my Dad standing track-side yelling splits I breezed through the night, breaking 5:10 for each one at a time when my mile PR was barely sub-5 (regularly under-performing during races would be an unfortunate trend that I would carry with me into college).
During that workout, I had it. The glorious ability to make everything hurt like all get out---in a good way. Not, in a like, oh my god, the well is dry, in fact, not only is the well dry but I'm scraping frantically at the dusty basement of the well, yearning for the tiniest seep, desperate for moisture, ravenous for one final drip kind of way that I associate with iron deficiency, mononucleosis, or extreme overtraining. Instead, this is the kind of strain that isn't strain. It's pleasure, and limitless, and rife with effort, but the fruits are so much more than you imagined. You feel as if you can run forever.
(Feeling the flow above tree-line on Mt. Massive. Photo: Marco Peinado)
And that is how running on Mt. Massive was this morning. Rife with effort, but infinitely sustainable. These are the days for why I do this. These are the days that make me know I am a runner. Everything is so easy, so right, so in its place, that nothing else but pouring down (or up) a trail would make sense.
(A view of the Arkansas River valley between the Mosquitos and the Sawatch. Photo: Marco Peinado.)
Monday, July 13, 2009
(Forest Service sign commemorating Father Dyer on top of Mosquito Pass.)
I've always been interested in the activity of transporting myself from A to B completely under my own power. The thing about running is that at the end of a run, I typically find myself exactly back where I started, whether my route was a simple out and back, a loop, or some complicated mix thereof. This is not to say that I don't find inherent value in the usually geospatially purposeless completion of a run; it is just that there is something satisfying and alluring about using my mind and body's ability to efficiently cover great distances that might otherwise be achieved via mechanized assistance.
I remember 13 years ago, in August of 1996, pulling weeds in the garden with my Dad, and discussing how--with the advent of the new school year--I was going to mesh the three predominant activities in my life at the time: school, running, and football practice. I had just run my first marathon a month earlier and was more excited than ever about logging a lot of miles on northeast Nebraska's plethora of dirt roads and pasture trails.
However, Nebraska--thanks to the occasional NCAA successes of the Cornhuskers--is a football-crazed state, and as a teenage boy going to school in a small, rural town, there was simply no choice about playing football. It wasn't even a question that made sense to ask. If someone had asked me if I was going to play junior high football, it would've been like asking me if I were going to eat breakfast that morning. Of course, why wouldn't I? (Maybe the fact that I was 4'10" and 78 lbs, for starters.) This wasn't a peer or parental pressure situation (though my Dad had been a star runningback as a Niobrara High student, he couldn't have cared less whether I was or not); it was simply the order of the universe.
Anyways, back to the garden conversation. Football practice was starting in a few days, I had just logged my first 80 mile week, I would soon have to spend all day in classes...Dad was wondering how I might fit it all in. Inspired by the rampant folk tales in all running literature of the East African running dieties, my answer was simple: I'll just run to and from school every day, Dad. Mom (a teacher at the high school) can drive my books and clothes back and forth, but wouldn't have to wait for me to finish with football practice before driving back home for the evening. And, at a distance of seven miles each way, I'd be getting in some killer miles!
And thus began a full year of doing just that. Alas, on the very first day of 8th grade I took a tumble while playing hide-and-seek in the dark and was granted a quite intimate view of the inner workings of my left knee, which precluded any football for the season, but after a few days didn't stop me from hop/crutching a mile every morning before school.
Nevertheless, by the end of September I was back in the swing of things and running to and from town became as regular as doing my homework. I was full into my Lydiard obsession at this point as well, so I supplemented the week day runs with hilly 22 mile sojourns that climbed in and out of all of the surrounding major drainages--Bazille and Verdigre Creek, and the Missouri River--trying to mimic Lydiard/Snell/Halberg's legendary Waiatarua Loop in New Zealand. One hundred mile weeks were the norm through that winter, I was clearly obsessed, and I gained a healthy love for going places on my own two feet. Literally.
(Lydiard tested his training principles on himself.)
