Friday, August 12, 2016

At the Crest of Everest and Half a Time

"They're so beautiful!" These were the words that I sent via text to my good ultrarunning friend, Jen Edwards, in regards to the San Juan Mountains in Southwest Colorado. Shortly thereafter I received a message back stating, "we have to go there!"

These were words that were shared about 4 months ago as I was trying to figure out which 100 I was going to run this summer. The San Juan Mountains hosts an incredibly historic event known as the Hardrock 100. My only qualm with this race is that unless you are incredibly lucky, your odds of getting in are minimal, as the lottery system places a heavy emphasis on veterans who had already completed the race. Don't get me wrong, it is a beautiful course with lots of history and difficulty in completing, but I knew that I wanted to try something a little different. That is when I decided to check in on Ouray 100. It is a race that is the equivalent on the beauty factor, but arguably even more difficult. The race boasts close to 42,000 feet of climbing and 42,000 feet of descending. A total of about 84,000 feet of elevation gain-A LOT! This would be the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest from sea level one and a half times. Then you have to consider that the lowest elevation of the entire race is at 7600 feet. At one point, it gets over 13,300...Unfortunately in Washington, I just don't get that type of elevation training. The climbing is a lot, but the elevation is a completely different story.

To be quite honest, this intimidated me a little bit. Had Jen not pushed me into it and a free race entry from Josh and Orange Mud, I probably wouldn't have signed up. However, sometimes the beauty of nature and a kind push from friends to do rad things make me a bit of a pushover and susceptible to making irrational decisions. I'm surprised I never got into drugs...

Next thing I knew I was registered and I had my crew member, Jen, going along with me. This undoubtedly would be the most difficult race I had done up to this point. HURT 100 in Hawaii was probably the hardest to date, but total climbing there was about 25,000. This would only be about 17,000 feet more and at a much higher elevation...

As soon as the tickets were purchased, I checked the weather for the week of the race. It was rain for a week straight...of course it would be! Sunny Colorado turns into Stormy Colorado whenever I signed up for this. Jen and I joke that anything we plan to go to together turns into a hot mess, weather wise. Last year I paced Jen at Fat Dog 120 and the weather was hailing and raining for her entire 40 hour race. It was just so much fun seeing nothing but dark clouds and freezing to death on the peaks. I literally couldn't wait to get blown off a mountain from hurricane like winds and freeze to death on the peaks for my race this was like living a dream that was about to come back-except this time she would get to stay warm and I would be in the Hunger Games, trying to survive.

At the start of the race, only 31 people showed up. We each were given our trackers and were ready to go. Similar to the Hunger Games, it was so the Race Directors could keep track of where everyone was at and pick people up who selected the "pick up" button. Really the only difference between this race and the Hunger Games is that there were no cannons going off when people died or quit. The rest is quite comparable.

At the start, the weather wasn't terrible. The sun was shining and everything looked hopeful. I knew better. I had checked the weather before it started and knew that as the day progressed, the chance of thunderstorms and rain was almost inevitable. I toed the line with the other runners at 8 AM Friday morning and knew that I would be out here for an incredibly long time. This wasn't really a race as much as a hike in the mountains. I had that mindset going in and believe that that helped me throughout the entire course of the race.

Once we were all lined up, the Race Director let us go. The first couple of miles were essentially all jeep trails. I followed these and intentionally didn't run any hills. I'd get my fair share of climbing and needed to conserve my legs as much as possible. As we started off, there were a couple of guys who were doing just that, running all of the hills. I kept my cool and went at my own pace, making sure that I was being strategic about this race. Most people probably wouldn't finish, and 100 miles is a long way to begin with, not to mention the elevation profile. The pic below is the views that we had at the beginning, about 3 miles into the race.

When I hit the first aid station, we then started to head to our first climb.This is when I would learn very quickly what I had registered for. The ascent started to get a bit vertical. Like a lot vertical. My heart-lung machine was pumping blood harder than it otherwise would. It kinda felt like I was an obese person who was forced to hit the treadmill for the first time. My love for the idea of doing something epic was quickly beginning to change. Training leading up to this race, I had done extensive training at Mt. Rainier, running Camp Muir repeats from Paradise to train for the elevation as well as the climbing. Certainly this helped me out, but I was running against some mountain goats in this race (the winner I found out lives at 10,000 feet in Colorado). There were a couple of guys who got up that first climb like they were Sherpa's. I was a lost, confused wanderer who wasn't sure what I was getting into...

