Wednesday, July 29, 2015

At Long Last - requited love and pain at the Hardrock 100 - 2015

Sometimes driving now, I turn my radio off, and it feels like I am still in the San Juan mountains.

Little Molas Lake environs

One of my favorite feelings during hundred mile races is to get to the 70-80-90 mile mark and realize that “Geez, I’ve been going for X hours, here it is MILE 90 and I AM STILL RUNNING!” There isn’t anything like that feeling. Even though it (without doubt) hurts and aches, and all manner of things may have happened in the race so far, I can still run. That is wonderful. It even makes me look forward to the aches and pains that precede that capable feeling. 

The Hardrock Hundred is a race beyond comparison, without equal, and whatever other superlatives you can think of - that’s HRH. Since I first saw pictures of the course in 2008, I knew I had to get there. Nothing could dissuade me – not the stories of puking, getting lost, 47 hour finishes, lightning, endless climbing – all those risks were peanuts beside the awesome mountain vistas and trails. It took five years of qualifying races and lottery entries, pacing, crewing and volunteering at Hardrock to get my place at the starting line. I was so excited the last week before the race that I would forget to eat.
Hardrock Sister, Susan

Husband/Crew Chief /HRH veteran keeping me calm and happy

Some look at their goal races as a test, a final exam, even – but I’ve always considered races to be the party at the end of all the training and planning.  And there was lots of planning for Hardrock. I lined up five pacers + a crew chief, had a prerace meeting, plotted maps, estimated times, made hotel reservations, took vacation for 2 weeks to go up early and acclimate.  

HRH ram logo on my toes!
Race morning came – party time – but first there was a test: I couldn’t find my sunglasses. Panicking and practically in tears, I was failing at keeping my cool 30 minutes before the start. Not for the last time, Ken (husband and crew chief) came to the rescue and lent me his. At check-in, friends and crew wished me luck while I couldn’t believe I was going to get to be on the Hardrock course. Too much excitement, exhilaration, elation made me leak more than a bit from my eyes. Let us on the course already!

 And then we were.
Sherrie stood with this sign race morning cheering me on! 

A mile through town in the misty cloudy morning, then onto the trails. With an easy pace, in the cool crisp air, the course opened up to me. We were to climb over 33,000 feet: one 14’er, 7 passes around 13,000 feet and ~4 more above 12,000 feet in our 100 mile circuit of the San Juans, so the course wasted no time in getting us up the first one – Dives-Little Giant. To every side, around every corner, in front of and behind me the vistas waited to be admired. After ascending for a few miles, Silverton was cloaked, hidden under clouds and mist lit snow-white by the sun with a backdrop of ochre shaded mountains. A line of runners wound up the trail through a snow patch on the mountain’s shoulder becoming smaller and smaller until they seemed to cross into the sunlight. 

Remembering that I wasn’t simply out for a long run, I repeated my first goal out loud: Get to Grouse in good shape. I ate, drank, and kept my pace easy, but I couldn’t keep my smile in check. I guessed if I sprained a cheek muscle before Grouse, I’d still be ok.

 We dropped in to Cunningham Aid Station (mile 9.3) and half my crew cheered me across the river. Already the second or third crossing. Barry, Vicki and Fred snapped a few pictures (me guzzling a V8 and chowing down on some pb&j – quality ultra beauty poses). I felt great and told them so, and then waved goodbye on my way out.

near the top of Cunningham

In training, the climb out of Cunningham Gulch seemed steep and nasty, guaranteed to have me gasping and heaving for air on every step. Today though, I planted my poles and hiked up with purpose, easily and steadily. I reached the top of the second climb (Green Mountain) behind a friend and Hardrock veteran Tyler, who is known for being a “closer” – someone who speeds up on the last 40 miles of this course. I hung with Tyler a little, talking about the course to come until he paused to get something out of his pack. We dipped down into a basin with clouds building to our south before traversing and climbing up Buffalo Boy ridge just as slantwise sleet and rain borne by cold biting wind pelted us. No lightning, though, so I dug out my rain jacket and gloves and kept moving. At the top of the descent, a poor volunteer decked head to toe in waterproof gear and layers stood near a “snow wall” with a notch in it – apparently the way down. At the notch, she said, “don’t use your poles, other runners have broken theirs.” A ten foot vertical drop on the other side ended in a snow drift! I sat in the notch, and dropped down, whooped and stumbled a bit, then kept moving, relishing being out of the wind for the moment. 