Which brings me to today's run. The towns of Leadville and Alma are the two highest in the country and are also only separated by the nontrivial geographical feature of the Mosquito Range. Anyone who has visited the crest of 13,185' Mosquito Pass is familiar with the legend of Father Dyer, courtesy of the Forest Service sign posted there and Dyer's nearby gravestone. The thought of regularly traversing a 13,000+' pass on snowshoes simply to deliver some mail is astounding to me. These days there is the much-propagandized and glorified Outside Magazine glossy version of the "active outdoor lifestyle", but give me a break. Guys like Father Dyer were the real deal; and duly inspirational.
(Father Dyer's gravestone atop Mosquito Pass.)
My own attempt at running to Alma and back to Leadville began...sluggishly. As I lay in the Roost this morning, I alternately flexed and relaxed my quads beneath the covers, checking for soreness from Saturday's marathon. It was there, but not bad. As I trotted up the hill into town, I could tell that today was going to be a tolerably inglorious effort. Good enough for me; I wanted to get to Alma.
The body's response to stress is often puzzlingly unpredictable. Embarking on the final impossibly rocky, three mile, 2200' ascent to the top of Mosquito, my expectations for my ability to struggle up the hill on my tired legs were low. Just get up there, I thought to myself. Today is all about just getting in 6hrs on your feet. And yet, somewhere in my body--on the unconscious, molecular level--neurons were firing, oxygen was being absorbed, and a sort of homeostasis occured that said, running uphill is okay today; we can do this. Before I knew it, I was atop the mountain, taking in the glorious bluebird view of the Sawatch Range, and sitting at the base of Father Dyer's stagecoach cut-out sucking on my water bottle. I'd scaled that slope only 45 seconds slower than during the race on Saturday.
Heading down the east side, I was giddy. I love new trails and exploration, and the eastern slope of the Mosquitos promised just that. A mile below the summit, however, was a sight that could not go unexamined. A single small stretch of maybe 20 yards of snow remained just before the road split around London Mountain, and sitting here, perched ever so ignominiously, was maybe the most foreign object imaginable: a Lexus RX300 luxury SUV.
The driver had clearly given up at the last possible moment, i.e. just before the only obvious move remaining would be that of tipping over and rolling violently down the mountainside in some sort of deranged glissade. What the hell was he/she thinking? "Colorado Native" and "Soccer" stickers adorned the bumper. Really? Why is it always a little bit astonishing when a stereotype is so accurately corroborated?
As I resumed my downhill progress I strained to resist the portions of my brain that were--stuck in their default setting--stubbornly reacting with a shameful mix of indignant disgust (how dare one be so disrespectful of my mountains? go learn some common sense already!) and sinister delight at the notion of some bumbling yuppie obviously receiving his or her comeuppance. These are not sentiments of which I am proud, and I was only partly successful. Luckily, there were abundant wildflowers in the verdant 12,000' meadow to keep me distracted.
(A typical view while running down the east side of the Mosquitos.)
The rest of the run into Alma was uneventful, bordering on monotonous. I knew going into this traverse that it was going to be 100% road, but even with this prior knowledge I struggled a bit to deal with the wide, flat, graded gravel surface I found myself running down the last few miles into Alma. Additionally, my core muscle cramps from Saturday were enjoying an uninvited encore act. Soon enough, though, I hit Highway 9--Alma's main drag--exactly 2h30min after departing Harrison Ave/Highway 24 in Leadville.
I made a quick stop in a coffeeshop to chug 30ish ounces of water and refill my bottle and then was back from whence I came. The run back up the county road was, for some reason, much more tolerable in the uphill direction, mostly because my mind was more than a little concerned with the gradually darkening sky. On the return trip, I elected to take the northern route around London Mountain--the true Mosquito Pass Road--and by the time I had reached the "parking lot" approximately three miles from the summit a light smattering of rain drops were splatting on my shoulders.
Once again my legs enjoyed the marked upturn in grade, but my thoughts were consumed with just what the hell I should do. At first I tried to tell myself that those rumblings were just distant jeeps, or rocks rolling through the abundant culverts on the road, but soon the proximity and intensity of the incoming storm was undeniable.