With that said, it was the first climb and it wasn't as dramatic as I'm making it sound; however, it did take the breath away from me. As with all mountain races, there typically is a big reward for those willing to do the work. I shouldn't have been surprised with the views rewarded:

From here, I grabbed the hole punch and punched my bib to prove that I was following the course. Now it was time to go down, down, down. I was moving pretty quickly on this downhill as it wasn't super technical, but not too fast as to blow my quads up too early. There were many more downhills to run and needed to be sure that I was conserving my body as much as possible. I sometimes like to think of myself as a controlled runner-not going out too fast and not going out too slow. Typically it is in the later stages of races where I make my move on other runners. The adrenaline in the beginning is hard to let go but you have to think perspective and constantly remind yourself that it will be a long time. After I got back to that initial aid station, I then started to head to Richmond Aid Station. It was here that I noticed the sky was beginning to blacken.

The next point from here was Chicago Tunnel. This is when things started to get bad. The climb to Chicago Tunnel is difficult to start, and then the rain started. Great! As if this course wasn't hard enough, the rain would be my worst enemy. Thankfully I had planned that things would get bad, and that is why I put my secret weapon in my Orange Mud pack-a trash bag. My high tech trash bag likely saved this entire race for me. Chicago Tunnel certainly felt like Chicago to me in the winter. It was blowing horribly and the rain started to pelt down on us. I was questioning if it was going to start sleeting here soon. The problem with the exposed Rockies is that there is no protection from the rain. We were above tree coverage and I didn't have the nice foliage of the trees like Washington to protect me from getting pelted in the face. The trail also started to get much more technical. It was scree, lose rock, that every step I took I took about a half step back. It was HORRIBLE. We have this scree in Washington, but here is seemed to be 2 feet deep. Between trying to climb at elevation, fighting the loose rock, and getting pelted in the face by gale force winds and raindrops, I was having the vacation of my life. I just couldn't think of anything else I'd rather be doing. After finally making it to the top of Chicago Tunnel, I punched the hole bib. I attempted to take a picture, but my camera was fogging up. This is the best that I could conjure:

From here, I started to head over to Peabody Fort, the highest point of the race and probably my lowest moment overall. First off, there were tons of jeeps that were on this road as they were heading up to the fort. Shockingly they were all incredibly kind, but that probably was more out of pity. They were witnessing a person in shorts, a trash bag, and the face of someone who looks like someone was punching them in the face as I couldn't see a thing on the climb. Truly this climb felt like an eternity. It was like I was a slug trying to get to the top of a building-I just wasn't going to get there! More jeep drivers continued waving and even stopping for me as the road was only big enough for one of us to get by. I'm sure too that they were thinking we were all psychopaths for being out here.

The rain continued falling down and the winds were getting really, really bad. It blew my hat off a couple of times and I had to backtrack to retrieve it. It was also this point that I started to bonk. I hadn't been eating because I didn't want to take my gloves off. I desperately paid for this. By the time I was getting closer to the top, I was bonking and my hands were too cold to open my pack of jelly beans. It was at this point that the leaders were heading back down. Their faces were incredibly red. It sort of looked like someone took a pan of boiling water and poured it on their face. Of course, it was from the wind hitting their face. They were at least going the opposite direction of the wind and I was heading straight into the thick of it. They gave me a look like "good luck" and I'm sure I gave them one back of "when am I getting off this thing!" About 20ish minutes later the bonking continued to get worse. It got so bad that I waived a jeep down. I felt like a kid who really wanted a piece of candy but mommy and daddy had to open it as the kid was either too dumb or weak to do so. This jeep saved me. I asked if they could open it as my hands were too cold and the lady inside said, "oh, please come inside, it's warm." I quickly rejected but appreciated it and the guy driving passed the beans back over. I was back in business!

I shoved the jelly beans in my mouth and finished my climb to Fort Peabody at 13,365'. I was struggling getting my bib punched as my hands were freezing and my bib was blowing in the wind, but I finally got it to work. I quickly turned around and headed back down. I laughed to myself as there were probably amazing views here and I didn't see a single one. Typical! I hit the aid station again and started to head towards Ironton. 