Down to Maggie Gulch Aid station (mile 15.4, 5 hours in) and the other half of my crew is volunteering here. I’m so excited to see them it’s hard not to skip coming into the aid station.

I have little to relate except how great life is, but I hear that Josh saved a runner choking on watermelon by giving him the Heimlich! Now that’s an aid station volunteer giving excellent service!

Climbing out of Maggie, I still couldn’t believe how lucky I was to be out on the Hardrock course. My ankle ligament, partially torn 6 weeks ago was uncomplaining, and everything else felt great too. After crossing the Continental Divide trail in a field of yellow flowers, the trail turns to a sweeping downhill.  Wildflowers in blue and yellow, pink and white bobbed their heads at my passing and splashing. For most of this section, the trail couldn’t be distinguished from a muddy stream running through a wide open high altitude meadow. I tried for awhile to pick the best footing, running on the edges, but eventually I tired of the tip-toeing. Since my shoes were already wet, it wasn’t a point of saving them from the mud and water. Pole Creek Aid Station (mile 19.7) – remote, remarkably well provisioned but also cool, friendly, and relaxed – served me a cup of broth and some fruit before I followed another runner I’d been leapfrogging (Mike) out of the aid station. More mud, then more and more, until we reached a river. (Which of course we crossed. And then crossed again.) The trail wound through more willows, still wet everywhere. 

One step changed my race. A running footplant into ankle deep mud, and I yanked my foot out. I felt immediate pain in my injured ankle ligament. Crap. I scaled back the running and thought about my first goal - how to get to Grouse in good shape, not too likely anymore.  I’d have to go slower, and minimize heel striking with my right foot which aggravated the ligament. I was really hoping that any ligament pain would wait until the last half, but at least I had a plan. 

With an achy ligament, I ran past gorgeous Cataract Lake in the rain, and began the long forested descent before Sherman. The river tumbled noisily down next to me, the switchbacks bringing us close then turning us away over and over again. Trying to protect my right ankle, I was landing and breaking with my left leg. Rocky at first, with some big steps, the trail eventually turned to rooty steps. Down and down, I could feel my left leg getting tired. I backed off the pace some more, walked, used my poles, stopped and stretched. Normally loving downhills, I wished I was at the end of this beautiful pine needle carpeted somewhat steep descent. Nothing for it but to keep moving down, I planned out my Sherman Aid station stop – no crew here, so I had to be self-sufficient. Put some “Sore No More” on my right ankle. Change my socks. Eat. Sunscreen. Keep moving. I knew I was close when hikers started appearing headed up the trail, and soon I popped out of the woods to a shelter, picnic tables, and the best bathroom in ultra running. I stuck to my plan, ate a delicious chicken –bean-avocado-salsa-cheese burrito and some cherry cobbler, and headed out. My right ankle was achy but not too painful to run, my left leg/quad/ITB area was decidedly tired and put out by all the extra work it was doing. Maybe, I thought, this isn’t the race I hoped to have, but I could still finish and still enjoy the course. I would have to be careful to keep these issues from getting worse, and I wasn’t looking forward to telling Ken and my crew that I hadn’t exactly been able to deliver on that first goal. But. I was still moving.

Before the climb up Handies, the 14er, the Burrows Park Aid station supplied me with some ice which went conveniently in my calf sleeve on my ankle. Much better. I was hitting Handies late afternoon – perhaps a perfect time to take a kite and a key to the top to replicate Franklin’s experiment, but otherwise not recommended. A storm rolled over three others and myself hiking just above treeline, but luckily without an electrical component. Other than my aches, which didn’t bother me uphill, I still felt good, was eating and drinking – at least that part of the plan was working. The final short rocky switchbacks to the peak became a methodical trudge, just focusing on another step while feeling the altitude. What a relief to step onto the broad top and be able to first stride across, then run! 