Just as I passed the ruins of old mine buildings and workings, the heavens unleashed their fury. Wind whipped rain and occasional pea-sized hail in all directions and I seriously feared for my life. Hands-down, lightning scares the shit out of me. As an accomplished and capable mountain runner, I confidently travel light--even above treeline--because I know that the intensity of my efforts that stoke my inner furnace will often ward off the majority of even the most inhospitable above-treeline conditions. Plus, I move quickly and can usually efficiently make my way down to lower elevations in a hurry. Even in this storm, I wore only a singlet on my upper body but didn't feel unduly distressed.
None of this, however, does anything to ward off lightning. I think of people who toy with lightning above treeline as hubristic idiots. Lightning does not care. And if your number is up, it will find you, that tiny little insignificant speck up there dancing amongst the talus. I hate gambling, and yet that's what I was doing. But, none of my options were appealing. Run back down all that vertical I just labored so intensively to gain? Seek shelter in a tumbledown mining shack? Cower amongst the boulders? Cry in fear? The LEXUS!
For the next mile, all I thought about was reaching that wretched vehicle, and if its doors weren't open (the likely case), lying in fear beneath its carriage, waiting for the squall to pass. In retrospect, this was a pretty dumb plan of action (lying under the vehicle, I would still be profoundly grounded, afterall, and that car was primarily constructed of highly conductive steel), but it's all I could come up with.
Alas, as I rounded the final bend, there was the car, being towed! The intensity of the storm had abated and in a moment I resolved to just keep chugging to the top of the pass, rain and hail be damned. As I cruised up past the positively crawling duo of tow truck and wounded SUV, the visions of my mind's stereotype were, of course, confirmed. The owner of the vehicle was stumbling around adorned in a T-shirt, Nantucket shorts, and flip-flops, and was desperately trying to shield himself from the onslaught of precip by using a beach towel as an umbrella. Not lost on me, however, was the irony of my attitude. How was I any less stupid for putting myself in the current situation, atop a 13,000' mountain in a thunderstorm wearing only shoes, shorts, and a singlet?
The run down the other side of the pass was defined by contrasts. At first I suffered repeated lashings from the mountain gods, but eventually, around 11,000' the clouds scuttled away, the sun broke out, and I was soon cruising down the road bare-chested and fancy-free once again. I padded past an alpine lake where fishermen flicked their poles with unconcerned aplomb, completely oblivious to the mind-rending depths of fear and despair I'd just experienced at the hands of the elements. How would or should they know or care?
A mile or two from town, the tow truck and SUV limped past me. Ten minutes later, as I finally made my return to Leadville, 4h58m after leaving its main street that morning, I happened to run past the owner of the SUV. "How far did you run today?" he asked, seemingly shocked to see me yet again. "Over to Alma and back," I replied. I like to think Father Dyer would have been proud.
Saturday, July 11, 2009
The week leading up to the race was kind of erratic with Jocelyn being in town. This pushed my usual weekend long run forward to Monday of this week, which wasn't ideal, but I was willing to sacrifice a bit of performance in this race in order to get in the training necessary to do well at the Leadville 100 later in the summer. Additionally, that long run went pretty badly. I just felt terrible, got really dehydrated, and, despite magically finding four Endurolytes on the top of Sugarloaf Pass, ended the run in a fairly depleted state. I chalked it up to good end-of-100 simulation.
My Tuesday running was predictably crappy after a long run like that, and, although I felt quite good on the climb up Green on Wednesday, the warm-up was horrible and my shake-out that evening was just as bad. I rallied a bit with my "taper" runs on Thursday and Friday (easy, flat 2hr and 1h20 runs), and went into this race feeling ready to go. But, clearly, I wasn't very willing to back off the training very much; I ran 152 miles in the seven days before the race. Even so, I wanted Paul Dewitt's course record of 3:39:12.
Crossing the Mineral Belt bike path Duncan, Bryan, and I all ran together with Dennis less than a minute in front of us. As we turned onto the steeper, rockier, looser climbing I consciously backed off the pace a bit and let Duncan and Bryan go at it a few yards ahead. Any time the trail turned particularly steep I would instantly catch back up, so I just let the gap ride. I was very wary of pushing too hard too early as I wanted to be as strong as possible on the Mosquito climb and on the sneaky climbs in the second half of the race because these were where I struggled the last time I ran this race.