The rain let up again and the climbing began again. More technical climbing here too. Eventually the trail turned off the road and went into a prairie. There were tons of wildflowers all over but I couldn't see the trail markers. However, it was clear that the runners weren't supposed to follow the road. I searched for the orange markers and found them hidden in the flowers. I began to follow them and was back on course. The view here was out of this world:

I continued to follow this trail and shortly after the iron in the Ironton Mountains (so I call them) quickly came into view as well. I was at a complete loss of words:

The wildflowers here and the views of the mountains is something that can't be expressed into words. They are a view that I could only dream about. Certainly the weather could have cooperated a bit more, but all of the struggles and pains that I had gone through to get to this point were completely worth it. There were no other people up here but me. It was like I was given the gift of the world and I was the only person there to enjoy it. It was both an amazing feeling and also one that made me wish that other loved ones I know could have seen this with me. Nature has a way of gripping the strings of the soul and this view expressed something that can't be articulated into words. That is essentially what was happening to me at this point. However, the reality check quickly came back in that it was indeed cold up here too. I was marveling in the views but also knew that I needed to progress. I started to head down this mountain and it was incredibly vertical. There was tons of descending in such a short time frame. Good for me this go around, but bad as I also knew I would have to climb this, likely in the dark. I pressed on and got to the highway. From here, I followed this and was heading to the Ironton Aid Station, the primary aid station of the race. It was here that I would see the CEO of Orange Mud, Josh, and my crew member, Jen. 

Jen and I had planned that I would get here around 5:00 pm. I got here closer to I believe 3:30, which was a great thing. This has happened before at Oil Creek in PA when my parents expected me to get to the aid station at a certain time and I got there much earlier. However, there was nothing urgent that I needed and knew that I would run around this road again and could meet Jen then. I met Josh for the first time and he greeted me. I quickly accepted aid from him and headed back on the road. This section was another low moment in an odd way. It wasn't super technical, but you definitely weren't going to run this. It went up, up, and up. Again, I was getting some odd looks from the jeep drivers but in a way I think they understood what I was doing. Here the rain started to pick up again and just make my life so much better. However, it did clear up again and I did get some reward with more views:

I got to the top and quickly started my descent down. Again, it was a very technical descent but knew that I had to keep going. I got into the aid station here and saw Jen this time. She felt horrible for missing me the first time as she had my music, but I think it was good that I procrastinated the music this go around. I also dropped my phone off as well. We both decided that I wouldn't need my light for this go-around as I likely would be back before nightfall. It was a strategic decision in the sense that if I got caught in the dark, I would have to wait for someone with a light. However, I was quite confident that I would be OK and used it as motivation to keep moving when I would become lazy. I continued up the ascent that I just descended and quickly began to despise that mountain much more. There were some guys at the top who waved at me and gave me a look of awe, yet complete confusion and satisfaction that it was me suffering and panting for air and not them. Nonetheless, I happily took their look of confusion and pressed on. I summitted the top again and started working my way back down. I was passing tons of other 100 milers who were heading for the aid station on the first loop. They were hours behind and I knew that I was sitting at 3rd in the moment. I kept on and saw Jen again at the Ironton Aid Station. At this point I knew that I needed my headlamp. I took it from her and started to head back to the Richmond Aid Station. It was the climb that I was resenting the most. This had been the steepest of them it seemed, and although at one point it offered amazing views, this time I knew it would be a different story. I was right. Dissimilar to the wolf who huffed and puffed and blew the house down, I was huffing and puffing but collapsing uphill and praying for the top. However, with most things, every step forward gets you there. I was at the top and started to head through the prairie field of flowers. It was actually easier at night finding the markers as they had reflectors-rather than trying to find orange flags in a field of orange, yellow, and red flowers. I avoided more technical terrain and to Richmond Aid Station I went.

When I got there the workers informed me that it was 4.5 miles to the next one, mostly downhill. They were actually right. Sometimes I think aid station workers are programmed to lie and tell you what you want to hear rather than what is actually true. These were honest aid station workers. It was all down hill and I believe I made great headway on this section. Got to the next aid station and they informed me that the leader has been out there for 1.5 hours and hasn't come back. Probably not a good sign...I left and started to climb. Of all the sections, this was one of my least favorite. It was a complete car wash. It was raining harder and harder the higher I went and the plants were beyond saturated. I think I would have had more pleasure getting licked by a whale. I arguably would have been drier... It was at this point that I saw a headlamp. The leader! He was heading back. That was a good sight. I continued onward and was zigzagging up this mountain. It was like the eternal zigzags. No views, complete soaking, and incessant climbing. Love that. Eventually I saw the second placer. He was much behind the leader. I continued on for about 10 minutes and found the coveted hole punch! I quickly punched my bib and turned around. I was moving down and continuing to get completely soaked. This is when I saw 2 other headlamps. It was the eventual champion with his pacer. He was moving very well. 