Atop a 14,000 ft high mountain, the world seems separated in two parts like oil and water. There’s Sky. And there’s Mountains. These two elements make up the entire world, and we are but a small part that witnesses the two. 

While another runner sat on the peak and took in the view, I knew I was far behind my planned pace. My crew was waiting for me, and I was the bearer of not-so-good news. As I started down, I realized the news was worse than I thought – running downhill was now more than uncomfortable. I thought my ITB was about to go out on me. Thankfully though, after the steepest section, I loosened up a bit and could jog down. I could feel dusk descending, and frankly it was doing a better job of it than I. I made it down to Grouse Gulch in the falling twilight. Not for the last time, my crew had solutions for my problems. Ken, without knowing about my issues, had asked Jean Herbert to come in case my ankle needed some help. I headed out of Grouse much better than I had gone in. My goal now was distilled and straightforward: Keep moving – I must get to Telluride (mile 72.8) still able to move as I am now.  Do that, and I will be able to finish.

Heading out of Grouse Gulch

 Vicki, my pacer and I admired the string of pinpricks of light of runners climbing in the dark ahead of us as we climbed up to Engineer's Pass. Normally I don't talk much, but we kept up a good conversation most of the time. At the top of the climb, we stopped to admire the stars peaking through the clouds. A slight rain and slippery ground at the top of the descent made both of us skid uncontrolled on some parts. Many runners got it much worse - at the Engineers pass AS nearly everyone had skids of brown mud on their tights. Farther down, the exposed shelf trail high over the rushing bear creek didn't bother Vicki and we steadily made our way down running on shale that sounded like broken plates, We could hear runners above and below us tinkling in the dark. Finally, the lights of Ouray (mile 56.6) came into view. I gave Vicki a list of things I wanted to remember to do: ditch my (dead) GPS watch, get rid of trash, new gloves, etc. It seemed to take forever to get through town, those 5 blocks are KILLER, I'm telling you. At the aid station, I was so happy to see everyone I forgot that things hurt that weren’t supposed to. They pushed food in my hands (a second warm steak tortilla, how did they do that?), clothes over my head, water in my pack, and before I finished the steak tortilla they gave me, we’re ready to go. I was moving ok, still on track for goal 2- get to Telluride.

Richard is in charge of me as we head up Camp Bird Road over Virginius pass to Telluride, an iconic Hardrock section. The 6 mile gravel road approach is monotonous in the dark, but then the course turns to confront the mountain range just at daybreak. A missing tooth-like gap in the rim was the goal of our ascent. Morning sun lit the three snow-covered near-vertical pitches we have to climb. I looked over my shoulder to see Richard staring back across Yankee Boy Basin at the mountain range behind us in the morning light with the largest smile I’ve ever seen. “Dig!Dig! Come on, Push!” Volunteers from Kroger’s Kanteen, an Aid Station secured by bolts into the rock in that gap yell and encourage until we reach the top. They wear rock climbing helmets and gear for good reason up here. A short break for a hot pierogi and I’m ready to start the steep downhill to Telluride. I took slow, steady cautious steps. Suddenly I was bent over, gasping in pain. It felt like someone was ripping out the muscles/tendons in my thigh at the top of my knee. Richard stayed calm, helped me stand. He asked, but I couldn't explain what had happened. I tried another step and the same ripping, searing pain. Locking my knee, I took a few steps before the pain comes again. I pulled up my calf sleeve to cover the area as a brace, I used my poles. I tried walking backwards and sideways. Each option was met with such pain. I thought about crawling. 

That’s it. I can’t even look at Richard. What can I do? I can’t even walk. 

We decided ibuprofen might help – we had to get down to Telluride somehow. We told a passing runner we know to let Ken know I’m hurt but will move down slowly, and am otherwise ok. If I locked my knee out, I could make a few steps at a time. At a snow field crossing, I stopped and filled the calf sleeve turned knee brace with snow. I was going to have to give up. I knew it. I probably wouldn’t even make the cut off at Telluride. There was no way I could make it, not running, not even walking. 