Right before the first aid station (3.8 miles) the three of us were still running together and Dennis was still ~1 minute up. At the station I dumped a cup of water on my head as the sun was blazing and chased Duncan down the hill to start the circumnavigation of Ball Mountain. Bryan lingered at the station but quickly caught me on the downhill. I followed closely in his wake, but on this shortish downhill section (~400' of loss) I started getting my first side cramps of the day that would prove to be my undoing.
On the ~700' climb up to Ball Mt Pass (12,000') I ran with Bryan before passing him right before the top where I yelled at Duncan who I saw had just headed straight down the other side of the pass instead of turning left onto the singletrack that traverses the north side of Ball Mt and heads back down to the aid station. I have absolutely no idea why that incorrect road was marked with flags, because the singletrack was marked, too. Very weird.
On the downhill to the aid station, Duncan and I ran fairly comfortably, but I started cramping again, so I popped an S! cap and hit my first gel shortly after the station. Despite this, the cramping continued on the extended downhill (~700' vertical) to the bottom of the Mosquito climb. We ran this section fairly solid, but I could never really get going because my sides/ribs kept cramping, pretty hard at times. Bryan caught us right at the bottom of the hill and the three of us ran into the aid station still together. Bryan again spent a little extra time in the aid station, and Duncan and I tackled the hill together with him a few yards in front.
So, the downhill was miserable. I grunted and groaned and massaged a lot trying to get my ribs and obliques and diaphragm to loosen but nothing was working. I was often partly doubled-over, grinding my fist into my side(s), all while trying to sprint down exceedingly technical trail with little oxygen. It was fun. Unfortunately, I was hardly in a state to acknowledge/return many of the very nice things all of the people hiking up the pass were taking the time and breath to say to me.
At the bottom of the hill, my legs felt predictably dead from the downhill, but my main problem was still the cramping. At the aid station, I filled my bottle and was told Dennis had a 6 minute lead. I asked for salt, any salt, table salt, but none was to be had. So it goes. Initially, the run up the hill back to Ball Mt was quite poor. There is a long switchback where I was able to confirm Dennis' six minute advantage, but there seemed to be very little I could do about it. I just felt like I was surviving. Ah, the joys of mountain racing!
Shortly after the Ball Mt aid I walked a few short yards in order to hit my last gel and try to regroup and get my head back in the game. This loop around Ball is a bread and butter 2hr run for me during the week, so I was very familiar with the trail and things were actually going okay until I hit the downhill on the backside where it was the usual cramp-fest again. By time I had grunted my way up the final rolling (oh, what a euphemism) hills to the last aid station I was pretty out of it mentally. I would occasionally be chugging along, realizing that I wasn't actually running that hard, so I would launch into a more race-like effort but it would eventually tail off for whatever reason until I would realize again how slow I was going. I was seriously lacking focus and salt.
At the final aid I stopped and chugged two cups of water (my bottle was out) and then took off down the four mile hill to the finish. I struggled off and on again with cramps until the end, but in general I kind of finally got my shit together the last few miles and was able to run a solid 23min split to the finish.
Kyle and I have always maintained that on any given day he and I are extremely vulnerable to getting our asses handed to us at the 50K and below distances. This was a good example of that. However, the main reasons that happened to me today were completely my fault, and completely in my control: not more thoughtfully packaging my salt, and not tapering significantly (in reviewing this past week, I now see that the only thing I did differently than a standard week is that I didn't run big vertical on Thursday; I did still run 2hr, though). Simply put, I have more important goals later in the summer. A big hats off to Dennis, though, and he simply outran me, fair and square.
Team CRUD folks representing; these guys somehow make it fun to go charge up frigid, snowy Cheyenne Canyon at 5am on Thursday mornings during the winter.
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
(8144' Green Mountain in Boulder, CO)
Living in The Roost has some serious perks. Such as: never having to "pack" for any road trip. Ever. Never needing to rent a motel room; The Roost comes fully equipped with a lofted futon matress. Complete mobility; The Roost has wheels. Somehow Jocelyn more than puts up with this; she seems to enjoy it nearly as much as I do. How am I so lucky?