I got to the aid station and they informed me that the 2nd placer had dropped out. He apparently didn't have the leg strength to move forward. Not shocking. We had already climbed close to 23,000 feet already. I moved on and this was another least favorite section. Not sure if this was because it was nighttime or because it was another swimming pool that I couldn't even swim in. I continued climbing up, up, and up again and then got off course. I couldn't see the markers and decided that I was off course. After about 10 minutes of looking around, I finally found the course and began moving in the right direction. From here, I kept moving towards Silver Lake. It was a giant prairie up here. I could tell because the wind was smacking me in the face again and I was again completely exposed. I pressed on and not long after I saw the two headlamps coming from behind. It was Avery and his pacer. This guy was moving so well downhill that I looked like I was frozen. I let him by and pressed on to the aid station. We both were there and I saw Jen. I had my headlamp changed and prayed for a miracle with the bonking. She handed me my common banana and half avocado and I took off with Avery. This was my slowest section yet. Climbing back up the mountain I just came down was incredibly demoralizing. Then I saw Avery and his pacer disappear. The sun was beginning to come back up as I was over the top and heading back to Fellin Park.

I was beyond excited. The sun is like an extra energy boost. I finally turned the headlamp off and my sleepiness was beginning to go away a bit. Pulling all-nighters is not my cup of tea but the sun has a way of tricking your body into thinking that you actually slept. Although I didn't have my camera at this point, this was a pic of some Aspens that were similar to this part of the course that I did see:

From here I continued on and took the wrong turn on the road back to Fellin Park. I was heading the direction that we started the morning before and realized that I was going the wrong way....I waved a car down and asked if this was the direction of Fellin Park, knowing full well that it wasn't. They said no and felt horrible for me. They asked if I wanted a ride. I politely (I think politely) declined and turned around and ran additional mileage. This mistake cost me about 30 minutes total. I got to the aid station and was delighted to see Jen. She gave me some noodles and I had told her that I was bonking terribly. I had tried to eat jelly beans that night knowing full well that my stomach wouldn't take them. I puked them right up along with the avocado and banana I could keep down. This was likely why the bonking was even worse. However, in desperate measures, anything was better than bonking and thought that I should give it a try. Apparently the human body can only handle so much sugar. I knew that jelly beans and the quick sugars would no longer be a part of my diet.

From here was the nicest part of the trail. It was up to Twin Peaks. It is incredibly steep with no protection if you fall. It was the perfect section for after pulling an all nighter. However, the reason I approved is because I made great progress on catching the leaders. Avery and Rob (the guy who had been leading the entire race) were slowing down a lot. I saw them towards the top. The sun was actually out at this part and I was stunned at the views. I was mad at myself for not having my phone with me. I then started to head towards Silver Basin. From here I saw that Avery was coming back and had passed Rob. I knew that Rob was likely hurting. I continued on and came to the Silver Basin Aid Station. To my surprise, I saw Josh and Jen here. I was informed that Josh, the CEO of Orange Mud, would pace me. I was ecstatic! It was about mile 80. I was actually getting hot for the first time in the race and took my trash bag and jacket off. Jen asked if I wanted to change my shirt and Josh just got to the root of the problem. "You smell!" Those were essentially the first words he told me. I laughed, completely out of it from the no sleep. I told him that it wouldn't matter and apologized that he would have to smell me for 10 miles. 

We basically hiked this section and we talked about the company and just lots of things. He probably thought that I was a crazy person and couldn't hold a conversation, but I am beyond appreciative to have had someone to talk to me. Anything to get my mind off of the 20 miles in front of me.

We continued on and he told me about adventures that he had had in the past. My feet were also suffering terribly by this point. I had many hot spots earlier but it was to a whole new degree. It felt with every step that daggers were being thrown at my feet. The technical trail had obliterated my feet and I had developed trench foot from all of the car washes and rain. Josh and I passed Rob and moved into second. We saw Jen at Fellin Park again and quickly snapped a pic:

We then headed to the Perimeter Trail. From here, we moved on again and I attempted to run the downhills. The switchbacks here seemed to be eternal. We asked one person how many more and they said about 7 more switchbacks. Great. Just what I wanted to hear! However, we pressed on and got to cross another stream. I hopped over and moved a little more until we got to the hole punch. Josh seemed happy to do some reading on Chief Ouray, a building at the top, but I cared far more about getting the small hole on my bib as another signature that this road was coming to a close. We moved on and I attempted to run the downhill. My feet really were not having this section. I had to put the trash bag on again as the rain started and back to Fellin Park we went. After we got here, there was just one climb left: The Bridge to Heaven. I was 92 miles in and had about 10.5 to go. Finishing was no longer a question. It was just if I would get there before the second nightfall. 