Tyler, the veteran closer, shouted a greeting as he headed towards us stopped at the trail side. At first he gave me grief for getting passed by him, but then he saw my face. Tyler happens to be a doctor. After palpating the area, he told me exactly what I needed to hear. “You have not caused any permanent damage. Keep icing, 20 min on, 20 off. Get down to Telluride and give it a rest.”

“You can do this. You’re tough. You have time. Don’t run another step. You can walk it in from here.”

“Don’t Quit. You can do this.”

He held my gaze fiercely for a long moment. I took his word. The pain seized my quad a few more times on those first dozen steps. Slowly, the ice/ibuprofen combo dulled the pain. We walked down, slowly at first, then a little faster on the flat sections. Richard filled a bag with snow to take with us for refills. Although he’d been on the move since 2 am, Richard calculated in his head how much time I needed if I walked the last 28 miles at 2 miles an hour 50% of the way, 1 mile an hour 15% of the way, and 1.5 miles an hour 35% of the way. He said I could do it. I was walking. I believed him. At first I felt like I had no choice but to believe him, but as we got closer to Telluride, that choice felt like the only thing I ever wanted.

Into Telluride, I blurted, “I have to walk the rest of the way in.” My crew already knew, of course – Tyler and all the other runners that passed us had been through and told them. Not for the last time, they had what I needed. Ken found someone to tape my knee. My gear, which took up 2/3 of the Aid Station space, was set up.

There were 3 chairs set up in front of this and at least 2 more bags. 

See the tape, quad sleeve, and calf sleeve? I am stylin'. Even got comments from the hikers on the # of patterns I was wearing.

I changed, grabbed more ibuprofen for the way, and headed out with Albert, Richard's Magic Ice Bag and some grilled cheese in my hands to eat. I could walk, so dang it I was going to hike up as fast as I could since descending would not be fun. I told Albert that I wanted to get to Chapman AS, 9.3 miles away in 5 hours. I had to finish. 

The section out of Telluride is unmatched in beauty. Following alongside a river broken by so many waterfalls, the trail winds through wildflowers and trees, across bridges, switchbacking up through pussy-willows and moss until you reach the wide hidden basin that contains the river’s headwaters. I learned later that the winner Killian Jornet got lost here among the snow fields.

Even getting lost didn't stop him from setting a course record.

He didn’t have Albert. Albert would dash ahead to find the next cairn, go up over hills for better views, giving me encouragement and direction to the pass. On the other side, we slid down a snowfield (hee hee!) to a traverse and made it down the rock slide descent. I was moving unbearably slowly. I’d pictured being able to run down this tumbled rock path tired but happy. I’d counted on that. But I could only walk. And hope. I felt like I didn’t even have time to look at my watch. As we got within sight of the Aid Station, I asked what time it was. We had made it in 4:57. I could do this. It was do-able. 

Another quick stop – I didn’t want to spend more time sitting in aid stations than I had to – my crew telling me to do things (eat this, drink all of this, take this salt tab) and I followed directions until they let Barry and I out on the course. Time to climb. Up through a pine forest until openings in the trees gave us a view of the golden rocks of Oscar’s pass. It looked incredibly imposing and far away, but I had just gone down that with Albert.  Soon we crossed the tumbled rocks and grassy mounds to the base of the loose scree leading straight up 100 yards to the top of Grant Swamp Pass. I thought surely it would be snowy and easier to climb, but the snow ended abruptly near the base. Rather than struggle with the straight up approach, we opted for the switchbacks to the right side. Both paths dealt with loose gravelly rocks sliding out from underfoot, with larger rocks threatening to slide down behind you or on you.  With Barry leading the way, we made it to the top and the late afternoon view of little island lake. Though we maintained the ice routine with Richard’s Magic Snow Bag, the descent was still painfully slow. A brief spot of rain, and then a full rainbow just below little island lake, everything green and glowing in the late afternoon light. As it leveled some I walked as fast as I could, envisioning Olympic race walkers and promising myself I wouldn’t ever chuckle at the strange gait again. I knew this section well, and knew that it had possibly the last good chance for fast walking – Kamm’s traverse, a ~1.5 mile slight consistent downhill on easy trail. I focused on faster and faster and faster walking, wishing every moment I could run. Finally, the last full aid station came into view. 