We needed to be at DIA at nine o'clock the following morning, so after sweeping and mopping Provin' Grounds' floors Tuesday night, Jocelyn and I piled into The Roost and made the trip past Climax Mine and over Fremont Pass, down into Summit County, through the Eisenhower Tunnel (yes, the Continental Divide is an imposing barrier...I have an idea, let's go underneath it!) and down the 6000' vertical feet to the Front Range. The combination of automobile and interstate highway allows for mind-boggling coverage of ground.
We pulled into Boulder well after dark desperate for sleep. Jocelyn is in the process of returning from a nearly five month bout of plantar fasciitis and has been living at sea level in San Diego, so 50-60min runs at 10,000' for the past week were epic for her. I'm always tired.
Where to park...where to park...in the past I've used trailheads, forest service roads, hotel/motel parking lots, Wal-Marts...any place a parked car will appear inconspicuous and unthreatening. This particular evening, a dark residential neighborhood just off the west end of Boulder's famed Pearl Street proves adequate.
Sleeping in The Roost in a city can be nerve-wracking the first few times. There is a troubling sense of doing something ever-so-vaguely...illegal? frowned-upon? uncouth? depraved? There is a low-level discomfort with the possibility of being caught. Doing what, though? Sleeping?
Once, in Flagstaff's Buffalo Park parking lot, Jocelyn and I were rousted from our slumber at 1:30am by a policeman. We had been nestled snugly on the ground, poorly hidden on the far side of Jocelyn's (not so sleeping-compatible) car. I was so deep in sleep that I had thought Jocelyn imploring me to wake up was part of a dream. The cop, however, was merely trying to do us a favor. We weren't doing anything illegal, per se, he said, but that a cruiser would probably come by periodically all night and we wouldn't get much sleep. We thanked him and moved deeper into the woods.
By now, though, I have The Roost and few nerves. Thermolite sleeping pads cover The Roost's tinted windows and block out the streetlights and beams of oncoming cars, eventually allowing for a comforting sense of privacy in the night's darkness to take over. Soon I feel like a voyeur on the rest of the world instead of like everyone is looking at me. Young couples coast by unknowingly on bicycles, returning home from a night out on the town. A television can be heard through the open windows of a nearby home.
At 5am my alarm goes off. I stumble out the back of The Roost, sit on the curb to lace up my shoes in the pre-dawn glow, and trot down the street. The warm night air of the Front Range barely even allows for goosebumps on my skin. I am shirtless in anticipation of the effort about to commence.
I am planning a reasonable run of Green Mt. and Bear Peak before looping back and meeting Jocelyn at the Boulder Bookend Cafe on Pearl Street for a pastry and some caffeine. Today, three days out from this weekend's race, I want a solid effort, but nothing overly stressful. Running up 9th street, my legs are sluggish. My body doesn't appreciate the early morning sojourn and my legs are still feeling a 36 mile double crossing of Sugarloaf Pass two days prior.
At Chautauqua, the sun has still not broken the horizon. My jog over on the Baseline trail does nothing to inspire confidence in my ability to scale this peak that has been nothing but painful for me in the past. I briefly consider the more gradual route of the Gregory Canyon and Ranger trails, but soon resolve to follow my original plan of the much steeper Amphitheater-Saddle Rock-Greenman route. I specifically want to do something steep so that Mosquito Pass on Saturday won't feel so unreasonable.
For some reason, the minute I hit the first big rock and log step-ups of the Amphitheater trail, my body's energy is renewed. I've never felt good on this section; today I have more than enough power to run up this section as if it were smooth trail. My mood instantly brightens.
A few minutes later, so does the sky. Shortly before the Greenman trail intersection approximately half-way up the mountain, the trees open up and an expansive view of Boulder and the eastern horizon is impossible to ignore. This morning, the fiery orb of the sun is just making its way over the curve of the earth, and luckily, the spring in my legs is enough that I am able to enjoy this spectacular view without breaking stride.
Above here the trail is briefly much flatter than the prior section and I happily stride out, ecstatic in my legs' ability to take advantage of the more favorable terrain. Typically, I'm barely surviving and just trying to recover through here. Maybe there is some benefit to regularly running up prohibitively steep grades at altitudes 5000' higher than what I'm experiencing here. Oxygen tastes good.