I didn't take my headlamp as it was only 3:30 in the afternoon. I thought that it would be motivation to move quicker. I set out with my standard banana and avocado and left Josh behind. Jen walked with me for part of this and we were moving our way up this section. It was another scree field. I'm not sure that I have been in so much scree in my life. The Bridge of Heaven was going to be the Bridge of Hell for me. The rain was starting to come again and I had to put my trash bag on one final time. 

To say that I was slow as a turtle on this section would be a complete insult to a turtle. I looked like someone who had gotten hit by 3 buses, ran over by 4 trains, and hit by 5 cars and was hardly moving. That is what this section felt like to me. Not to mention there were so many pins and needles in my feet that the only thing that I could focus on was the pain. In an odd way this was probably a good thing as I haven't slept in a really long time. Focusing on the pain diverted my attention to that rather than the fact that I could pass out really easily. However, the sleep eventually won in the end...

It was here that I saw Avery and his, I think, 3rd pacer coming down the mountain to the finish. I congratulated him and he warned me that it was further than what they had advertised. Nothing really surprised me at this point. I just kept my survival pace and saw a huge mountain in the distance. "I'm glad I don't have to climb that" I thought to myself. Little did I know that the joke would be on me. Every time I got to a summit, the markers just kept going...I was beginning to get a bit pissed and annoyed at this point. Eventually the course got to the green mountain....I literally laughed out loud. I was so angry. The Bridge of Heaven of course was going to be at the top of this green mountain. I did the zigzags and the exposed area allowed the rain to pelt me in the face again. It kept raining harder and harder. I looked around and saw that no other mountain was raining. It was literally just the one that I was on. I laughed a satanic laugh and continued pressing onwards. I got around the corner and actually saw the hold punch!! I grabbed it and started my descent. By the 3rd switchback down, I spotted Rob. He looked equally terrible. He asked if I had some salt. This perhaps was one of the greatest bonding moments in both of our lives. I checked my pockets and had about 8 Dorito Chips. No longer was this about "racing" as much as surviving. I could tell that his level of appreciation was outside of this world. 

With that said, I wasn't about to get second at this point. I pressed on downhill with the pins and needles in my feet. This is when the hallucination hit full force. I saw logs that I could have sworn were bear cubs or mama bears. One log about halfway down the mountain I was so convinced was a guy with a camera that I stared for about 20 seconds at the log. It was a log. Shortly thereafter was my last episode of hallucination. This was my favorite. Soon the loose rock and scree turned into data shards. I thought that I was in a software program running through data. The rocks and shards were data, and it was my job to dodge them and get to the end of the software program. In my brain I told myself that these couldn't hurt me but in reality, they would cause some major damage. I moved on and pushed hard until I hit the last road section. Only 3 tenths of a mile to the end. I pressed on and saw Jen and the others at the finish. A big smile came to my face and tears were coming as well. Jen was essentially sobbing and after 35.5 hours of pure grit and perseverance, my eyes couldn't take it. I had soft teardrops come out and we embraced as I took my seat at the end. 

To say that this was was tough would be an understatement. It was an emotional train ride filled with an adventure that can't be articulated into words. How do I explain to someone what climbing 42,000 feet and all at elevation feels like? How does not sitting for close to 36 hours and no sleep feel? I wish that there was an explanation as to how difficult this was and a way to put that explanation into a sentence. There just isn't. Why do I do this to myself? I don't know. I wish that I did. There isn't a reason behind these things. All I know is that I think we were made for adventure and pushing limitations that we didn't think were humanly possible. Some people do things for the bragging rights. Most ultrarunners I know are far from that. They do these things for reasons they can't even explain. I guess I'm in that odd group of people...

Can't begin to thank enough people for the support. First off, thanks Jen for coming out and crewing me. Certainly this wouldn't have been possible without your help! Josh, you're the man. Couldn't be more grateful for the surprise pacer and the ability to have that company. Lastly, thanks to my family and friends all over the US who continue to amaze me with their interest in this sport. Certainly no regrets for finishing second in this race. Beyond appreciative for the experience of this race and the support of the Race Director. So appreciative for an event like this and hope that it stays low-key, yet in existence. With the exception of the Barkley Marathon, I'm not sure what would be more difficult than this. Also the belt buckle is kinda cool...

Hope you enjoy this read! 



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