Josh was lined up to pace me, but it was Ken dressed in running clothes at the Aid Station! I didn't know it, but it was exactly what I wanted. 

The last climb was in front of me. It was now the second evening of my race, but it all melded together for me like taffy. It could have been one day, or it could have been four; it didn’t matter, I just needed to keep moving forward. I felt energetic and ready to take on this last climb, make it mine, and then-
The finish. 

Ken and I chatted a little, memories of the first time I’d paced him on this section. Him losing a shoe briefly to the mud, the rain and cold. We passed a few people – I had passed these same runners on the last uphill section, and they’d caught me on the downhill. One of these runners was the one I saw sit down on the top of Handies more than 24 hours ago. Motoring up, I felt fantastic, fast, smooth. My headlight was crazy bright. Every so often I’d see something fantastical out of the corner of my eye at the edge of the light – an ewok under a tree, a line of clowns sitting at the edge of the path, a pinwheel – if I looked directly, though, the tree or stump would resolve itself in the full light.

Near the top, it started to get cold and windy. In the open above treeline heading cross country, mists or clouds blew through us. Finding the markers, reflective though they were, became difficult. Again, Ken came to the rescue, and knew what to do. We paused, getting our gear on and waiting for a group of 4 runners and pacers to help with the search. We’d find a marker, then fan out to find the next and shouting out to the group, “This way, I got one!”   Over and over again, until we were at the top of the ridgeline, the wind was really blowing now, streamers of fog reflecting our lights back at us. We fanned out, but there was no marker to find. We regrouped at the last marker. I sat and started to put on tights, the cold damp setting in, fingers numb, teeth chattering, feet wet and getting colder. I wondered how I was going to get warm. Even if, even when, we found the next marker, we were starting to head downhill. I couldn’t use speed to warm up.  Everyone else would run down. I had no more layers to put on. A shout came, but my tights comically were only partway on. I struggled, too many things to take care of. Finally moving, but cold and so slowly. One of the other pacers turned back to make sure we were finding the markers again.  Ken seemed far far ahead. Part of me knew he had to keep drawing me forward, down where the wind would still and an aid station awaited. Finally, the wind stilled. Finally, the cloud cleared. Finally, there was a trail beneath our feet. And finally, we got to the last, the very last aid station, Putnam Basin. I ate a little without much enthusiasm, drank some Mountain Dew. We headed out again, now with warm hands and bellies. The last 5.8 miles would take hours, I knew. Downhill across rocks and roots I began to take a few more chances and increased my walking speed. I wanted to finish, already. Where it was level, I pushed until I was double poling because my legs were moving too fast. Two miles an hour seemed very fast in the dark after 40+ hours of moving. 

 Is that shouting, maybe cheering? A party? This noise could be heard sometimes. Then, it became constant whooping and rhythmic banging. Were people at the Mineral Creek river crossing? Not people, just one person, one guy, cheering us on with a light trained on the rope to help us cross the swift water.

Crossing Mineral Creek in a spotlight

Like a tour guide, he led us, “this way, this way, great job” to the road. I was only two miles from the finish now. I ran this short path three times in the weeks leading up to the race. All that prep, but I could never have imagined the feeling of being here now. There was no dogged running the last uphill, or tired wooden jogging of the final streets in town.
There was no time goal to strive for.
There was walking. 

I would never have believed the joy and satisfaction. Not of working hard, or running hard, but of resolving hard. I kissed the rock.

There were so many things I wanted from this race. In the end, I could hold on to none of those things; I let them go without prejudice. It was everything just to finish.

All my thanks to my crew and pacers: Ken, Josh, Vicki, Albert, Richard, and Barry.

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