Finally, when the trail turns to a series of log steps and then a couple talusy switchbacks, I know I am near the top and I edge the effort past that of an enjoyable, solid run to that territory where breathing comes only in staccato, desperate bursts and the legs no longer feel so springy and responsive. By time I tag the summit post, it has been 33:12 from the Gregory Canyon trailhead (the beginning of the climb) and it takes me another 12 seconds to scale the summit rock and take in the western view of Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks.
On the run down to Bear Creek Canyon my legs enjoy that boost that comes from running hard and fast and my mind turns back to Jocelyn and The Roost. It will add 20ish minutes onto my run to summit Bear Peak and descend Fern Canyon, and, this being my last few hours with Jocelyn before she leaves the state, I would rather spend those 20 minutes with her. This morning, 2800' of vertical will have to be enough.
(Pearl Street's Bookend Cafe)
Just as I get back to The Roost on Pine Street, I meet Jocelyn finishing her own run on the Boulder Creek Path and we express mutual joy at the abundance of oxygen, the brilliant green foliage, the extra moisture at this lower elevation. Minutes later we are in street clothes, sitting together at a sidewalk table and sipping cups of tea. There is an underlying angst at the prospect of being apart in such a short amount of time--we must soon leave to finish the drive to DIA--but for these few delicious minutes we both know how fortunate we are to be young, together, in the mountains, running, and happy.
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
I spontaneously jumped in this race because it was only $10 (no shirt, thankfully), Jocelyn and a college friend were in town to visit me so I thought I'd do them the courtesy of not spending half the day running through the mountains, and I much prefer the random local 5K/10K as speedwork instead of any actual flat, speed-based workout.
The competition at the start line was a touch stiffer than I'd initially planned: a XC/track runner from Liberty University in town to train at altitude for the summer--Jordan Whitlock--and a Kenyan high schooler from Texas doing the same--David Mogi--provided a competitive push for the first two thirds of the course.
Racing anaerobically, especially at 10,000', is a different kind of pain compared to the more aerobic efforts that I pursue on a daily basis. Well, that isn't entirely true. When I'm tottering up a 14er, straining to sustain a running cadence above tree-line at some absurdly steep grade, my respiration is typically desperately ragged and my legs slowly accumulate with lactic acid and the level of suffering is actually quite comparable to that of a road 5K. My legs just aren't turning over as fast as in a 5K. Instead of 5:30 miles, I can easily struggle to hit 15 minute miles.
I started my Independence Day morning with a 1h45 run to get some mileage in for the day and be good and loose for the race. Nevertheless, my body initially responded with shock after a fairly quick downhill start where David, Jordan, and another runner put a few seconds on me. After a few minutes, though, my body's metabolism equilibrated a little, my breathing eventually settled a bit, and I gradually pulled in the front runners on a shallow, extended uphill. Upon reaching the front group I decided to maintain my pace instead of falling in with them, and continued to extend the effort.
Running that hard for that short of a distance is a distinctly different experience from the type of running I've become accustomed to. Cresting the sharp hill before the slightly downhill sprint to the finish, I could not get any air. It felt almost as if I were suffocating. With approximately 200 meters to go, my brain still half-entertained fantasies of drastically slowing and decreasing the effort, or--shockingly--quitting the race all together!
It brought back a flood of memories from my high school and college track days. I distinctly remember a mile race in the 8th grade where I was leading by at least 200 meters, and yet, at the top of the backstretch on the final lap, I seriously considered how reasonable it would be to just step onto the infield there and have it be over. Severe, self-inflicted suffering plays outrageous tricks on one's mind.
Conversely, upon finishing such a short race, the debt of oxygen is repaid within a few minutes and recovery is so quick that one almost instantly forgets just how painful the experience was. Within moments the body is ready to go running again.
Alas, I persevered and cranked down the Main Street stretch run in fear of being caught by the ever-surging Kenyan runner to record a winning time of 16:53, 34 seconds ahead of the second place David. I had certainly run (very) hard, gone severely into oxygen debt, and turned the legs over significantly (my main goals for the race), but I hadn't really known what to expect for a 5K at 10,000'. I am pleased with the result, and, combined with my many mountain runs will head into this weekend's Leadville Marathon with some fairly high expectations, mostly time-related. It is pretty amusing that my lifetime 5K PR (from 2001) is 16:31, run at an altitude of 1500'.